John Ajvide Lindqvist
Welcome to Domarö.
It's a place you won't find on any maritime chart, unless you look really carefully. It lies just about two nautical miles east of Refsnäs in the archipelago in southern Roslagen, a considerable distance in from Söderarm and Tjärven.
You will need to move some of the islands out of the way, create empty expanses of water between them in order to catch sight of Domarö. Then you will also be able to see the lighthouse at Gåvasten, and all the other landmarks that arise in this story.
Arise, yes. That's the right word. We will be in a place that is new to people. For tens of thousands of years it has been lying beneath the water. But then the islands rise up and to the islands come the people, and with the people come the stories.
Let us begin.
PART ONE. Banished
Where the waves thunder and the storms cry.
Where the breakers crash and the salt water whirls,
that is where the place that is ours rises from the sea.
The legacy that passes from father to son.
Lennart Albinsson -Rádmansö
The sea has given and the sea has taken away
Who flies there in the feather-harbour, who climbs up there out of the black, shining waters?
Gunnar Ekelöf – Tjärven
Three thousand years ago, Domarö was nothing but a large, flat rock sticking up out of the water, crowned by an erratic boulder the ice had left behind. One nautical mile to the east it was possible to glimpse the round shape that would later rise out of the sea and be given the name Gdvasten. Apart from that, there was nothing. It would be another thousand years before the surrounding islets and islands dared to poke their heads above the water, beginning the formation of the archipelago that goes under the name of Domarö archipelago today.
By that time the sea buckthorn had already arrived on Domarö.
Down below the enormous block left by the ice, a shoreline had formed. There in the scree the sea buckthorn worked its way along with its creeping roots, the hardy shrub finding nourishment in the rotting seaweed, growing where there was nothing to grow in, clinging to the rocks. Sea buckthorn. Toughest of the tough.
And the sea buckthorn produced new roots, crept up over the water's edge and grew on the slopes until a metallic-green border surrounded the uninhabited shores of Domarö like a fringe. Birds snatched the fiery yellow berries that tasted of bitter oranges and flew with them to other islands, spreading the gospel of the sea buckthorn to new shores, and within a few hundred years the green fringe could be seen in all directions.
But the sea buckthorn was preparing its own destruction.
The humus formed by its rotting leaves was richer than anything the stony shores could offer, and the alder saw its chance. It set its seeds in the mulch left by the sea buckthorn, and it grew stronger and stronger. The sea buckthorn was unable to tolerate either the nitrogen- rich soil produced by the alder, or the shade from its leaves, and it withdrew down towards the water.
With the alder came other plants that needed a higher level of nutrition, competing for the available space. The sea buckthorn was relegated to a shoreline that grew far too slowly, just half a metre in a hundred years. Despite the fact that it had given birth to the other plants, the sea buckthorn was displaced and set aside.
And so it sits there at the edge of the shore, biding its time. Beneath the slender, silky green leaves there are thorns. Big thorns.
Two small people and a large rock (July 1984)
They were holding hands.
He was thirteen and she was twelve. If anyone in the gang caught sight of them, they would just die right there on the spot. They crept through the fir trees, alert to every sound and every movement as if they were on some secret mission. In a way they were: they were going to be together, but they didn't know that yet.
It was almost ten o'clock at night, but there was still enough light in the sky for them to see each other's arms and legs as pale movements over the carpet of grass and earth still holding the warmth of the day. They didn't dare look at each other's faces. If they did, something would have to be said, and there were no words.
They had decided to go up to the rock. A little way along the track between the fir trees their hands had brushed against each other's, and one of them had taken hold, and that was it. Now they were holding hands. If anything was said, something straightforward would become difficult.
Anders' skin felt as if he had been out in the sun all day. It was hot and painful all over, and he felt dizzy, as if he had sunstroke; he was afraid of tripping over a root, afraid of his hand becoming sweaty, afraid that what he was doing was out of order in some way.
There were couples in the gang. Martin and Malin were together now. Malin had gone out with Joel for a while. It was OK for them to lie there kissing when everybody could see them, and Martin said he and Malin had got as far as petting down by the boathouses. Whether or not it was true, it was OK for them to say-and do-that kind of thing. Partly because they were a year older, partly because they were good-looking. Cool. It gave them licence to do a lot of things, and to use a different language too. There was no point in trying to keep up, that would be embarrassing. You just had to sit there staring, trying to laugh in the right places. That's just how it was.
Neither Anders nor Cecilia was a loser. They weren't outsiders like Henrik and Björn-Hubba and Bubba-but they weren't part of the clique that made the rules and decided which jokes were funny, either.
For Anders and Cecilia to be walking along holding hands was utterly ridiculous. They knew this. Anders was short and borderline spindly, his brown hair too thin for him to give it any kind of style. He didn't understand how Martin and Joel did it. He'd tried slicking his hair back with gel once, but it looked weird and he'd rinsed it out before anyone saw it.
There was something flat about Cecilia. Her body was angular and her shoulders were broad, despite the fact that she was slim. Virtually no hips or breasts. Her face looked small between those broad shoulders. She had medium-length fair hair and an unusually small nose dusted with freckles. When she put her hair up in a pony- tail, Anders thought she looked really pretty. Her blue eyes always looked just a little bit sad, and Anders liked that. She looked as if she knew.
Martin and Joel didn't know. Malin and Elin didn't know. They had the feeling, said the right things and were able to wear sandals without looking stupid. But they didn't know. They just did things. Sandra read books and was clever, but there was nothing in her eyes to indicate that she knew.
Cecilia knew, and Anders could see that she knew, which proved that he knew as well. They recognised one another. He couldn't explain what it was that they knew, but it was something. Something about life, about how things really were.
The terrain grew steeper, and as they made their way up towards the rock the trees thinned out. In a minute or two they would have to let go of one another's hands so they'd be able to climb.
Anders stole a glance at Cecilia. She was wearing a yellow and white striped T-shirt with a wide neckline that revealed her collarbone. It was just unbelievable that she had been linked to him for what must be five minutes, that her skin had been touching his.
That she'd been his.
She had been his for five minutes. Soon they would let go, move apart and become ordinary people again. What would they say then?
Anders looked down. The ground was starting to become stony, he had to watch where he was putting his feet. Every second he was expecting Cecilia to let go, but she didn't. He thought perhaps he was holding on so tightly that she couldn't let go. It was an embarrassing thought, so he loosened his grip slightly. Then she let go.
He spent the two minutes it took to climb up the rock analysing whether he had, in fact, been holding her hand too tightly, or whether loosening his grip had made her think he was about to let go, and so she let go first.
Regardless of what he knew or did not know, he was convinced that Joel and Martin never had this kind of problem. He wiped his hand furtively on his trousers. It was slightly stiff and sweaty.
When they reached the top of the rock, his head felt bigger than usual. The blood was humming in his ears and he was sure his face was bright red. He stared down at his chest where a little ghost looked out from a circle with a red line through it. Ghostbusters. It was his favourite top, and it had been washed so many times that the outline of the ghost was becoming blurred.
'It's so beautiful.'
Cecilia was standing at the edge of the rock looking out over the sea. They were up above the tops of the trees. Far below they could see the holiday village where almost all their friends lived. Out at sea the ferry to Finland was sailing along, a cluster of lights moving across the water. Further away and further out there were other archipelagos whose names Anders didn't know.
He stood as close to her as he dared and said, 'I think it's the most beautiful thing in the world,' and regretted it as soon as the words were out of his mouth. It was a stupid thing to say, and he tried to improve matters by adding, 'That's one way of looking at it', but that wasn't right either. He moved away from her, following the edge of the rock.
When he had walked all the way round, a distance of perhaps thirty metres, and was almost back with her, she said, 'It's odd, isn't it? This rock, I mean?'
He had an answer to that. 'It's an erratic boulder. According to my dad, anyway.'
He gazed out across the sea, fixed his eyes on the Gåvasten lighthouse and tried to remember what his father had told him. Anders made a sweeping movement with his arm, taking in the surrounding area. The old village, the mission, the alarm bell next to the shop.
'Well…when there was ice. Covering everything here. The ice age. The ice picked up rocks. And when it melted, these rocks ended up all over the place.'
'So where do they come from? Originally?'
His father had told him that as well, but he couldn't remember what he'd said. Where could the stones have come from? He shrugged his shoulders.
'From the north, I suppose. From the mountains. I mean, there are lots of rocks there…'
Cecilia peered over the edge. The top was almost flat, but it must have been at least ten metres deep. She said, 'There must have been a lot of ice.'
Anders remembered a fact. He made a movement up towards the sky. 'One kilometre. Thick.''
Cecilia wrinkled her nose, and Anders felt as if he had been stabbed in the chest. 'Never!' she said. 'You're joking?'
'That's what my dad says.'
'Yes, and…you know how the islands and everything, they kind of keep on coming up out of the sea a little bit more each year?' Cecilia nodded. 'That's because the ice was so heavy it kind of pushed everything down and it's still…coming back up. Just a little bit, all the time.'
He was on a roll now. He remembered. As Cecilia was still looking at him with an interested expression, he carried on. He pointed over towards Gåvasten.
'Two thousand years or so ago, there was only water here. The only thing that was sticking up was the lighthouse. Or the rock, I mean. The rock the lighthouse is standing on. There was no lighthouse then, of course. And this rock. Everything else was under water. In those days.'
He looked at his feet, kicking at the thin covering of moss and lichen growing on the rock. When he looked up, Cecilia was gazing out across the sea, the mainland, Domarö. She put her hand on her collarbone as if she was suddenly afraid, and said, 'Is that true?'
'I think so.'
Something altered inside his head. He started to see the same thing as Cecilia. When he and his dad had been up here the previous summer, the words had just gone into his head as facts, and even though he'd thought it was exciting, he hadn't really thought about it. Seen it.
Now he could see. How new everything was. It had only been here for a short time. Their island, the ground on which their houses sat, even the ancient wooden boathouses down in the harbour were just pieces of Lego on the primeval mountain. His stomach contracted as if he were about to faint, vertigo from gazing down into the depths of time. He wrapped his arms around his body and suddenly he felt completely alone in the world. His eyes sought the horizon and found no comfort there. It was silent and endless.
Then he heard a sound to his left. Breathing. He turned his head and found Cecilia's face only a fraction away from his own. She looked into his eyes. And breathed. Her mouth was so close to his that he could feel her warm breath on his lips as she exhaled, a faint hint of Juicy Fruit in his nostrils.
Afterwards he would find it difficult to understand, but that's what happened: he didn't hesitate. He leaned forward and kissed her without giving it a thought. He just did it.
Her lips were tense and slightly firm. With the same inexplicable decisiveness he pushed his tongue between them. Her tongue came to meet his. It was warm and soft and he licked it. It was a completely new experience, licking something that was the same as the object doing the licking. He didn't exactly think that, but he thought something like it, and at that moment everything became uncertain and strange and he didn't know what to do.
He licked her tongue a little bit more, and part of him was enjoying it and thinking it was fantastic, while another part was thinking: Is this what you're supposed to do? Is this right? It couldn't be, and he suspected this was where you moved on to petting. But even though his cock was beginning to stiffen as his tongue slid over hers, there was no possibility, not a chance, that he was going to start…touching her like that. Not a chance. He couldn't, he didn't know how, and… no, he didn't even want to.
Preoccupied with these thoughts he has stopped moving his tongue without noticing, Now she was the one doing the licking. He accepted this with gratitude, the enjoyment increased slightly, the doubts faded away. When she withdrew her tongue and kissed him in the normal way before their faces moved apart, he decided: that went quite well.
He had kissed a girl for the first time and it had gone well. His face was red and his legs felt weak, but it was OK. He glanced at her and she seemed to share his opinion. When he saw that she was smiling slightly, he smiled too. She noticed and her smile broadened.
For a second they gazed into each other's eyes, both smiling. Then it all got too much and they looked out to sea once again. Anders no longer thought it looked frightening in the least, he couldn't understand how he could have thought it did.
I think it's the most beautiful thing in the world.
That's what he'd said. And now it was true.
They made their way back down. When they had got past the stoniest part, they held hands again. Anders wanted to scream, he wanted to jump and smash dried-up branches against the tree trunks, something wanted to come out.
He held her hand, a happiness so enormous that it hurt bubbling away inside him.
We're together. Cecilia and me. We're together now.
Gåvasten (February 2004)
'What a day. It's incredible.'
Cecilia and Anders were standing by the window in the living room, looking towards the bay. The ice was covered with virgin snow, and the sun shone from a cloudless sky, eating away the contours of the inlet, the jetty and the shore like an over-exposed photograph.
'Let me see, let me see!'
Maja came racing in from the kitchen, and Anders barely had time to open his mouth to warn her for the hundredth time. Then her thick socks skidded on the polished wooden floor and she landed flat on her back at his feet.
In a reflex action he bent down to comfort her, but Maja immediately rolled to one side and wriggled back a metre. Tears sprang to her eyes. She screamed, 'Stupid stupid things!' then tore off the socks and hurled them at the wall. Then she got up and ran back into the kitchen.
Anders and Cecilia looked at each other and sighed. They could hear Maja rummaging in the kitchen drawers.
Cecilia winked and took on the task of intervening before Maja tipped the entire contents of the drawers on to the floor, or broke something. She went into the kitchen and Anders turned back to the glorious day.
'No, Maja! Wait!'
Maja came running in from the kitchen with a pair of scissors in her hand, Cecilia right behind her. Before either of them could stop her, Maja had grabbed one of the socks and started hacking at it.
Anders seized her arms and managed to get her to drop the scissors. Her whole body was trembling with rage as she kicked out at the sock. 'I hate you, you stupid thing!'
Anders hugged her, holding her flailing arms fast with his own. 'Maja, that doesn't help. The socks don't understand.'
Maja was a quivering bundle in his arms. 'I hate them!'
'I know, but that doesn't mean you have to…'
'I'm going to chop them up and burn them!'
'Calm down, little one. Calm down.'
Anders sat down on the sofa without loosening his grip on Maja. Cecilia sat down next to him. They spoke softly and stroked her hair and the blue velour tracksuit that was the only thing she would consent to wear. After a couple of minutes she stopped shaking, her heartbeat slowed and she relaxed in Anders' arms. He said, 'You can wear shoes instead, if you like.'
'I want to go barefoot'
'You can't. The floor's too cold.'
Cecilia shrugged her shoulders. Maja rarely felt cold. Even when the temperature was close to freezing she would run around outdoors in a T-shirt unless somebody said something to her. She slept eight hours a night at the most, and yet it was rare for her to fall ill or feel tired.
Cecilia held Maja's feet in her hands and blew on them. 'Well, you need to put some socks on now. We're going out.'
Maja sat upright on Anders' knee. 'Where to?'
Cecilia pointed out of the window, towards the north-east.
'To Gåvasten. To the lighthouse.'
Maja leaned forward, screwing her eyes up into the sunlight. The old stone lighthouse was visible only as a vague rift in the sky where it met the horizon. It was about two kilometres away, and they had been waiting for a day like this so they could make the trip they had been talking about all winter.
Maja's shoulders drooped. 'Are we going to walk all that way?'
'We thought we might ski,' said Anders, and the words were hardly out of his mouth before Maja shot off his knee and raced into the hallway. She had been given her first pair of skis on her sixth birthday two weeks earlier, and on only her second practice outing she had done really well. She had a natural talent. Two minutes later she was back, dressed in her snowsuit, hat and gloves.
'Come on then!'
They ignored Maja's protests and made a picnic to eat out by the lighthouse. Coffee, chocolate and sandwiches. Then they gathered up their skiing equipment and went down to the inlet. The light was dazzling. There had been no wind for several days, and fresh snow still covered the branches of the trees. Wherever you turned there was whiteness, blinding whiteness. It was impossible to imagine that there could be warmth and greenness anywhere. Even from space the earth must look like a perfectly formed snowball, white and round.
It took a while to get Maja's skis on because she was so excited she couldn't stand still. Once the bindings were tight and the straps of the poles wrapped around her hands, she immediately slid out on to the ice, shouting, 'Look at me! Look at me!'
For once they didn't need to worry as she set off on her own. Despite the fact that she had travelled a hundred metres from the jetty before Anders and Cecilia had even got their skis on, she was clearly visible as a bright red patch in the middle of all the whiteness.
It was different in the city. Maja had run off on her own several times because she had seen something or thought of something, and they had joked about fitting her with a GPS transmitter. Not that it was all that much of a joke, really; they had given it serious consideration, but it felt like overkill.
They set off. Far out on the ice Maja fell over, but she was back on her feet in no time and whizzing along. Anders and Cecilia followed in her tracks. When they had travelled about fifty metres, Anders turned around.
Their house, generally known as the Shack, lay at the edge of the point. Plumes of smoke were rising from both chimneys. Two pine trees, weighed down with snow, framed it on either side. It was a complete dump, badly built and poorly maintained, but right now, from this distance, it looked like a little paradise.
Anders struggled to get his old Nikon out of his rucksack, zoomed in and took a picture. Something to remind him when he was cursing the ill-fitting walls and sloping floors. That it was a little paradise. As well. He put the camera away and followed his family.
After a couple of minutes he caught up with them. He had intended to lead the way, making it easier for Maja and Cecilia as they followed in his tracks through the thick covering of snow, but Maja refused. She was the guide and group leader, and they were to follow her.
The ice was nothing to worry about; this was confirmed when they heard a roaring sound from the direction of the mainland. A car was heading for Domarö from the steamboat jetty in Nåten.
From this distance it was no bigger than a fly. Maja stopped and stared at it.
'Is that a real car'
'Yes', said Anders. 'What else would it be?'
Maja didn't reply, but carried on looking at the car, which was on its way towards the point on the opposite side of the island.
'Holidaymakers, probably. Wanting to go for a swim.'
Maja grinned and looked at him with that supercilious expression she sometimes wore, and said, 'Daddy. Wanting to go for a swim? Now?'
Anders and Cecilia laughed. The car disappeared behind the point, leaving a thin cloud of whirling snow behind it.
'People from Stockholm, then. I expect they're on their way to their summer cottage to…look at the ice, or something.'
Maja seemed satisfied with this response, and turned to set off again. Then she thought of something and turned back.
'Why aren't we people from Stockholm, then? We live in Stockholm, after all.'
Cecilia said, 'You and I are from Stockholm, but Daddy isn't, not really, because his daddy wasn't from Stockholm.'
'What was he, then?'
Cecilia made a vague movement with her lips and looked at Anders, who said, 'An old fisherman.'
Maja nodded and set off towards the lighthouse, which had now become an extended blot against the bright sky.
Simon was standing on the veranda, tracking their progress through his telescope. He saw them stop and talk, saw them set off again with Maja in the lead. He smiled to himself. That was just typical of Maja. Trying so hard, working, wearing herself out. The child had a dynamo inside her, a little motor spinning away, constantly charging itself. The energy had to go somewhere.
In everything but blood he was her great-grandfather, just as he was grandfather to Anders. He had known them both before their eyes were able to focus on his face. He was an outsider, absorbed into this family that was not his own.
While he was filling the coffee machine he glanced up, from habit, at Anna-Greta's house. He knew she had gone over to mainland to do some shopping and wouldn't be back until the afternoon but he looked anyway, and caught himself missing her already.
More than forty years together, and he still longed to see her. That was a good thing. Perhaps it had something to do with living apart. At first he had been hurt when Anna-Greta said yes, she loved him, but no, she had no intention of moving in with him. He could carry on renting his house from her as before, and if the situation didn't suit him it was unfortunate, but so be it.
He had gone along with it, hoping that things would change in time. They did, but not in the way he had thought. Instead he was the one who changed his point of view and after about ten years he'd come to the conclusion that everything worked extremely well. The rent he paid was token. It hadn't gone up by a single krona since he first moved into the house in 1955. One thousand kronor per year. They would spend the money on a trip on the ferry to Finland, eating and drinking nothing but the best. It was a small ritual.
They weren't married-Anna-Greta felt that her marriage to Erik had been one too many-but to all intents and purposes, Simon was her husband and the children's grandfather and great-grandfather.
He went out on to the glassed-in veranda and picked up the telescope. They were still ploughing on out there, they had almost reached the lighthouse now. They had stopped, and he couldn't make out what they were doing. He was trying to adjust the focus so that he could see what they were up to, when the outside door opened.
Simon smiled. It had taken him a few years to get used to the fact that those who lived here all year round simply came stomping into each other's houses without knocking. In the beginning he would knock on people's doors and be rewarded with a long wait. When the door finally opened, the look on the resident's face clearly said, Why are you standing out there putting airs and graces? Come inside.
Boots were removed, there was the sound of throat-clearing in the porch, and Elof Lndberg walked in, wearing his cap as usual, and nodded to Simon.
'Good morning to you, sir.'
'And good morning to you.'
Elof licked his lips, which were dry from the cold, and looked around the room. What he saw didn't appear to provide him with anything worth commenting on, and he said, 'So. Any news?'
Simon shook his head. 'No. The usual aches and pains.'
Sometimes he found it amusing, but today he wasn't in the mood to stand there exchanging pleasantries with Elof until they got down to business, so he decided to flout convention. 'Is it the drill you're after?' he asked.
Elof's eyes narrowed as if this was a completely unexpected question that needed some consideration, but after thinking for a couple of seconds he said, 'The drill. Yes. I thought I might…' he nodded in the direction of the ice,'…go out and see if I have any luck.'
'It's under the steps as usual.'
The last time they had had a really icy winter, three years ago, Elof had come to borrow Simon's ice drill a couple of times a week. Simon had said Elof was welcome to come and fetch it whenever he needed it and just put it back when he was finished. Elof had made noises indicating agreement, and had continued to come in and ask every single time.
On this occasion, his mission seemingly accomplished, Elof showed no signs of leaving. Perhaps he wanted to get warm before he set off. He nodded at the telescope in Simon's hand.
'So what are you looking at?'
Simon pointed towards the lighthouse. 'The family's out on the ice, I'm just…keeping an eye on them.'
Elof looked out of the window, but of course he couldn't see anything. 'Whereabouts are they?'
'Out by the lighthouse.'
'Out by the lighthouse?'
Elof was still looking out of the window, his jaws working as if he were chewing on something invisible. Simon wanted an end to this before Elof caught the aroma of the coffee and invited himself to stay for a cup. He wanted to be left in peace. Elof pursed his lips and suddenly asked, 'Has Anders got one of those…mobile phones?'
Elof was breathing heavily as he gazed out of the window, looking for something it was impossible to see. Simon couldn't understand what he was getting at, so he asked again.
'Why do you want to know if he's got a mobile?'
There was silence for a few seconds. Simon could hear the last of the water bubbling through the coffee machine. Elof turned away from the window and gazed at the floor as he said, 'I think you should ring him and tell him…he ought to come home now.'
Silence fell once again, and Simon could smell the aroma of the coffee drifting from the kitchen. Elof didn't seem to notice. He sighed and said, 'The ice can be unsafe out there.'
Simon snorted. 'But it's half a metre thick right across the bay!'
Elof sighed even more deeply and studied the pattern on the carpet. Then he did something unexpected. He raised his head, looked Simon straight in the eye and said, 'Do as I say. Ring the boy. And tell him to gather up his family. And go home.'
Simon looked into Elof's watery blue eyes. Their expression was deadly serious. Simon didn't understand what this was all about, but he had never encountered this level of seriousness, this kind of authority from Elof before. Something passed between them that he couldn't put his finger on, but it made him go over to the phone and key in the number of Anders' mobile.
'Hi, this is Anders. Leave a message after the tone.'
Simon hung up.
'He's not answering. It's probably switched off. What's this all about?'
Elof looked out across the bay once more. Then he pursed his lips and nodded, as if he'd come to a decision. 'I expect it'll be fine.' He turned towards the hallway and said, 'I'll take the drill for a couple of hours, then.'
Simon heard the outside door open and close. A cold draught whirled around his feet. He picked up the telescope and looked out towards the lighthouse. Three little ants were just clambering up on to the rocks.
'Hang on a minute!'
Anders waved to Maja and Cecilia to get them in the right position and took a picture, two pictures, three pictures with different degrees of zoom. Maja was struggling to get away the whole time, but Cecilia held her close. It looked fantastic with the two small figures in the snow and the lighthouse towering up behind them. Anders gave them the thumbs up and stowed the camera in his rucksack once again.
Maja and Cecilia headed for the bright red door in the lighthouse wall. Anders stayed where he was with his hands in his pockets, gazing at the twenty-metre-high tower. It was built of stone. Not brick, but ordinary grey stone. A building that looked as if it could withstand just about anything.
What a job it must have been. Transporting all that stone here, lifting it, putting it in place…
'Daddy! Daddy, come on!'
Maja was standing next to the lighthouse door jumping up and down with excitement, waving her gloves in the air.
'What is it?' asked Anders as he walked towards them.
Indeed it was. Just inside the door were a collection box and a stand containing brochures. There was a sign saying that the Archipelago Foundation welcomed visitors to Gåvasten lighthouse.
Please take an information leaflet and continue up into the lighthouse, all contributions gratefully received.
Anders rooted in his pockets and found a crumpled fifty-kronor note, which he happily pushed into the empty collection box. This was better than he could have hoped for. He had never expected the lighthouse to be open, particularly in the winter.
Maja was already on her way up the stairs, Anders and Cecilia following. The worn spiral staircase was so narrow that it was impossible for two people to walk abreast. Iron shutters fastened with wing nuts covered the window openings.
Cecilia stopped. Anders could hear that she was breathing heavily. She reached out behind her back with one hand. Anders took it and asked, 'How are you doing?' 'OK.'
Cecilia carried on upwards as she squeezed Anders' hand. She had a tendency towards claustrophobia, and from that point of view the lighthouse was an absolute nightmare. The thick stone walls rising up so close together swallowed every sound, and the only light came from the open door down at the bottom and a fainter source of light higher up.
After another forty or so steps it was completely dark behind them, while the light above them had grown stronger. From somewhere up above they could hear Maja's voice, 'Hurry up! Come and see!'
The staircase ended at an open space in a wooden floor. They were standing in a circular room where a number of small windows made of thick glass let in a limited amount of light. In the middle of the room was another open door in a tower within the tower, with light pouring out.
Cecilia sat down on the floor and rubbed her hands over her face. When Anders crouched down beside her she waved dismissively. 'I'm fine. I just need to…'
Maja was shouting from inside the tower and Cecilia told him to go, she would follow shortly. Anders stroked her hair and went to the open door, which led to another spiral staircase, this one made of iron. The light hurt his eyes as he climbed the twenty or so steps up to the heart and the brain of the lighthouse, the reflector.
Anders stopped and gazed open-mouthed. It was so beautiful.
From the darkness we ascend towards the light. He made his way up the dark staircase, and it was a shock to reach the top. Apart from a whitewashed border right at the bottom, the circular walls were made entirely of glass, and everything was sky and light. In the middle of the room stood the reflector, an obelisk made up of prisms and different coloured, geometrically precise pieces of glass. A shrine to the light.
Maja was standing with her nose and hands pressed against the glass wall. When she heard Anders coming, she pointed out across the ice, towards the north-east.
'Daddy, what's that?'
Anders screwed his eyes up against the brightness and looked out over the ice. He couldn't see anything apart from the white covering, and far away on the horizon just a hint of Ledinge archipelago.
'What do you mean?'
Maja pointed. 'There. On the ice.'
A gust of wind made the powdery snow whirl up, moving like a spirit across the pristine surface. Anders shook his head and turned back to face the room.
'Have you seen this?'
They examined the reflector and Anders took some pictures of Maja through the reflector, behind the reflector, in front of the reflector. The little girl and the kaleidoscope of light, refracted in all directions. When they had finished Cecilia came up the stairs, and she too was amazed.
They ate their picnic in the light room looking out across the archipelago, trying to spot familiar landmarks. Maja was interested in the graffiti on the white wall, but since some of it required explanations unsuitable for the ears of a six-year-old, Anders took out the information leaflet and started reading aloud.
The lower parts of the lighthouse had been built as early as the sixteenth century, as a platform for the beacons lit to mark the navigable channel into Stockholm. Later the tower was added and a primitive reflector was installed; at first it was illuminated using oil, then kerosene.
That was enough for Maja, and she was off down the stairs. Anders grabbed hold of her snowsuit.
'Just hang on, sunshine. Where are you off to?'
'I'm going to look at that thing I said I could see.'
'You're not to go too far.'
Anders let go and Maja carried on down the stairs. Cecilia watched her disappear.
'Well yes. But where can she go?'
They spent a couple of minutes reading the rest of the leaflet, and learned that the Aga aggregate had eventually been installed, that the lighthouse had been decommissioned in 1973 and had then been taken over by the Archipelago Foundation, which had put in a symbolic hundred-watt bulb. These days it ran on solar cells.
They looked at the graffiti and established that at least one instance of sexual intercourse must have taken place on this floor, unless of course it was just a case of wishful thinking on the part of the writer. Then they gathered their things together and set off down the stairs. Cecilia had to take her time because of the palpitations, the pressure on her chest, and Anders waited for her.
When they got outside there was no sign of Maja. The wind had started to get up and the snow was swirling through the air in thin veils, glittering in the sunlight. Anders closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. It had been a fantastic outing, but now it was time to go home.
'Maaaja,' he shouted. No reply. They walked around the lighthouse, looking out for her. The rock itself was only small, perhaps a hundred metres in circumference. There was no sign of Maja anywhere, and Anders gazed out across the ice. No small red figure.
This time he shouted a little more loudly, and his heart began to beat a little more quickly. It was foolish, of course. There was no chance that she could have got lost here. He felt Cecilia's hand on his shoulder. She was pointing down at the snow. 'There are no tracks here.'
There was a hint of unease in her voice too. Anders nodded. Of course. All they had to do was follow Maja's tracks.
They went back to where they'd started from, by the lighthouse door. Anders poked his head inside and shouted up the stairs, just in case Maja had come back and they hadn't heard her. No reply.
The area around the door was covered in footprints made by all of them, but there were no tracks leading off to the right or left. Anders took a few steps down the rock. He could see their own tracks leading up towards the lighthouse from the ice, and Maja's footprints heading off in the opposite direction.
He stared out over the ice. No Maja. He blinked, rubbed his eyes. She couldn't have gone far enough to be out of sight. The contours of Domarö merged with those of the mainland, a thicker line of charcoal above a thinner one. He turned to face the other way, catching Cecilia's expression: concentrated, tense.
There was no sign of their daughter in the opposite direction either.
Cecilia passed him on her way out on to the ice. She was walking with her head down, following the tracks with her eyes.
'I'll check inside the lighthouse,' Anders shouted. 'She must be hiding or something.'
He ran over to the door and up the stairs, shouting for Maja but getting no reply. His heart was pounding now and he tried to calm himself down, to be cool and clear-headed.
It just isn't possible.
It's always possible.
No, it isn't. Not here. There's nowhere she can be.
Stop it. Stop it.
Hide and seek was Maja's favourite game. She was good at finding places to hide. Although she could be over-excited and eager in other situations, when she was playing hide and seek she could keep quiet and still for any length of time.
He walked up the stairs with his arms outstretched, stooping like a monkey so that his fingers brushed the edges where the staircase met the wall. In case she'd fallen. In case she was lying in the darkness where he couldn't see her.
In case she'd fallen and banged her head, in case she…
But he felt nothing, saw nothing.
He searched the room at the top of the stairs, found two cupboards that were too narrow for Maja to be able to hide in. Opened them anyway. Inside were rusty, unidentifiable metal parts, bottles with hand-written labels. No Maja.
He went over to the door leading to the upper tower, closed his eyes for a couple of seconds before he went inside.
She's up there now. That's where she is. We'll go home and we'll file this with all those other times she's disappeared for a while and then come back.
Next to the staircase was a system of weights and chains, the cupboard containing the light's mechanism secured with a padlock. He tugged at it and established that it was locked, that Maja couldn't be in there. He went slowly up the stairs, calling her name. No reply. There was a rushing sound in his ears now, and his legs felt weak.
He reached the room containing the reflector. No Maja.
Barely half an hour ago he had photographed her here. Now there was no trace of her. Nothing. He screamed,'Maaaajaaaa! Out you come! This isn't funny any more!'
The sound was absorbed by the narrow room, making the glass vibrate.
He walked all the way around the room, looked out across the ice. Far below he could see Cecilia following the track that had led them here. But the red snowsuit was nowhere to be seen. He was gasping
for air. His tongue was sticking to his palate. This was impossible. This couldn't be happening. Desperately he stared out across the ice in every direction. Where is she? Where is she?
He could just hear the sound of Cecilia's voice shouting the same thing as he had shouted so many times. She got no reply either.
Think, you idiot. Think.
He looked out across the ice again. There was nothing to interrupt his gaze, no cover at all. If there had been holes in the ice, they would have been visible. However good you are at hiding, you still have to have a place to hide.
He stopped. His eyes narrowed. He could hear Maja's voice inside his head.
Daddy, what's that?
He went over to the spot where she had been standing when she asked the question, looked in the direction where she had pointed. Nothing. Only ice and snow.
What was it that she saw?
He strained to try and see something, then realised he was still wearing his rucksack. He pulled out the camera and looked through the viewfinder, zoomed in and panned across the area where she had been pointing. Nothing. Not a hint of another colour, not the slightest nuance in the whiteness, nothing.
His hands were shaking as he dropped the camera back in his rucksack. Out on the ice there was only white, white, but the sky had grown a little darker. It would soon be afternoon, it would be dark in a couple of hours.
He put his hands to his mouth, stared out into the vast emptiness, heard Cecilia's distant cries. Maja was gone. She was gone.
Stop it, stop it.
And yet a part of him knew that it was so.
It was just after two when Simon's telephone rang. He had spent the last hour fiddling with old conjuring props that his hands, stiff with rheumatism, could no longer use. He had considered selling them, but had decided to keep them as a little family treasure.
He answered the telephone on the second ring. He'd hardly managed to say hello before Anders interrupted.
'Hi, it's Anders. Have you seen Maja?'
'But surely she's with you?'
A brief pause. A quivering exhalation at the other end of the line. Simon sensed that he had just extinguished a hope. 'What's wrong?'
'She's gone. I knew she couldn't have got back to the land, but I thought-I don't know, Simon, she's gone. She's gone.'
'Are you at the lighthouse?'
'Yes. And she can't…it's just not…there's nowhere…but she isn't here. Where is she? Where is she?'
Two minutes later Simon had pulled on his outdoor clothes and kicked the moped into life. He rode out on to the ice where Elof was sitting on a folding chair, gazing down into the hole he had made with Simon's drill. He looked up as he heard the moped approaching. Simon braked.
'Elof-have you seen Maja, Anders' daughter?'
'No-what, here? Now?'
'Yes. In the last hour or so.'
'No, I haven't seen a soul. Or a fish, come to that. Why?'
'She's disappeared. Out by the lighthouse.'
Elof turned his head towards the lighthouse, kept his eyes fixed in that direction for a few seconds and scratched his forehead.
'Can't they find her?'
Simon clenched his teeth so tightly that his jaw muscles tensed. This bloody long-winded way of going about things. Elof nodded and started reeling in his line.
'I'd better…get a few people together then. We'll come over.'
Simon thanked him and set off towards the lighthouse. When he turned to look back after fifty metres or so, Elof was still fiddling about with his fishing gear, making sure it was all neatly packed away before he set off. Simon ground his teeth and rode so that the snow whirled up around his wheels as twilight fell.
Five minutes later Simon was out by the lighthouse helping to search, despite the fact that there was nowhere to look. He concentrated on riding around on the ice to check if Elof had been right, that there could be weak spots. He didn't find any.
After another quarter of an hour a number of dots could be seen approaching from Domarö. Four mopeds. Elof and his brother Johan. Mats, who owned the shop, had his wife Ingrid on the back. Bringing up the rear, Margareta Bergwall, one of the few women in the village who had their own moped.
They rode around the lighthouse in ever-widening circles, searching every square metre of the ice. Anders and Cecilia wandered aimlessly around on the lighthouse rock itself, saying nothing. After an hour it was so dark that the moonlight was stronger than the small amount of sunlight that remained.
Simon went up to Anders and Cecilia, who were now sitting by the lighthouse door, head in hands. Far out on the ice the faint lights of the four mopeds were just visible, still circling round and round like satellites of a desolate planet. A police helicopter with a searchlight had arrived to extend the search area.
Simon's joints creaked as he crouched down in front of them. Their eyes were empty. Simon stroked Cecilia's knee.
'What did you say about the tracks?'
Cecilia waved feebly in the direction of Domarö. Her voice was so weak that Simon had to lean forward in order to hear.
'There weren't any.'
'You mean they didn't go off in a different direction?'
'They stopped. As if…as if she'd been lifted up into the sky.'
Anders whimpered. 'This can't be happening. How can this be happening?'
He looked into Simon, right through Simon, as if he were looking for the answer in a knowledge that lay somewhere behind Simon's retina.
Simon got up and went back down on to the ice, sat on the back of his moped and looked around.
If only there were somewhere to start.
A nuance, a shadow, anything that could serve as a loose edge where they could begin tearing away. He pushed his hand down into his jacket pocket and closed it around the matchbox that lay there. Then he placed the fingertips of his other hand on the ice and asked it to melt.
First the snow melted, then a deepening hollow appeared, filling up with water. After perhaps twenty seconds there was a black hole in the ice, perhaps as big as a clenched fist. He let go of the matchbox and, with some difficulty, lowered his arm into the cold water. The surface of the ice was just above his elbow before he was able to grip the lower edge.
The ice was thick. There was absolutely no chance that Maja had fallen through somewhere.
So what has happened?
There was no loose edge. Nowhere for his thoughts to poke and prod, widen the crack, work things out. It was just impossible. He went up and sat down with Anders and Cecilia, giving them a hug and saying a few words from time to time, until in the end it was completely dark and the mopeds began to spiral their way back towards the lighthouse.
Domarö and time
During the course of this story it will be necessary occasionally to jump hack in time in order to explain something in the present. This is regrettable but unavoidable.
Domarö is not a large island. Everything that has happened remains hoc and influences the present. Places and objects are charged with meanings that are not easily forgotten. We cannot escape.
In the scheme of things, this is a very small story. You could say it would fit in a matchbox.
What the cat dragged in (May 1996)
It was the last week in May and the perch were plentiful. Simon had a simple method of fishing. He had spent several years experimenting with his nets, laying them out in different places, and had come to the conclusion that all this travelling around was unnecessary. It worked just as well if he tied one end of the net to the jetty and towed the other end out with the boat. Easy to lay and even easier to empty. He hauled the net in from the jetty, and could usually disentangle the fish he didn't want on the spot and throw them back in the sea.
This morning's seven perch were in the fridge, cleaned and ready, and the dace he had released had swum off. Simon was standing by the drying rack picking bits of seaweed out of the nets, while the gulls finished their meal of fish guts. It was a bright, warm morning, the sun was beating down on the back of his neck and he was sweating in his overalls.
Dante the cat had been following him all morning; he never seemed to learn how extremely unusual it was to find herring in the net. The odd herring he had been given was sufficient to keep the flame of hope burning in his head, and he always followed Simon down to the jetty.
Once Dante realised that no herring had managed to entangle themselves in the net this morning either, he had settled down on the jetty to glower at the gulls fighting over the fish guts. He would never dare to attack a gull but no doubt he had his fantasies, just like every other living creature.
Simon unhooked the net and rolled it up so that it wouldn't become brittle in the sun. As he made his way down to the boathouse to hang it up, he could see that the cat was busy with something out on the jetty.
Or rather, fighting with something. Dante was jumping back and forth, up in the air, batting with his paws at something Simon couldn't see. It looked as if the cat was dancing, but Simon had seen him play with mice in the same way. And yet this was different. The game with mice and frogs really was a game, in which the cat pretended his prey was harder to catch than it actually was. This time it looked as if the cat was genuinely…afraid?
The fur on his back was standing up, and his jumps and tentative attacks could only be interpreted as an indication that he was dealing with something worthy of respect. Which was difficult to understand, since nothing was visible from a distance of twenty metres, and Simon's eyesight was good.
He twisted the net to avoid tangles, laid it down on the ground and went to see what the cat was doing.
When he got out on to the jetty, he still couldn't see what was making the cat so agitated. Or…yes, the cat was circling around a bit of rope that was lying there. This wasn't like Dante at all; he was eleven years old and no longer deigned to play with balls or bits of paper. But obviously this piece of rope was great fun.
Dante made a sudden attack and got both paws on the piece of rope, but was hurled backwards with a jerk, as if the rope had given him an electric shock. He swayed and fell sideways, then flopped down on the jetty.
When Simon got there the cat was lying motionless next to the furthest bollard. The thing he had been playing with wasn't a piece of rope, because it was moving. It was some kind of insect, it looked like a worm of some sort. Simon ignored it and crouched down next to the cat.
'Dante, old friend, what's wrong?'
The cat's eyes were wide open and his body shuddered a couple of times as if racked by sobs. Something trickled from his mouth. Simon lifted the cat's head and saw that it was water. A stream of water was trickling out of the cat's mouth. Dante coughed and water spurted out. Then he lay still. His eyes stared blankly.
A movement in Simon's peripheral vision. The insect was crawling along the jetty. He bent over it, studying it more closely. It was completely black, the thickness of a pencil and about the same length as a little finger. Its skin shone in the sunlight. Dante's claws had made a scratch in one place, revealing pinkish flesh.
Simon gasped; looked around to see a coffee cup that had been left behind on the jetty. He grabbed it and upended it on the insect. He blinked a couple of times and ran his hands over his face.
It's not possible. It can't be…
This insect was not to be found in any insect book, and Simon was probably the only person for miles around who knew what it was. He had seen one before, in California forty years earlier. But that one had been dead, dried. If it hadn't been for what had happened to the cat, it would never even have occurred to him.
The original Dante, the one after whom all Simon's cats were named. The magician, the greatest of them all. After decades spent touring and making films, he had settled down on a ranch in California. Simon had been granted an audience with him there when he was twenty-four years old and a promising talent.
Dante had shown him around his museum. Handmade props from different eras: the Chinese fountains that were his star turn for some years, the substitution trunk in several different versions, water- filled chests and cupboards from which Dante had escaped in circus rings all over the world.
When the guided tour was over, Simon had pointed to a small glass display case standing in a corner. There was a pedestal in the middle of the case, and on it lay something that looked like a piece of a leather shoelace. He asked what it was.
Dante had raised one eyebrow dramatically in a well-practised gesture and had asked Simon, in the Danish of his childhood, to what extent he believed in magic.
'You mean…real magic?'
'I would have to say that I am…an agnostic, in that case. I haven't seen any proof, but I don't discount the possibility. Does that sound reasonable?'
Dante seemed happy with the answer, and removed the glass top from the case. Simon realised he was expected to take a closer look, and did so. He was able to see that the leather shoelace was in fact a dried-out insect that resembled a centipede, apart from the fact that it had only a small number of legs.
'What exactly is it?'
Dante looked at Simon for so long that it began to feel awkward. Then the magician nodded as if he had reached a tacit decision, replaced the glass cover, took out a leather-bound book and began to leaf through it. Brightly coloured pictures flickered before Simon's eyes until eventually Dante stopped at a particular page and held out the book.
The picture, which covered the entire page, was hand painted. It depicted a worm-like insect, skilfully painted so that the light shimmered on its black, shiny skin. Simon shook his head and Dante sighed before closing the book.
'It's a Spiritus, or spertus as you say in Sweden,' he said.
Simon looked at the glass case, at the magician, at the case once again. Then he said, 'A real one?'
Simon leaned closer to the glass. The dried-out creature inside certainly didn't look as if it possessed any extraordinary powers. Simon looked at it for a long time.
'How can it be dead? I mean, it is dead, isn't it?'
'I don't know, in answer to both your questions. It was in this condition when I received it.'
'How did that come about?'
'I'd prefer not to go into all that.'
Dante made a gesture, indicating that the audience in the museum was over. Before dragging himself away from the display case, Simon asked, 'Which element?'
The magician gave a wry smile. 'Water. Naturally.'
Coffee was consumed, polite phrases were exchanged, then Simon left the ranch. Two years later Dante was dead, and Simon read in the paper that his belongings were to be auctioned. He considered a trip to California to bid for the object in the glass case, but for one thing he was in the middle of a tour performing at outdoor venues, and for another it would be too expensive, once you factored in the cost of the journey. He decided not to bother.
During the years that followed he sometimes thought about that meeting. Colleagues who heard that he had met Dante wanted to know everything. Simon told them stories, but left out the thing he remembered most clearly: Dante's Spiritus.
It could have been a joke, of course. The magician had been famous not only for his magic skills, but also for his clever way of marketing himself with crowd-stopping public performances. He had created an aura of mystery around himself. His appearance, the goatee and the dark eyes, had for several decades been the accepted image of a magician. The whole thing could be a lie.
One thing that suggested this was not the case was the fact that Dante had never stated publicly that he owned a Spiritus; Simon had never heard anyone mention it. Dante was happy to add fuel to speculation that he had entered into a pact with the Devil, that he had formed an alliance with the powers of darkness. All good PR, of course, and utter nonsense. But the magician's final reply that day in the museum had guided Simon's speculations towards a different version, one which made a liar of Dante in a different way.
Simon believed Dante had been lying when he said that the Spiritus was already dead when it came to him.
Dante was most acclaimed for his magic involving water. He was a match for Houdini in his ability to escape from various water-filled vessels and containers. It was said that he could hold his breath for five minutes-at least. He was able to move water from one place to another, a trick that involved a large amount of water appearing where none had been a second before.
If Dante had owned a Spiritus of the element water, everything was easy to explain: genuine magic, which Dante had merely limited to prevent people suspecting what was really going on.
Or perhaps the powers of the Spiritus were limited? Simon did some reading around the subject.
His agnostic inclination gradually gave way to a belief in the fantastical, at least when it came to the Spiritus. It seemed as if a few people, over the course of history, had actually owned the genuine article. Always a black insect of the kind he had seen in Dante's museum, whether it was a question of earth, fire, air or water.
He tried to find out what had happened to the Spiritus he had seen but he got nowhere. He bitterly regretted that he hadn't taken the chance to travel over while the opportunity was still there. He would never get to see a Spiritus again.
Or so he thought.
His gaze moved between the dead cat and the coffee cup. It was an ironic twist of fate that Dante should find a Spiritus for him, and die as a result.
A few hours later Simon had put together a wooden box, placed Dante inside and buried it by the hazel thicket where the cat used to sit watching the birds. Only then did his excitement over the Spiritus begin to give way to a slight sense of sorrow. He was not a sentimental man, he had had four different cats with the same name, but still an epoch was going to the grave with this fourth Dante. A small witness who had wound his way around Simon's legs for eleven years.
'Goodbye, my friend. Thank you for all those years. You were a fine cat. I hope you'll be happy wherever you end up. I hope there'll be herring for you to fish out with your paws. And someone who… is fond of you.'
Simon felt a lump in his throat, and wiped a tear from his eye. He nodded and said, Amen,' then turned and went into the house.
There was a matchbox on the kitchen table. Simon had managed to get the insect inside without touching it. Now he approached the matchbox cautiously, placed his ear against it. There was no sound.
He had read up on this. He knew what was expected of him. The question was, how much did he really want to do it? It wasn't easy to work out from the books what was speculation and what was fact, but one thing he thought he knew: pledging oneself to a Spiritus carried with it an obligation. A promise to the power that had relinquished it.
Is it worth it?
No, not really.
As a young man he would have gone crazy at the very possibility, but he was now seventy-three years old. He had put his magic props on the shelf two years ago. These days he performed only at home, when friends asked him. Party tricks. The cigarette in the jacket, the salt cellar passing through the table. Nothing special. So he had no real need for genuine magic.
He could argue back and forth until the cows came home, but he knew he was going to do it. He had spent a lifetime in the service of drawing-room magic. Was he likely to back out now, when the very essence of the thing was at his fingertips?
Idiot. Idiot. You're going to do it, aren't you?
Cautiously he pushed open the box and looked at the insect. There was nothing about it to indicate that it was a link between the human world and the insane beauty of magic. It was fairly disgusting, in fact. Like an internal organ that had been cut out and had turned black.
Simon cleared his throat, gathering saliva in his mouth.
Then he did it.
The globule of spittle emerged between his lips. He lowered his head over the box and saw the stringy phlegm finding its way down towards the insect. A thread was still connected to his lips when the saliva reached its goal and spread out over the shining skin.
As if the thin string of saliva connecting them had been a needle, a taste reached Simon via his lips. It immediately shot into his body, and it was a taste like nothing else. It most closely resembled the taste of a nut that had gone bad in its shell. Rotten wood, but sweet and bitter at the same time. A disgusting taste.
Simon swallowed, but there was nothing to lubricate his throat, and he smacked his tongue against his palate. The thin string broke, but the taste continued to grow in his body. The insect twitched and the sore on its skin began to heal. Simon stood up, his whole body nauseated.
This was a mistake.
He managed to get a beer out of the fridge, opened it and took a couple of gulps, swilling the liquid around his mouth. A little better, but the nausea in his body was still there, and the vomit began to rise in his throat.
The insect had recovered and was now crawling out of the box, on to the kitchen table, and heading in Simon's direction. He backed away towards the sink, staring at the black clump as it crawled towards the edge of the table, then fell to the floor with a soft, moist thud.
Simon moved to the side, towards the cooker. The insect changed direction, following him. Simon could feel that he was about to be sick. He took a couple of deep breaths and rubbed his eyes with the tips of his fingers.
Calm down. You knew about this.
And yet he couldn't make himself stand still when the insect was almost up to his foot. He fled into the hallway and sat down on the seaman's chest where he kept wet weather gear, pressing his hands to his temples and trying to see the situation clearly. The nausea was beginning to subside, the taste was no longer as intense.
The insect crawled across the kitchen doorway, heading in his direction. It left a faint trace of slime behind it. Simon knew things now that he had not known five minutes ago. Knowledge had been injected into him.
What he was experiencing as a taste within his body, the insect was experiencing as a smell. It would trail him, follow him until it was allowed to be with him. That was its sole aim. To be with him-
till death do us part
– to share its power with him. He knew. With the saliva he had formed a bond that could not be broken.
There was a way out. But it wasn't relevant at the moment, with the insect on its way towards his foot once again. It was his now. Forever, until further notice.
He took a few rapid steps past the insect, which immediately changed direction, and picked up the matchbox from the kitchen table. He placed the box over the crawling black body and slid the cover over it. The boy on the label was marching towards a bright future as Simon weighed the box in his hand.
He clamped his lips together, suppressing the sickly feeling as the insect moved around in the box, and he felt its warmth against the palm of his hand. Yes. It was warm. It was feeling fine now, it had been fed and it had acquired an owner.
He put it in his pocket.
About the Shack
For such steeds find life difficult, those who cannot tolerate
either the spur or the whip. With every pain that befalls them,
they take fright and flee in terror towards the gaping abyss.
Selma Lagerlof -The Story of Gösta Berling
The fern (October 2006)
It was the fern that clinched it.
Anders had been sitting and staring at it for twenty minutes, during which time he had smoked two cigarettes. He was looking at the fern through a veil of smoke and dust particles, drifting around in grubby sunlight. The window had not been cleaned for a long time, and its surface was marked with uneven greasy patches, a legacy of all those evenings when Anders had stood with his forehead resting on the glass, gazing down into the car park and waiting for something to happen, something that could change things. Something, anything, a miracle.
The fern was on the windowsill above the radiator. A long frond waved in the rising heat. The leaves were small and brown, withered.
Anders lit another cigarette to sharpen his thoughts, or perhaps as reward for the fact that he had had a real thought, a clear thought. The smoke made his eyes smart, he coughed and kept looking at the fern.
Most of its fronds were plastered against the side of the pot, pale brown against the red. The compost in which it had been planted was so dry it was almost white. Anders took a deep drag and tried to remember: how long had the fern looked like that, how long had it been dead?
He searched his memory for days and evenings in the past when he had sat on the sofa or wandered around the apartment or stood by the window. They drifted together to form a fog, and he couldn't see a wilting fern through the mist. When he thought about it more closely, he couldn't even remember when he had acquired the fern, why he had ever got the idea of buying a living plant.
Had someone given it to him?
He got up from the sofa, and his legs wouldn't carry him properly. He thought about filling a bottle with water and giving it to the fern, but he knew there were so many dishes in the sink that he wouldn't be able to get the bottle under the tap. In the bathroom it was impossible to get the bottle at the right angle for the water to run in. So he would have to unscrew the shower head and…
It's dead anyway.
Besides which, he just didn't have the strength.
In the pot he found eight cigarette stubs. Some were half-pushed down into the hard compost. So he must have stood here smoking. He didn't remember that. As he ran his fingers over the dry fronds, some of the leaves came off and drifted down to the floor.
Where did you come from?
He got the idea that the plant had simply tumbled into the material world in the same way as Maja had tumbled out of it. Through a gap in time and space it had suddenly been there, just as his daughter had suddenly not been there. Gone.
"What was it Simon used to say when he was doing tricks for them?
Nothing here, nothing there…then he would point to his head… and absolutely nothing here.
Anders smiled as he remembered the look on Maja's face the first time Simon had done some magic tricks for her, just a couple of months before she disappeared. A rubber ball in one hand went up in smoke, and the ball Maja had just been holding suddenly became two. Maja had carried on looking at Simon with the same expectant expression: OK, what's next?
Magic is not the same miracle when you're five years old. It's more like something natural.
Anders stubbed out his cigarette in the pot, making the eight cigarette ends nine, and at the same moment he remembered: Mum.
It was his mother who had brought the plant when she came to visit him four months earlier. She had cleaned the apartment for him and placed the fern there. He had been in the middle of a period of apathy, and had just lain on the bed watching her. Then she had disappeared, back to her own life in Gothenburg.
The fern had not been among the things he needed, and so he had forgotten it, paying it no more heed than a mark on the wallpaper.
But he was seeing it now. He was looking at it. He was thinking the thought once again.
That's the ugliest thing I've ever seen.
Yes. That was what had occurred to him when he finally caught sight of it. The lonely, dead fern on the dusty windowsill against a background of dirty sunlight through an unwashed window. That it was the ugliest thing he'd ever seen.
For once the thought didn't stop there, but continued and swept across the life that could end up producing such a monster, and it was an ugly life.
He could cope with that, the idea that his life was ugly. He knew that, he had arranged things that way, he had got used to it and was ready to die within a few years as a result of his ugly life.
But the fern…
The fern was too much. It was intolerable.
Anders coughed and dragged himself into the bedroom. It felt as if his lungs had shrunk to the size of a fist. A tightly clenched fist. From the bedside table he picked up the photograph of Maja and took it over to the window.
The photograph had been taken on her sixth birthday, two weeks before she disappeared. She had a mask pushed up on her forehead; she had made it at nursery, and called it the devil troll. He had caught her just as she had pushed up the mask and was looking at him with expectant eyes to see what effect her 'scary face' had had.
The dimples in her cheeks showed up beautifully, her thin brown hair was pushed back by the mask revealing her ears, which stuck out slightly. Her eyes, which were actually unusually small, were wide open and staring straight into his.
He knew the picture by heart, every minute particle that had got stuck to the lens and remained as a white dot, every downy hair on her upper lip. He could take it out whenever he wanted.
'Maja,' he said. 'I can't do this any more. Here. Look.'
He turned the photograph so that Maja's eyes were looking at the fern.
He put the photo down next to the fern and opened the window. His apartment was on the fourth floor, and when he leaned out he could see over towards Haninge Centrum, the station for the commuter trains. He looked down. It was about ten metres to the tarmac of the car park, there wasn't a soul in sight.
He picked the photograph up again, pressed it to his heart. Curls of smoke found their way out into the sunlight, drifting upwards.
'I've had enough.'
He grabbed the edge of the pot and lifted the fern out of the window. Then he let go. A second later he heard the distant crash as the pot shattered on the ground. He turned his face to the sun and closed his eyes.
'This has to stop.'
Beside the shore in the churchyard at Nåten there is an anchor. A huge anchor made of cast iron, with a stock of tarred wood. It is bigger than any gravestone, bigger than anything else in the churchyard, with the exception of the church itself. Almost all those who visit the churchyard come to the anchor sooner or later; they stop and look at it for a while before moving on.
At eye level on the anchor-stock is a plaque. It says, 'In memory of those lost at sea.' The anchor, then, is a memorial to those whose bodies could not be interred in the ground, whose ashes could not be scattered beneath the trees. Those who went out and never came home.
The anchor is four and a half metres long, and weighs approximately nine hundred kilos.
Just imagine the ship it came from! Where is it now?
Perhaps an invisible chain runs from the anchor in the churchyard at Nåten. It goes up into the sky, down into the ground or out to sea. And there, at the other end of the chain, we will find the ship. The passengers and crew are those who have disappeared. They wander around on deck, gazing out at the empty horizon.
They are waiting for someone to find them. The sound of a diesel engine, or the top of a mast far away in the distance. A pair of eyes that will come along and see them.
They want to continue their journey, to arrive at last, they want to go down into the grave, they want to burn. But they are fastened to the earth by an invisible chain, and can only stare out across a desolate sea, forever becalmed.
As the tender reversed away from the jetty, Anders raised a hand in farewell to Roger in the driving seat. They were almost the same age, but had never hung out together. They always said hello, however, as everyone on the island did when they met. Except perhaps for some of the summer visitors.
He sat down on his suitcase and watched the tender as it moved backwards, turned and set its course for the southern point on its way back to Nåten. He unbuttoned his jacket. It was a couple of degrees warmer here than in the city; the sea water still retained some of the heat of summer.
For him, arriving on Domarö had always been associated with a particular smell: a mixture of salt water, seaweed, pine trees and diesel from the tank by the steamboat jetty. He breathed in deeply through his nose. He could smell virtually nothing. Two years of heavy smoking had sabotaged his mucous membranes. He pulled a packet of Marlboros out of his pocket, lit a cigarette and watched the tender as it rounded North Point, looking to the untrained eye as if it were dangerously close.
He hadn't been here since Maja disappeared, and he still didn't know whether it was a mistake to come back. So far he felt only the quiet, melancholy pleasure of coming home. To a place where you know the location of every single stone.
The thicket of sea buckthorn next to the jetty looked just the same as it always had, neither bigger nor smaller. Like everything else on the island, the sea buckthorn was eternal, it had always been there. He'd used the thicket as a hiding place when they were playing hide and seek, and later as a place to stash booze from the Aland ferry when he didn't want his father to see it.
Anders picked up his suitcase and walked down on to the southern village road. The buildings in the area around the harbour consisted mainly of old pilots' houses, now renovated or rebuilt. Pilot boats had formed the basis of Domarö's relative prosperity during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Anders didn't want to meet anyone so he took the short cut along the cliffs up towards the ramblers' hostel, which was closed for the season. The track narrowed and split in two. The left-hand fork led to his grandmother's house and to Simon's house, the right fork to the Shack. After some consideration he took the left fork.
Simon was the only person with whom he had kept in regular touch over the last few years, the only one he had felt able to ring even when there was nothing to say. Anders' grandmother rang sometimes, his mother less often, but Simon was the only one whose number Anders would key in himself when he needed to hear another person's voice.
Simon was digging his patch ready for the autumn, and he didn't appear to have aged noticeably since Anders last saw him, the winter when Maja disappeared. He was probably at the age when it no longer matters. Besides, he had always seemed to Anders to be the same age, which is to say really, really old. It was only when he looked at photographs from his childhood, where Simon was around sixty, that he could see the difference twenty years had made.
Simon put his arms around him and rubbed his back.
'Welcome home, Anders.'
The medium-length white hair that was Simon's pride and joy tickled Anders' forehead as he rested his cheek on Simon's shoulder and closed his eyes. Those brief moments when you don't have to be a responsible, grown-up person. You have to make the most of them.
They went into the house and Simon put the coffee on. Not much had changed in the kitchen since Anders used to sit there during the summer when he was a little boy. A water heater had been installed above the sink, and a microwave oven. But the fire in the cast iron stove was crackling as it had always done, spreading its warmth over the same wallpaper, the same furniture. Anders' shoulders dropped slightly, relaxing. He had a history and a home. They hadn't disappeared just because everything else had gone to hell. Perhaps
his memories gave him a licence, permission to exist here.
Simon placed a plastic box of biscuits on the table and poured the coffee. Anders picked up his cup.
'I remember when you…what was it you did? You had three of these and a piece of paper that moved back and forth. Then in the end…there was a toffee under each cup. Which I got. How did you do that?'
Simon shook his head and pushed back his hair. 'Practice, practice and more practice.'
Nothing had changed there either. Simon had never revealed any of his secrets. He had, however, recommended a book called Magic as a Hobby. Anders had read it when he was ten years old, and hadn't really understood any of it. It did describe how to do different tricks, and Anders tried a couple of them. But it wasn't the same as what Simon did. That was magic.
Simon sighed. 'I wouldn't be able to do that today.' He held up his fingers, stiff and crooked as they held the coffee spoon. 'I only have the simple things left now.'
He pressed his hands together and rubbed them against each other before opening them again. The coffee spoon was gone.
Anders smiled and Simon, who had appeared on the world's greatest stages, performed for kings and queens, leaned back on his chair and looked insufferably pleased with himself. Anders looked at Simon's hands, on the table, on the floor.
'So where is it, then?'
When he looked up, Simon was already sitting there stirring his coffee with the spoon. Anders snorted. 'Misdirection, I presume?'
That was the only important thing he had learned from the book. That a great deal of magic was a question of misdirection. Pointing in the wrong direction. Getting the observer to look where it isn't happening, getting them to look back when it's already happened. Like the business with the coffee spoon. But it was merely a theoretical knowledge. It didn't help Anders. He took a sip of his coffee and listened to the crackling of the stove. Simon rested his arms on the table. 'How's it going?'
Anders looked down into his coffee. The light from the window was reflected as a bobbing rectangle. He looked at it and waited for it to stop. When the rectangle was completely still he said, 'I've decided to live. After all. I thought I wanted to disappear as well. But…it turned out that isn't the case. So now I intend to try…I'm at rock bottom. I've reached the lowest point and…that's when it becomes possible to move on. Upwards.'
'Hmm,' said Simon, and waited. When nothing more was forthcoming, he asked, 'Are you still drinking as much?'
'I just thought…it can be difficult to stop.'
A muscle twitched in Anders' cheek. He wasn't keen on discussing this. He and Cecilia had drunk in moderation when they had Maja. One wine cask a week, approximately. After Maja's disappearance Cecilia had stopped altogether; she said that even one glass of wine messed up her head. Anders had drunk enough for both of them, and then some. Silent evenings in front of the TV. Glass after glass of wine, and then spirits. To avoid thinking at all.
He didn't know how much his drinking had to do with the fact that after six months she had said she couldn't cope any more, that their relationship was like a lead weight around her feet, dragging her deeper and deeper into the darkness.
After that, the drinking had become central to his life. He had set a boundary for himself: not to start before eight o'clock in the evening. After a week, he had moved the boundary to seven. And so on. In the end he was drinking whenever he felt like it, which was almost all the time.
During the three weeks that had passed since the incident with the fern, he had once again set the boundary at eight o'clock, with an enormous effort of will, and had managed to stick to it. His face and eyes had regained at least some of their normal colour, after a year of being red from burst blood vessels.
Anders ran his hand over his face and said, 'I've got it under control.'
'Yes. What the hell do you want me to say?'
Simon didn't move a muscle in response to this outburst. Anders blinked a couple of times, feeling ashamed of himself, and said, 'I'm working on it. I really am.'
Silence fell once more. Anders had nothing to add. The problem was his, and his alone. Part of the idea of returning to Domarö had been to get away from the destructive routines he had fallen into. He could only hope it would work. There was nothing more to say.
Simon asked if he had heard anything from Cecilia, and Anders shrugged.
'Haven't heard from her in six months. Strange, isn't it? You share everything, and then…pouff. Gone. But I suppose that's just the way it is.'
He felt the bitterness come creeping in. That wasn't good. If he sat here for a while longer he would probably start crying. Not good. It wasn't a question of suppressing his emotions, he'd wept bucketfuls.
Well. One bucketful, perhaps. An entire fucking ten-litre bucket full of tears. Absorbed by tissues, sleeves, dripping on to the sofa, on to the sheets, rising like steam from his face during the night. Salt in his mouth, snot in his nose. A bucket. A blue plastic bucket filled with tears. He had cried.
But he wasn't going to cry now. He had no intention of starting his new life bemoaning everything that had vanished.
He finished his coffee and stood up.
'Thank you. I'll go down and see if the house is still standing.'
'It is,' said Simon. 'Oddly enough. You'll call and see Anna-Greta, won't you?'
When Anders got back to the point where the track forked in two different directions, he thought: A new life? There's no such thing.
It was only in the magazine headlines that people got a new life. Stopped drinking or taking drugs, found a new love. But the same life.
Anders looked along the track towards the Shack. He could buy new furniture, paint it blue and change the windows. It would still be the same horrible house, the same poor basic construction. He could of course tear the whole thing down and build a new house, but how do you do that with a life?
Can't be done. When it comes to a life, all you can change is the equivalent of furniture, paint and windows. Doors, maybe. Change the things that are in too bad a state and hope the core holds. Despite everything.
Anders gripped the handle of his suitcase firmly and set off along the track to the Shack.
A curious name. The Shack. Not the sort of thing you put up on a poker-work sign, like Sjdsala or Fridlunda.
But then the Shack wasn't the name its builder had given it, or the name on the insurance documents. It was actually called Rock Cottage. But the Shack was what everybody on Domarö called it, even Anders, because it was a shack.
Anders' great-great-grandfather had been the last pilot in the Ivarsson family. When his son Torgny inherited the pilot's cottage, he extended it and made it into a fine two-storey house. Inspired by his success, he also built Seaview Cottage, the house Simon now rented on a permanent basis.
When the first summer visitors arrived on the Vaxholm ferries at the beginning of the twentieth century, several of the islanders wanted to add extensions to their houses, or rebuild them completely.
The brothers fitted out old hen houses as small summer cottages, extended and re-roofed boathouses, even built new properties in some instances. The building that later became the ramblers' hostel was built to order for a textile factory owner from Stockholm.
When the son, Anders' grandfather Erik, needed a place of his own in the mid-1930s, he was allocated the empty plot out on the cliffs. People probably had their doubts. Erik had accompanied his father on various building projects, lending a hand and carrying out some of the simpler work. He showed no particular talent. But he knew the basics.
His father offered to help, but Erik was determined to build the house himself. He was a hot-headed boy who couldn't bear to be contradicted; he swung between periods of intense activity and gloomy introspection. Building the house was to be the proof that he could stand on his own two feet and make his own way in the world.
Timber was transported from a forestry company on the mainland; it was cut at the sawmill in Nåten and shipped across to Domarö. So far, everything was going well. In the summer of 1938, Erik began to lay the foundations. With autumn approaching he had finished the joists and the roof ridges, and the roof trusses were in place. He never once asked his father for advice, and wouldn't even allow him to visit the site.
And so the inevitable happened. One Saturday in the middle of September Erik went across to Nåten. He and his fiancée Anna-Greta were going to go into Norrtälje to look at wedding rings. They were planning to marry in the spring, and the young couple hadn't seen much of each other during the summer, as Erik had been so busy working on the house. The idea was that he and his wife-to-be would move into the completed house after the wedding.
Once Erik's boat had disappeared from view around the southern point, his father sneaked down to the building site with a plumb line and a spirit level.
He came out onto the cliffs and stopped to look at the wooden framework. It looked reasonable, but weren't the gaps between the upright posts for the walls a little too wide? He knew that the pine tree outside the front door grew at an angle of exactly ninety degrees to the ground. He crouched down, closed one eye and squinted. Either the tree had started to grow crooked during the summer, or…
He had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach as he took out his folding rule and measured the distance between the posts. They were too far apart, and there wasn't even the same distance between them everywhere. In some places it was seventy centimetres, in others a little over eighty. He always went for fifty, sixty at the most. And there weren't enough horizontal supports.
He went to look at the stock of wood. It was as he had suspected: there wasn't a single whole piece of timber left. Erik had scrimped on the wood.
The bad feeling in his stomach moved up to his chest as he went around the building with the plumb line and spirit level. The foundations inclined slightly towards the east, and the framework inclined more strongly towards the west. Presumably Erik had realised that he hadn't got the foundations right, and had tried to compensate by making the house lean in the opposite direction.
Torgny walked around the foundations tapping them with a stone. It wasn't a disaster, but in places it sounded hollow. Erik had got air bubbles in the mortar. And there were no air vents either. If Erik put a slate roof on the crooked frame, it was only a question of whether the damp from underneath or the weight from above would wreck the house first.
Torgny slumped down on the threshold and noted in passing that the door measurements were wrong. And he was the first person to think what so many people would say in the future: What a bloody shack.
What could he do?
If it had been in his power, he would have pulled the whole lot down immediately and put up a new framework before Erik came home, confronting him with a fait accompli. He did actually consider for a moment whether he could keep Erik away from home for a week on some wild pretext, get together every single person he knew and do just that. But it wasn't that simple. Just to redo the foundations…
He teetered across the sparse floor joists and inspected the internal layout of the house. That was peculiar as well. A long, narrow hall ran through the house, with the incorrectly proportioned bedrooms and kitchen scattered along its edges. It was as if Erik had started with the living room, which did actually appear to be normal, then added each of the other rooms as they occurred to him, until he ran out of wood.
Torgny stood with his legs apart, balancing on two joists in the middle of what would be the living room. And he was ashamed. It wasn't so much that it was his son who had built this, but more that he would have to spend the rest of his days with this monstrosity close by, on his property. That it would, so to speak, become a part of the family.
Torgny gathered up his things and left Erik's house without looking back. Once he was home, he put a decent slug of spirits in his coffee and a great gloom settled over him as he sat out on his balcony in the autumn sunshine.
His wife Maja came out and sat beside him with a pail of apples to be peeled and pureed.
'How was it?' she asked, as she produced a serpentine curl of peel from the first apple.
'How was what?'
'The house. Erik's house.'
'Well, let's hope it'll keep the wind off them.'
Maja's knife slipped and the serpent fell to the ground before she made it to the end. 'Is it that bad?'
Torgny nodded and gazed into the dregs of his coffee. He thought he could see the Tower of Babel, crashing down on to the screaming crowd. You didn't have to be clairvoyant to understand what that meant.
'Isn't there anything you can do?'
Torgny shook his cup so that the tower disappeared, and shrugged his shoulders.
'I could go up there with a can of kerosene and a match, of course, but…he might take it the wrong way.'
Erik came home that evening in an excellent mood. He and Anna- Greta were agreed on plain, simple rings, so that matter had been more or less a formality. But they had had a lovely day in Norrtälje, sitting by the canal and professing their love for each other while planning their wedding.
Torgny was sitting at the kitchen table mending nets; he listened to his son's unusual talkativeness, nodding and making the right noises as he agreed that Erik had got himself a fine girl there.
Maja stood at the stove stirring the apple puree, making little contribution to the conversation. After a while, Erik noticed that something was wrong. He looked from one to the other.
'Has something happened?'
Torgny looped the yarn through a hole, pulled it tight and knotted it; he didn't look up from his work as he asked, 'What were you thinking of doing about the slates?'
'What do you mean?'
'I'm allowed to ask a question.'
Erik looked at his mother, who was stirring the apple with great concentration, keeping her back to both of them. His father still had his eyes entangled in the torn mesh of the net. After a short silence Erik asked, 'Isn't it right?' When his father didn't reply, he added, 'So what's wrong with it, then?'
Torgny cut off the loose ends with his penknife and rolled them into a little ball.
'Well, if I can put it like this…you ought to consider using sheet metal. If you're planning on having people actually living in that house.' Erik just stared at him. He went on, 'If we could just go through it together, there are a few things I think need taking care of, and perhaps we could…'
Erik interrupted him. 'You think I ought to pull it down, don't you? The whole thing?' Torgny opened his mouth to reply, but Erik slammed his hand down on the table and yelled, 'Fuck you!'
Maja spun around from the stove so quickly that a few drops of apple puree flew off the wooden spoon in her hand and landed on the front of Erik's shirt as he got up from the table.
'Erik!' she said. 'That's no way to speak to your father!'
Erik glared at her as if he were thinking of hitting her, then his gaze dropped to the warm amber drops on his chest.
'Two things,' said Torgny as Erik stood there with his head down. 'Two things. Then you can go wherever you want, and you can get as angry as you want. You are not putting slates on that roof. And you will put air vents in the foundations. After that you can do what you like.'
Torgny cut a piece of yarn to begin darning the next tear. But his hands were shaking and he cut his thumb. It wasn't a deep gash, but a few drops of blood oozed out.
He looked at the blood. Erik looked at the blobs of apple puree on his shirt. Maja was still standing there with the wooden spoon half-raised. A couple of seconds went by and something that was not a house collapsed between them, there was the sound of splintering wood, the squeal of protest as nails were ripped out.
Then Erik walked out of the kitchen. They heard his footsteps thundering up the stairs, the door of his room slamming behind him. Torgny sucked the blood off his thumb. Maja stirred the pan a few times.
Something had collapsed.
After that evening Erik lost all his enthusiasm. He carried on with his carpentry during the autumn and had the panels finished before the winter came, and he fitted a metal roof. He drilled air vents that were misshapen and ugly, but at least they let some air into the foundations.
He did all of this, but he did it without pleasure, without energy. He ate his dinner in silence and gave monosyllabic answers to his parents' questions. Sometimes he went to Nåten to meet Anna-Greta, and he must have made a bit of an effort on those occasions, because the wedding was still on.
Torgny never went to the house again while it was being built. When people asked how the lad was getting on with his house, he said he wasn't interfering at all, it was Erik's business. He had said his piece, had saved what could be saved. He could do no more.
Winter came late. Apart from the usual cold snap at the beginning of November, it was mild with no sign of snow until well into January. Erik had put the windows in and was now spending the afternoons and evenings in his house. A large kerosene lamp spread its light across the cliffs, and from a distance it looked really cosy.
In the middle of January, Erik moved his bed and basic household equipment down to the house. Torgny and Maja stood at the kitchen window secretly watching as he carried his bed on his back down the hill. Maja placed her hand on Torgny's shoulder.
'Our boy is leaving home.'
'Yes,' said Torgny, turning away as tears began to prick at his eyes. He sat down at the kitchen table and filled his pipe. Maja stayed at the window, watching Erik as he disappeared behind Seaview Cottage.
'He's got a mind of his own, anyway,' she said. 'Nobody can take that away from him.'
The house was finished at the beginning of May. The wedding took place two weeks later. The ceremony was to take place outdoors, on the cliffs at North Point, and afterwards everyone was invited to a combined wedding reception and topping-out ceremony in Erik's house on the point.
It was a windy day. People had to hold on to their hats, and when the bride threw her bouquet it was swept out to sea before anyone had the chance to catch it. The party made its way to the couple's house with their clothes flapping and tears in their eyes due to both the wind and the emotion of the occasion.
Anna-Greta thought Erik was holding her hand far too tightly as they passed the harbour and continued towards his home, leading the procession. He was probably just nervous and excited. She herself had butterflies in her stomach, because Erik had yet to show her the house where they were to live together as a married couple, for better or worse, till death did them part. However, his grip was actually so tight that she couldn't give his hand a consoling squeeze in return; she couldn't move her hand at all.
Erik's mother and her friends had set up the tables outside that morning, but when the wind got up an hour before the wedding, they had moved everything inside. The tables were already laid when the guests walked in, and Maja and her helpers immediately started setting out the food.
Erik let go of Anna-Greta's hand and gave a short speech welcoming everyone. This gave her the opportunity to look around. It all looked lovely, but there was one detail she couldn't help noticing: in spite of the fact that the windows were closed, the curtains were billowing out. And…
What is it? There's something…
Her eyes moved from the hallway to the kitchen and living room. The windows, the doors, the ceiling. Something was making her feel slightly seasick, as if a weight were shifting in her stomach. There was no time to reflect on the matter. Erik had finished speaking, and the guests were taking their seats. She put the whole thing down to her own nervousness.
Erik grew more and more morose as the afternoon and evening progressed. There were discussions about fishing and summer visitors, about Hitler and the possible occupation of Aland, but in the corners and barely out of earshot people were tapping on the walls and pointing at corners and angles. Heads were shaken, and certain comments reached Erik's ears.
Anna-Greta noticed that Erik was pouring himself generous measures of schnapps. She tried to distract his attention from the alcohol, but once Erik had passed a certain point, it was as if he became nothing more than a pair of listening ears and a drinking mouth. Later in the evening, when several of the guests were talking quite openly about things they had only whispered earlier, she found him sitting on a chair, staring at one of the walls.
Three of the children were playing a game. They had some hard-boiled eggs left over from the meal, and they were having a competition to see who could get their egg to roll the furthest, simply by putting it down on the floor and letting go of it.
Suddenly Erik stood up and cleared his throat loudly. There was a party atmosphere in the funny house, and only a few conversations were broken off. Erik didn't seem to care. He leaned against the back of the chair so that he wouldn't fall over, and said loudly, 'There's been a lot of talk one way and another, so I thought it was time / said what I think about this Hitler bloke.'
He gave a highly inflammatory speech, but a very strange one. His argument was muddled and vaguely incomprehensible. At any rate, the main thrust was that people like Hitler should be eradicated from the face of the earth, and why? Well, because they poked their noses into other people's business and crushed the freedom of others with their authority. Hitler was one of those people who always thought he knew best, and therefore other people were crushed beneath his feet.
Erik ended by saying, 'We can bloody well do without these know-alls. That's what I think, anyway.'
It was only when Torgny stood up a little while later, made his excuses and took Maja with him, that Anna-Greta realised the speech had been about something else entirely.
No, it wasn't exactly a successful wedding reception. Nor was the wedding night, for that matter. Erik was too drunk to do anything at all, and towards morning Anna-Greta went out and sought consolation with the gulls, who had begun to circle above the cliffs.
What kind of life was it going to be, here in this house?
The pine tree was still standing by the porch, as tall and straight as ever. Anders put his case down beside it and contemplated the Shack. The sheet metal roof had been changed to corrugated tin, and its corrugations were full of pine needles. The gutters were probably blocked.
The rickety jetty extended out into the water from the wormwood meadow on the shoreline. Anders' grandmother had brought a plant with her from Stora Korset many years earlier, and it had spread, very slowly, until the swaying blanket of leaves and naked stems surrounded the old plastic-hulled boat lying upturned on a couple of blocks of wood.
He took a walk around the outside of the house. On the side facing inland it looked OK, but on the side facing out to sea the red paint had faded, and some of the planks of wood in the walls had split. The TV aerial had disappeared. When he went up on to the patio he could see the antenna lying there like an injured spider.
He was in pain all the time. All the time there was a weight on his chest and pain that felt like a scream. As he made his way around the corner of the house he caught sight of something red among the dog roses. Maja's little boat. A cheap inflatable thing they had played with together that last summer. He and Maja and Cecilia.
Now it was lying there, torn and deflated among the rose bushes. He remembered telling Maja not to drag it across any sharp stones, not to…now it was impaled on hundreds of thorns and everything was gone and it was too late.
It was because of the boat he hadn't come back to Domarö for almost three years. Because of the boat and other memories like it, other traces of the past. Things that contemptuously continued to exist, despite the fact that they should no longer be here because the significance they'd held was gone.
He had expected this. He had steeled himself. He didn't cry. He could see the red glow of the boat from the corner of his eye as he carried on around the house on legs that were moving only because he told them to move. He turned the corner and found his way to the table in the garden, slumped down on the bench. He was finding it difficult to breathe, small hands were squeezing his windpipe and black dots danced before his eyes.
What the hell did I come here for?
When the worst of the cramps in his throat had passed, he got up and kicked away the stone by the gooseberry bush. A few woodlice scuttled over the plastic bag containing the door key. He waited until they had gone, then bent down and picked up the bag. As he straightened up he suddenly felt dizzy. He went over to the front door as if he were drunk, unlocked it, dragged himself to the bathroom and drank several gulps of rusty-tasting water straight from the tap. Breathed, took a few more gulps. The dizziness was still there.
The door from the hallway into the living room was open, and the light from the sea and sky cast a white lustre over the sofa under the window. He saw it through a tunnel, staggered over and collapsed on to it.
He lay on the sofa with his eyes open or his eyes closed, and realised he was freezing. But it was merely a fact, it was unimportant. He looked at the blank television screen, the soot-covered doors of the Roslagen stove.
He recognised everything, and everything was unfamiliar to him. He had thought there would be some sense of homecoming, a sense of returning to something that still belonged to him. There wasn't. He felt like a burglar in someone else's memories. All this belonged to a stranger, someone he had been a long time ago and no longer knew.
It had grown darker outside the window and the sea was lapping against the rocks. He crawled off the sofa and fetched a tin, which he filled with chimney-cleaning fluid; he placed it in the open hearth and lit it to get rid of the cold air in the chimney. Then he lit a fire and went id open i In- bedroom door, to spread the warmth through the house. He stopped halfway.
The door was closed.
Someone had closed the door.
Anders stood still, breathing through his nose. Faster and faster, like an animal scenting danger. He stared at the door. It was an ordinary door. Pale pine, the cheapest kind. He had bought it himself from the sawmill in Nåten and spent a day taking out the old, crooked frame and fitting the new door. A perfectly ordinary door. But it was closed.
He was absolutely certain it had not been closed when he and Cecilia left here for the last time, exhausted, empty, all cried out.
Calm down. Simon has closed it.
But why would he have done that? There were no other signs that anyone had been in the house. Why would Simon have come in just to close the bedroom door?
So the door must have been closed when they left. He must have got it wrong.
But I haven't.
He remembered all too clearly. How Cecilia had gone out to the car with the last thing, a case containing Maja's summer clothes. How he had stood there looking back into the house for one last time before he closed and locked the front door. He had known he was saying goodbye, that none of the things they had imagined were ever going to happen, that he might never see this place again. The image had been seared into his brain.
And the door to the bedroom had been open.
He reached out for the handle. It was cold. His heart was pounding in his chest. Carefully he pushed down the handle and pulled. The door swung open. Despite the chill pouring out from the bedroom, he felt a drop of sweat trickle from his armpit.
There was nothing, of course. The beam of the lighthouse flashed across the double bed opposite the door. Everything was as it should be. And yet he groped for the switch and put the light on before he went in.
The double bed was made, the white satin quilt cover shone and spread light across the pale blue wood-panelled walls, the cheap painting of a ship in danger on a stormy sea above the bed.
He walked over to the window. The lighthouse at North Point was flashing out across the bay. A single floodlight in the harbour illuminated the steamboat jetty and the boats bobbing by the jetties. There wasn't a soul out there. In the brief intervals of darkness he could see short flashes from Gåvasten, the hated lighthouse at Gåvasten.
He could see the opposite wall reflected in the dark window pane. The wardrobe, Maja's bed. It was unmade, the way they had left it. Neither he nor Cecilia could bring themselves to smooth out the quilt and eradicate the last traces of the child who used to lie there. Anders shuddered. The chaotic covers looked as if they might be hiding a body. He turned around.
A bed. An unmade bed. Nothing else. A small, unmade bed. The pillowcase with its picture of Bamse the Bear carrying a pile of jars of honey. She had had a subscription, and the comics had kept on coming. He had read them. Read them aloud, the way he used to, even though no one was listening.
He went and sat down on her bed, gazed around the room. He curled up. Curled up a little more. He had a pain in his chest, a lump was growing. He saw the room through her eyes, the way she had seen it.
There's the big bed, that's where Mummy and Daddy sleep, I can go over there if I'm scared. This is my beautiful bed, there's Bamse. I am six years old. My name is Maja. I know that I am loved.
The lump in his chest was so big it couldn't be dissolved with tears, and he was being sucked down towards it. He had no grave to visit, nothing that meant Maja. Except for this. This place. He hadn't understood that until now. He was sitting on her grave, her resting place. His head was drawn down towards the floor, down between his knees.
Strewn across the floor by the bed were a number of her plastic beads. Twenty or thirty of them. She had made necklaces, bead pictures, it had been her favourite pastime. She had had a whole bucketful of beads in every colour you could think of, and it was under her bed.
Except for those that were strewn across the floor.
Anders picked up a few of the beads, looked at them as they lay there in the palm of his hand. One red, one yellow, three blue.
Another memory from the last day, kneeling beside her bed, leaning his head on the mattress, searching for the smell of her in the sheets and finding it, the fabric soaking up his tears.
He had been on his knees. He had moved around the bed on his knees, searching for the smell of her. Yes. But there had been no beads under his knees then. He had forgotten much of his life in the years that followed, much lay in a fog, but that last day out here burned brightly. Clearly. No beads pressing into his skin.
Are you sure?
Yes. I'm sure.
He slid down on to the floor and looked under the bed. The transparent bucket that held the beads was near the edge. It was two-thirds full. He pushed his hand in and allowed it to be surrounded by beads, stirred it around. When he pulled out his hand, a number of beads were stuck to his skin.
He buried both hands in the bucket, filled his cupped hands with beads and allowed them to pour back in. No droppings. Mice couldn't even walk through a kitchen cupboard without leaving droppings behind.
He pushed the bucket back under the bed and looked around the floor. The twenty or thirty beads were all close to the bed. He crawled across the floor, looked in the corners, along the edges. No beads.
Under the double bed there were big balls of fluff, nothing else.
Just a minute…
He moved back to Maja's bed and looked underneath.
A box with no lid containing Duplo Lego was behind the bucket of beads, next to Bamse. He pulled it out. A layer of dust covered the multi-coloured blocks. He couldn't check because he had moved his hands around in the bucket, but had there been any dust on the beads?
He sat on the floor with his back against Maja's bed. His eyes focused on the wardrobe. It was a clumsy object fixed to the wall, built by Anders' grandfather with the same lack of skill that characterised the rest of the house. It was approximately a metre wide, made from rough left-over wood. The key was in the lock.
His heart began palpitating once again, and a cold sweat broke out on his palms. He knew the wardrobe had a handle on the inside. Maja liked to sit inside underneath the clothes and pretend she…
Stop it. Stop it right now.
He clamped his lips together, stopped breathing. Listened. There was not a sound apart from the rushing of the sea against the rocks, the wind soughing through the pine trees, his own heart pounding in his ears. He looked at the wardrobe door, at the key. It was moving.
Anders leapt to his feet and pressed his hands against his temples. His lower jaw had begun to tremble.
The key was not moving. Of course it wasn't moving.
Stop it. Stop it.
Without looking back he walked out of the room, turned the light off and closed the door. His fingers were ice-cold, his teeth chattering. He placed a few logs on the fire, then sat for a long time warming his hands, his body.
When he felt calmer he opened his suitcase and took out one of the litre casks of red wine, tore it open and knocked back a third of the contents. He looked at the bedroom door. He was still just as frightened.
The fire in the kitchen stove had gone out. He didn't bother with it, he just picked up his cigarettes and a glass and went back to the safe circle of warmth by the fire, where he finished off the wine cask. When it was empty he threw it on the fire and fetched another.
The wine did its job. The knots in his muscles loosened and his thoughts drifted off aimlessly without alighting anywhere in particular. Halfway through the second box he got up and looked out across the sea, glass in hand. The lighthouse at Gåvasten was flashing in the distance.
'Cheers, you bastard. Cheers, you fucking bastard.'
He emptied the glass and began to sway in time with the flashing light.
The sea. And us poor bastards with our little flashing lights.
Something bad is coming
At half-past three Anders was woken by someone banging on the door. He opened his eyes and lay motionless on the sofa, pulling the blanket more tightly around him. The room was in darkness. The beam of the lighthouse swept through and the floor swayed. His head felt heavy.
He lay there with his eyes wide open wondering if he had misheard, if it had been a dream. The lighthouse beam swept by once again. This time the floor remained still. Behind him he could hear that the wind was getting up. The sea was hurling itself against the rocks and a cold draught whistled through the gaps in the house.
He had just closed his eyes to try and go back to sleep when the pounding started again. Three powerful blows on the outside door. He sat up quickly on the sofa and looked around instinctively for a weapon. There was something horrible about those short, hard blows.
As if…as if…
As if someone had come to get him. Someone following an order. Someone who had the right to take him. His legs were ready for flight as he slipped off the sofa, shuffled across to the fire and seized the poker.
He stood there with the poker held aloft, waiting for the pounding to come again. There was no sound apart from the growing fury of the sea, the creaking as a half-broken branch twisted in the wind.
Calm down. Perhaps it's just…
Just what? An accident, someone needing help? Yes, that was probably the most likely scenario, and here he was looking as if he was expecting an alien invasion. He took a few steps towards the outside door, still holding the poker in his hand.
'Hello?' he shouted. 'Who's there?'
His heart was pounding and it felt as if something was tightening around his head.
There's something wrong with me.
Someone had run aground in their boat, their engine had failed in the strong wind and they had made their way up the rocks to his door, perhaps they were standing there now, soaked to the skin and freezing.
But why are they hammering on the door like that?
Without switching on any of the lights that might dazzle him, Anders crept over to the hall window and peeped out. Nobody was standing on the porch, as far as he could see. He switched on the outside light. There was nobody there. He opened the door and looked out.
'Hello? Is anyone there?'
Maja's swing was flying wildly to and fro in the wind, dry leaves whirled around the yard. He put the door on the latch and stepped out on to the porch, closed the door behind him and glanced around, listening intently.
He thought he could hear the sound of an engine from the direction of the village. A small outboard motor or a chainsaw. But who would take a boat out at this hour, who would be cutting trees in the middle of the night? It could be a moped, of course, but the same question applied.
Maja's swing was disconcerting. The way it was moving it looked as if someone was sitting on it and swinging, someone he couldn't see. A cold blast of wind swept across his chest and stomach as he took a few steps away from the door and called 'Maja?' out into the empty air.
No reply. No change in the frantic movement of the swing. He lowered the poker and ran his free hand over his face. He was still drunk. Drunk and wide awake. The sound of the engine-if that's what it was-had stopped. All he could hear was the creaking of the broken branch.
He went back to the door and examined the outside. No damage from the knocking. The corners of his mouth twitched.
I know what this means.
His grandmother had told him about one occasion when her father had spent the night in a hut on one of the little islands out in the archipelago. He had been on 'an errand', which at the time was the euphemism for smuggling spirits. He had probably arranged to meet some Estonian cargo boat outside the three-mile limit towards dawn, and had decided it would be safest to spend the night out in the archipelago.
In the middle of the night he is woken by the sound of hammering on the door. It's a simple cottage door, and the heavy blows are making the latch jump. He thinks it's customs that are on his trail, but this time they have made their move too early. He has nothing they can confiscate, and he is perfectly happy to explain why he is spending the night here-he has brought his fowling piece with him for appearance's sake. He is quite happy to open the door.
No one is there. There is not a soul in sight, and only his own fishing boat is moored by the jetty. However, to be on the safe side he picks up the money he is going to use to pay for the contraband and takes a walk around the island with the gun in his hand. He manages to frighten a couple of eider ducks out of a clump of reeds, but nothing else.
As dawn breaks he sets off for the meeting place. After a few nautical miles he catches sight of the cargo ship at anchor just beyond the limit.
Then he hears an explosion.
At first he thinks it might be his own compression ignition engine, but he realises that the resonance of the explosion is too deep, that it has come from outside his boat. He picks up the telescope and looks over at the cargo boat he is to meet.
Something has happened to it. At first he can't make out what it is, but as he gets closer he can see that it is listing and beginning to sink. By the time he reaches it there is no longer anything to reach. He scans the surface of the sea with the telescope, but there is nothing to be seen.
'Four men and at least a thousand litres of schnapps went down that day,' his grandmother's father told her later. 'That was what it wanted to tell me, whatever was banging on the door. That something bad was coming.'
Anders' grandmother had retold the story using exactly the same words, and ever since it had been an expression that came into his mind from time to time when he wanted to describe something. It came to him now, as he examined the door and found not a trace of whoever had been hammering on it.
Something had is coming.
He looked up at the pine trees, their swaying tops invisible in the darkness outside the circle of light from the outdoor lamp. A loose piece of metal on the woodshed banged once, as if to underline the point.
Something had is coming.
It was impossible to go back to sleep. Anders lit the kitchen stove, then sat at the kitchen table staring at the wall. His head felt as if it were full of lukewarm porridge, enclosed in a perverse membrane of clarity. He was able to think clearly, but not deeply.
The wind was howling around the walls, and Anders shivered. He suddenly felt exposed. Like an unwanted child left out in the forest.
Exposed. His fragile little house stood alone, exposed on the point. The deep sea was forcing its way upward, reaching out its arms. The wind was curling itself around the house, flexing its muscles and trying to find a way in.
Something had is coming. It's after me.
What 'it' was, he had no idea. Just that it was big and strong, and it was after him. That his fortifications were inadequate.
The old wine tasted like rotten fruit in his mouth; he drank half a litre of water straight from the tap to rinse away the taste. The water wasn't much better. Salt water had probably got into the well-the tap water had a thick, metallic taste. Anders rinsed his face and dried it with a tea towel.
Without thinking about it, he went into the bedroom and fetched the bucket of plastic beads, then sat down at the kitchen table and started picking them out, pushing them together. First of all he made a heart in red. Then a blue heart outside the red one. Then a yellow one, and so on. Like a Russian doll, the hearts surrounding one another. When he got to the edge he got up and put some more wood in the stove.
The beads he had taken to make his heart design hadn't made any noticeable difference to the level in the bucket. He had plenty of beads and plenty of tiles. He would really have liked a bigger tile. So that he could make an entire picture.
If you stick them together…
He dug a hacksaw out of his toolbox and set to work. When he had sawn the edges off nine tiles, he smoothed them down with sandpaper to make an even surface for the glue to stick to. The work took up all of his attention and he didn't even notice as the dawn came creeping across the sea.
Only when all the edges were smooth and he got up to look for the unopened tube of araldite that he knew should be somewhere did he glance out of the window and realise that the morning sun had leached the brightness from the beam of the North Point lighthouse.
He washed away the worst of the lime scale from the pot and poured water into the coffee machine. In the larder there was an open packet of coffee, which had doubtless lost all its flavour. He compensated by using twice as much as usual, and switched on the machine.
He found the glue and spent another half-hour smoothing down any slight imperfections and sticking the tiles together. The morning sun was slanting in through the kitchen window as he stood back to admire his work.
Nine tiles with room for four hundred beads on each one, all stuck together. A white, knobbly surface just waiting for three thousand six hundred coloured dots. Anders nodded. He was pleased with himself. He could get going now.
But what shall I make?
As he smoked a cigarette and sipped at the warm liquid, which did indeed taste more like the ghost of a cup of coffee, he contemplated the white surface and tried to come up with a picture that he would create there.
One of Strindberg's wild sea paintings in beads. Yes. But there probably weren't enough nuances for that. Something more naive, like a child's picture. Cows and horses, a house with a chimney. No, that was no challenge.
A child's picture…
He glowered at the lighthouse on North Point and searched his memory. Then he pushed away his coffee cup and started rummaging in drawers. He hadn't a clue what had become of the camera.
He found it in the junk drawer, where everything that might just be worth keeping ended up. The counter showed that twelve pictures had been taken. He used the point of a pencil to push in the rewind button, and the motor began to turn, slowly and with much complaining. The batteries were more or less dead. There was a click and the motor speeded up: nothing more to rewind. Anders removed the roll of film and sat down at the kitchen table again.
He closed his hand around the small metal cylinder; it felt cool after lying in the drawer. They were in there. The last pictures of a family. He warmed it in his hand, warmed the tiny people on the ice who would soon be struck by something dreadful.
He took the roll of film between his thumb and index finger, studying it as if he might be able to see something of what was inside. An impulse told him to leave it alone, to let that family stay in there, forever unaware of what was to come. Not to let it out to trample in the sludge that life had become. To let that family stay in its little time capsule.
Someone hates us
With the morning's first cup of coffee by his side, Simon was sitting at the kitchen table staring down into the half-open matchbox. The black larva lay there motionless, but Simon knew it was alive.
He sat with his lips clamped firmly together, gathering saliva in his mouth. When he had enough he allowed it to trickle out between his lips and down into the box. The larva moved slightly when the spit landed on its shiny skin, as if it were sleepy; Simon watched as the saliva was slowly absorbed and disappeared.
It was a morning ritual that was every bit as necessary as going for a pee and having a cup of coffee, he had come to realise.
A week or so after Spiritus came into his care, he had left the box in the kitchen drawer one morning without spitting into it, and taken the boat over to the mainland to do some shopping. As he set off in the boat he already had the taste in his mouth. It grew stronger during the crossing. The taste of old wood, of rancid nuts, expanded out of his mouth, into his blood and through his muscles.
As he was slowing down ready to moor the boat by the jetty in Nåten, he threw up all over the floor. He knew the reason, but refused to give in and carried on towards the jetty, moving as slowly as possible. When the boat hit a post, it was as if his body was being wrenched inside out. He threw up until there was nothing left but bile.
This was a nausea much greater than the body itself can produce, a septic shock similar to acute poisoning. Simon curled up in the stern as his stomach contorted in cramps, and managed to swing the boat around so that it was heading back to Domarö.
He was convinced that he was going to die, and all the way back he remained curled up in the foetal position as deep, wet belches forced their way out of him and his body rotted.
He didn't manage to moor the boat properly, but ran it up on the shoreline and crawled on his knees through the shallow water, across the pebbles on the shore, the lawn and into the house. By the time he got the matchbox out of the drawer, his mouth was so dry from all the vomiting that it took him a couple of minutes to collect enough saliva to enable him to give Spiritus what Spiritus craved. It took several days before he was fully recovered, before his body felt strong once again.
Since then he had been careful to spit into the matchbox every morning. He didn't know what was waiting at the end of this pact he had entered into, but he knew he had to fulfil its terms for as long as he lived.
He didn't know. But he feared the worst, in some form. And he regretted the fact that he hadn't swept Spiritus off the jetty that day. Down into the sea where it belonged. He regretted that. But it was too late now.
He took a sip of his coffee and looked out of the window. The sky was high and clear, the way it looks only in the autumn, with a few yellow birch leaves drifting down. There was nothing to indicate that a storm was on its way, which Simon knew it was, just as he knew many other things. Where to find water under the ground, when the ice would form, how much rain would fall.
When he had finished his coffee and rinsed the cup, Simon put on his knee-high boots and went out. This was one of the islanders' habits that he had adopted: knee-high boots in every situation. You never knew what you might end up squelching through, and it was best to be prepared.
Perhaps the post and newspapers might have arrived on the early boat today, and if they hadn't there were always some old men by the mailboxes who, like Simon, had nothing better to do than to go and see if the post had come on the early boat. Which it almost never had.
On the way up to the mailboxes he glanced along the track to the Shack. There was plenty to do there, and perhaps that was a good thing for Anders. Something to occupy the hands is an excellent cure for gloomy thoughts, he knew that from personal experience. During the worst periods with Marita, his first wife, it was practising with packs of cards, handkerchiefs and other things that had stood between him and panic-stricken terror.
With Anna-Greta things were very different, of course. In that relationship it was mostly melancholy he had driven away with sleight of hand and miscalculations.
As far as he knew, Anders had no particular hobby to occupy his mind, so undergrowth that needed clearing, flaking paint and wood that needed chopping could well do him some good.
From a distance of a hundred metres away, he could already see that today's conversation group by the mailboxes consisted of Holger and Göran. They were instantly recognisable. Holger stooped and miserable from disappointments that had started when he was only young, Göran still straight-backed after forty years in the police service.
But what the…?
The two men were deep in an intense discussion. Holger was shaking his head and waving one arm in the direction of the sea, while Göran was kicking at the ground as if he were annoyed. But that wasn't what was peculiar.
The mailboxes were gone.
The wall of the shop, closed for the season, was completely empty. Only the yellow box for outgoing post was still hanging there, and that looked odd as well.
Have they stopped the postal service?
As Simon got closer he realised that wasn't the problem. Ten metres away from the shop he stood on the first splinters. Splinters of plastic and splinters of wood, bits of the mailboxes that had been hanging on the wall only yesterday. The yellow metal box for outgoing post was dented and crooked.
Holger caught sight of him and burst out, 'Oh, here comes the Stockholmer. We're not likely to get much sympathy there.'
Simon stepped into the mosaic of shattered, multi-coloured plastic. 'What's happened?'
'What's happened?' said Holger. 'I'll tell you what's happened. Last night when we were fast asleep some bastards from Stockholm came over here in a boat and smashed our mailboxes for the hell of it.'
Holger looked as if he couldn't believe his ears. That was his normal reaction to anything he perceived as a challenge to his theories, and as usual he embarked on his reply by repeating the question, just to show how completely stupid it was.
'Why? Do you think they actually need a reason? Maybe they couldn't get a mooring in the harbour, maybe they weren't happy with the number of hours of sunshine last summer, or maybe they just think the most fun you can have is destroying something, and if you ask me I'd go for the last option. It makes me so bloody furious.'
Holger turned on his heel and limped down to the steamboat jetty, where Simon could see Mats, the owner of the shop, waiting for the tender.
Simon turned to Göran and asked, 'Is that what you think?'
Göran looked at the devastation around them and shook his head. 'I think we have no idea who did this. Could be anybody.'
'Someone on the island?'
'No one I can think of. But you never know.'
'Did nobody hear anything?'
Göran nodded in the direction of the jetty. 'Mats heard something, and then he heard an engine start up. But he didn't know if it was an outboard motor or a moped. The wind was in the wrong direction.'
'They must have made…a hell of a noise.'
'I don't know,' said Göran, scooping up some green and grey pieces and showing them to Simon. 'Look at these. What do you think?'
The pieces in Göran's hand, shark fins and rhomboids, all had sharp edges where they had broken off. The pieces on the ground were quite big too. No little bits.
'It doesn't look as if they were smashed.'
'No, it doesn't, does it? More as if they've been cut. With a box cutter or something. And look at this.'
Göran pointed at the metal box. It was dented and crooked, but the dents had sharp angles in the middle where the bare metal showed through. It was not blows that had created the dents, but a stabbing action. Someone had stood there stabbing at the mailbox with a big knife.
Simons shook his head. 'Why would someone do that?'
Göran hesitated before replying, as if he wanted to be sure that he was choosing the right words. Eventually he said, 'My experience of this sort of thing…is that people do this because they feel hate.'
'And what is it they-or he-hate in cases like this?'
Simon looked at the debris on the ground again, at the dented metal box. Rage. All the mailboxes represented the people on the island. Every box was an extension of the person to whom it belonged. A name.
Göran shrugged. 'Or else it's the simple urge to destroy things. How should I know. Sometimes that's what it is. But usually it isn't. So what are we going to do about this lot?'
Any kind of outrage or violent deviation from the norm has a tendency to create gaps in the chain of responsibility: no one guilty, no one responsible. In which case two old men who just happened to be passing can easily end up clearing up the mess. Göran crouched down and started picking up pieces, Simon fetched the rubbish bin from the steps leading to the shop. Then they worked together to gather up the wreckage. When the bin was full, Göran went down to the harbour for an empty barrel, while Simon sat down on the steps and wiped the sweat from his brow.
So bloody unnecessary. All this trouble just because someone… hates.
He pulled a face and rubbed his eyes.
Ha. There's no end to how much trouble there can be if someone hates hard enough. In fact, we ought to be grateful if it stops at mailboxes.
Simon looked up. Anders was standing in front of him with a letter in his hand, looking around. 'Where are the mailboxes?'
Simon explained what had happened, and told Anders to give his letter directly to Mats, who was in fact just on his way up from the harbour with the blue mail crate in his arms. Göran and Holger were following behind.
Göran had got hold of a roll of black plastic sacks, and started putting the pieces in one of them. Holger pushed his hands into his pockets and stared at Anders.
'So,' he said. 'We've got a visitor. When did you get here?'
Holger nodded over this nugget of information for a long time. He looked at the others for support, first at Mats and then at Göran, but no support was forthcoming. When the look he got in return from Göran was more annoyed than anything, Holger seemed to remember what the situation was.
'My condolences on your loss, by the way,' he managed to squeeze out.
They talked for a while about what to do about the post. For today, Mats would wait and explain to everyone what had happened. They would all need to get themselves a new mailbox as soon as possible. Meanwhile a plastic bucket with a lid would do instead, or even a bag. As long as everyone put his or her mailbox number on it.
Anders waved his letter. 'So what shall I do with this, then? It's a film to be developed. I wouldn't like it to get lost.'
Mats took the letter and promised he would make sure it was sent. Then he gave out the post to those who were there. No letters for Simon, just a newspaper, Norrtelje Tidning, and an advert for some pension fund.
As Simon and Anders set off home, Göran said, 'You won't forget, will you?'
'No,' said Simon. 'I'll call round one day.'
They took the route along the shoreline. The jetties belonging to the summer visitors were more or less empty. The odd individual would probably come out at the weekend, but otherwise the season was over for this year.
'What is it he doesn't want you to forget?' asked Anders.
'Göran moved back here a while ago, when he retired. But he hasn't got a well, so he wanted me to go over with my divining rod to find him some water.'
'How do you actually do that?'
'Practice, practice and more practice.'
Anders punched Simon playfully on the shoulder. 'Stop it. That isn't magic. I really am interested.'
'Well, it is a kind of magic, you know. Are you coming in to see Anna-Greta?'
Anders dropped the subject. For a number of years Simon had been the local water diviner. Whenever anyone needed to sink a well, it was to Simon they turned to find a spring. Simon would come, walk around with the rowan twig that was his divining rod, and eventually point out a suitable spot. He hadn't been wrong yet.
Anders snorted. 'Holger seemed to think I was the one who smashed up the mailboxes.'
'You know his wife drowned last year?'
'Sigrid? No, I didn't know that.'
'Went out in the boat to check the nets and never came back. They found the boat a few days later, but not Sigrid.'
Sigrid. One of the few people Anders had been genuinely frightened of when he was little. An overfilled cup just waiting for the drop that would make it run over. It could be anything. The weather, the sound of bicycles, a wasp that came too close to her ice cream. Whenever Anders sold her some herring he would make a point of picking out the biggest and best, and preferred to give her too much rather than a single gram too little.
'Did she drown herself?'
Simon shrugged his shoulders. 'I suppose some people think so, but…'
'Others think Holger did it.'
'Is that what you think?'
'No. No, no. He was much too frightened of her.'
'So now he's only got the Stockholmers left to hate?'
'That's right. But he can put even more energy into it now.'
This aversion towards people from the capital is not unique to Domarö, or even to Sweden. It exists everywhere, and sometimes with good reason. Holger's story is representative of what has happened in the Stockholm archipelago generally, and on Domarö in particular.
Just like Anders and many others on Domarö, Holger came from a family of pilots. Through a series of clever acquisitions, marriages and other manoeuvres, the Persson family eventually ended up owning the entire north-eastern part of Domarö, an area covering some thirty hectares, measured from the shoreline inland, and comprising forest, meadows and arable fields.
This was what Holger's father had to look after when he came of age at the beginning of the 1930s. Summer visitors had begun to come, and like many others on the island he had a couple of boathouses done up and extended so that he could rent them out.
To cut a long story short, however, there were debts in the family, and Holger's father had an unfortunate tendency to hit the bottle when things were not going well. One summer he got to know a broker from Stockholm. Generous amounts of alcohol were proffered, and fraternal toasts shared. There was even talk of Holger's father becoming a member of the Order of the Knights Templar, the legendary masonic lodge headed by Carl von Schewen.
Well. Somehow the whole thing ended up with Holger's father selling Kattudden to the broker. A piece of land measuring about fifteen hectares where no trees grew and the grazing was poor. He got a price that was rather more than he would have expected if he'd sold the land to another islander.
But of course the broker was not interested in either grazing or forestry. Within a couple of years he had divided Kattudden into thirty separate plots, which he then sold to prospective summer visitors. Each plot went for a sum approximately half what he had paid for the whole piece of land.
When Holger's father realised what had happened, how thoroughly deceived he had been by the broker, the bottle was waiting to console him. At this point Holger was seven years old, and was forced to watch as his father drank himself into a morass of self-pity, while the Stockholmers happily erected their 'summer cottage' kit homes on land that had belonged to his family for generations.
A couple of years later his father took his shotgun out into the forest they still owned, and didn't come back.
Different versions of this story are told on many of the islands in the archipelago, but this was the Persson family's version, and it is undeniably one of the uglier tales. These transactions have given rise to a great deal of bitterness everywhere, and Holger was the most bitter of all.
His basic thesis was simple: Stockholmers were the root of all evil; some were guiltier than the rest, and the biggest villains of them all were Evert Taube and Astrid Lindgren.
Holger never tired of explaining his thesis to anyone who was prepared to listen: the archipelago had been a living community with a hard-working population, until Evert Taube came along and romanticised the whole thing, with his 'Rönnerdahl' and 'Calle Schewen's Waltz'. The real Carl von Schewen had become something of a recluse in his old age, thanks to all the curious Stockholmers who took a trip out to his jetty or lay there spying on him through telescopes from their boats to see if Calle might be busy building a haystack or dancing with the rose of Roslagen.
But this was merely a boring detail under the circumstances. The worst thing was that Taube's romantic portrayal opened the eyes of the Stockholmers to the archipelago, where people wore flowers in their hair, danced to the sound of the accordion and enjoyed a little drink in a picturesque manner. Those who could afford it bought themselves a summer cottage. The plots were bought up, and the archipelago became depopulated.
Just as the worst of the frenzy was dying down and the residents of the archipelago began to think they might be able to relax, the killer blow came with Astrid Lindgren's book Life on Seacrow Island, and the subsequent TV series. Now it wasn't only the rich who had to have a summer cottage. Brokers bought up everything they could get hold of in order to build small houses which they could sell or rent out by the week or month. Everybody wanted to go to the archipelago, to have exactly the right knack for starting up an outboard motor, and to find a pet seal of their very own.
The young people of the archipelago got to know the summer visitors, and began to long for the nightclubs and cinemas of the capital. Houses and farms were left with no one to inherit them, and of course the brokers popped up again, buying everything in sight until the archipelago resembled a corpse that came to life for a couple of months in the summer, then sank back into its silent grave.
This was the gist of Holger's thesis, and he would usually end with some detailed fantasy concerning what he would like to do to Evert and Astrid if they were still alive. These were terrible things involving both lead weights and petrol, and he would brook no contradictions.
The archipelago had been romanticised to death. That was Holger's considered opinion.
A wall of yellowing lilacs hid Anna-Greta's house from view. The only thing visible above the hedge was the metal roof of the tower, covered in verdigris. When Anders was a child he used to think it was a real tower, the kind you found in castles where knights lived, and he was frustrated because he could never find the way to it, and no one would show him.
Later he had realised that the pointed tower was purely decorative and the window on the gable was painted on. A hundred and fifty bygone years slumbered in that wind-battered wooden panel, and the impression of a haunted house lost in its own memories would have been complete, had it not been for the woman who opened the front door and came running down the garden path.
Anna-Greta was wearing jeans and a check shirt. On her feet she had rubber boots. Her long, white hair was woven into a plait that thudded against her back as she rushed up to Anders and threw her arms around him.
'Oh, Anders!' She hugged him, she shook him. 'It's so good to see you!'
She squeezed him so hard that for a moment Anders thought she was actually going to lift him off the ground, the way she used to do when he was little. He didn't dare respond with the same force-she was eighty-two, after all-so he stroked her back and said, 'Hello Gran.'
Anna-Greta suddenly let go and stared closely at his face for five seconds. Only then did she appear to notice Simon. She tilted her head to one side. Simon leaned over and kissed her cheek. Anna-Greta nodded as if to indicate that he had behaved correctly, and grabbed Anders' hand.
'Come on. The coffee's ready.'
She led Anders towards the house, and Simon lumbered after them. It wasn't that his gait had actually altered, but next to Anna-Greta most people looked as if they were lumbering, regardless of age.
It was as if she lived only on clear, salty air, and when the day came for her to pass away, she would probably do exactly that. Just take a step to one side. Dissolve into a north-westerly wind as it whirled around the lighthouse at North Point, then out across the sea.
The table was laid in the parlour: anchovy sandwiches with egg, delicate biscuits and cinnamon whirls. The hunger which Anders had refused to acknowledge suddenly caught up with him. Simon pretended to be offended, and said to Anders, 'I see, we're in the parlour because you're here. I have to sit in the kitchen. When I'm invited.'
Anna-Greta stopped and raised her eyebrows. 'Is that a complaint?'
'No, no,' said Simon. 'I'm just saying there seems to be some sort of preferential treatment going on here.'
'If you stayed away for almost three years, I'd probably set the table in the parlour for you as well when you came back.'
Simon scratched his chin. 'Well, perhaps I'd better do that, then.'
'In that case I'll walk straight into the sea and drown myself, as you well know. Sit down.'
Anders' father had once said that Simon and Anna-Greta were like an old comedy double act. They had their set routines, polished over the years; by this stage they knew them so well they were no longer routines, but rather a basis for improvisation. You recognised the theme, but the words were different every time.
Anna-Greta watched Anders as he gobbled two sandwiches. She pushed the plate towards him.
'I don't suppose you've got any food down there in the cottage.'
Anders paused with his hand half way to the plate.
'I'm sorry, I…'Anna-Greta snorted.
'Nonsense. That's not what I meant. You help yourself. But we need to sort out some kind of arrangement.'
'Wood,' said Simon. 'Have you got any wood?'
The problem was discussed, and it was decided that Anders would take home a bag of provisions, that he and Simon would go shopping the following day, and that Anders' boat needed to be put in the water as soon as possible. He could help himself to wood if he ran short.
Anders excused himself and went out on to the porch for a smoke. He sat down on a stool, lit a cigarette and looked at Anna-Greta's plum tree, weighed down with overripe fruit. He thought about Holger and about Holger's wife, about the sea, which seemed to demand its dues at irregular intervals, about the anchor in the churchyard in Nåten, Maja.
It still seems strange… that there wasn't… that no one…
When he went back inside, the table had been cleared and the coffee pot topped up. Simon and Anna-Greta were sitting at the table leaning towards each other, their heads close together. Anders stood quietly, watching them.
That's what love looks like. It can happen. Two people can find one another, and then work together to sustain that amorphous, incomprehensible third party that has arisen between them. Love becomes an entity unto itself: the thing that determines how life is to be lived.
How does that happen?
Anders sat down on his chair, heavy and damp. Simon and Anna- Greta moved apart.
'It's nice to get a bit of fresh air, isn't it?' said Anna-Greta.
Anders nodded. Anna-Greta had never actually nagged him about smoking, but the barbs were many and varied.
'I was thinking about something,' said Anders. 'About Holger. The fact that he thought it was me.'
Anna-Greta pursed her lips. 'If you ask Holger, he'll tell you it's the Stockholmers' fault that there's no more cod.'
'Yes. But it wasn't that. It was more this business with…this business with Maja.'
Simon and Anna-Greta looked at him without moving a muscle. The atmosphere dropped like a stone, but Anders went on, 'It seems strange that…when I think about it now…that nobody suspected me. Or Cecilia. I mean, that's the obvious thing, isn't it? Two parents, one child. The child disappears without a trace. It's obvious the parents are guilty.'
Simon and Anna-Greta exchanged glances. Anna-Greta reached across the table and rubbed Anders' knuckles. 'You mustn't think like that.'
'That's not what I mean. I know, you know that's what happened. She disappeared. I still don't understand how that was possible. But why…'
Anders held up his hands as if he were trying to grab hold of a ball that wasn't there, something he just couldn't grasp. He saw it all again. The faces, the tone of voice, the questions and the condolences. And nowhere…nowhere…
'Why didn't, why doesn't one single person suspect me? Why does everybody seem to regard it as…something natural?'
Simon rested his head on one hand and frowned. He too seemed to have realised this was strange. Anna-Greta looked at Anders with an expression that was impossible to interpret. She said, 'I imagine they have some respect for other people's grief.'
'But what about Holger?' said Anders. 'His wife drowns and Simon told me that lots of people suspected him straight away. Despite the fact that it's sort of…natural, somehow. Drowning. It happens. But Maja…I mean, the police asked questions, of course. But nobody here. Nobody.'
Simon finished his coffee and put his cup down very gently, as if he didn't want to break the silence. A gust of wind sent a flurry of aspen leaves whirling past the window.
'It is rather strange,' said Simon. 'When you put it like that.'
Anna-Greta passed the coffee pot to Anders, pressing him to have another cup. 'I expect it depends on who's involved,' she said. 'Everybody here has known you since you were little. And everybody knows you wouldn't do such a thing. Unlike Holger.'
Anders poured himself half a cup. He wasn't convinced, he still thought it was hard to understand. But he said, 'Yes. Perhaps.'
They talked about other things. About possible repairs at the Shack, what they would do if Anders' outboard motor proved unwilling to start, about village gossip. Anders had no desire to get up and go home. There was nothing waiting for him but a cold house.
When there was a lull in the conversation he leaned back in his chair, folded his hands over his stomach and looked at Simon and Anna-Greta.
'How did you two actually get together? How did you meet?'
The question provoked a simultaneous grin from Simon and Anna-Greta. They looked at each other, and Simon shook his head. 'It's a long story.'
'Is there anything that needs doing?' asked Anders. Neither Simon nor Anna-Greta could come up with anything urgent. 'So won't you tell me the story then?'
Anna-Greta looked out of the window. The wind was getting up. The sky was overcast and breakers had appeared on the grey water. A couple of raindrops hit the glass. She rubbed a hand over her forehead and asked, 'How much do you know about your grandfather?
Love in the archipelago
The story of the story
On the island of Domarö there are two very special bottles of schnapps. One is down in Nathan Lindgren's old boathouse, and will no doubt remain there until his relatives finally get around to sorting through his belongings. The other is in the possession of Evert Karlsson.
Evert is almost ninety, and has kept that bottle for nearly sixty years now. No one knows what the cheap schnapps inside might taste like, and no one is going to find out either, not as long as Evert is alive. He has no intention of removing the cork. The bottle and its contents are much too good a story for that.
That's why Evert has kept it: just so that when some stranger comes along who hasn't heard the story before, he can take the bottle out of the cupboard and say, 'Have you heard about the time when Anna- Greta smuggled schnapps in on the customs boat? You haven't? Well, it was like this…'
And he tells the story as he strokes the bottle with his fingertips. It's the best story he knows and, even better, it's absolutely true. When he has finished he passes the bottle around, with strict instructions to hold it carefully and not to drop it.
People look at the clear liquid behind the glass, and nothing about it indicates that it came ashore under such remarkable circumstances. But this very liquid was part of the story that made Anna-Greta notorious throughout the entire archipelago. It is, as Evert says, the original schnapps.
Then he puts the bottle back in the cupboard, and there it stays, waiting for the next occasion when it will be brought out and the story will be told once more.
The smuggler king's daughter
Things didn't turn out the way Anna-Greta had expected at all. Erik seemed to have exhausted himself finishing the house and getting married. Once that was done he had no strength left over to set any new goals.
The summer went reasonably well, while the original flame of passion was still burning, but towards autumn Anna-Greta began to ask herself if Erik really had been in love with her. Perhaps it was just a project, like the house. Build house, install wife. Job done.
Hitler had invaded Poland in August, and there was feverish activity in the archipelago. The coastline was to be fortified, and the navy's destroyers and transport ships were shuttling between Nåten and the islands around Stora Korset, which was the last outpost facing the Aland Sea. Two gun emplacements and a number of defence posts were to be built, and several young men on Domarö were involved in the preparatory work: using explosives to make cable trenches, building walls and putting up fences. The Russian attitude to Finland had hardened, and there was a great deal of uncertainty.
Erik had used all his savings to build the house, and the newly- weds limped along on Anna-Greta's earnings as a seamstress, Erik's casual employment at the sawmill in Nåten and contributions from their parents. It grieved Erik to have to accept money from his father, and when it came to Anna-Greta's father…well, Erik came straight out with it one evening after Anna-Greta had come home with yet more money from him, 'That money comes from criminal activity, you know.'
Anna-Greta was not slow to respond. 'Better criminal activity than no activity at all.'
As the autumn progressed a chill grew between them, and when Erik's old schoolmate Björn joined the teams building defences on the outer islands, Erik went with him. Anna-Greta didn't hear a word from him for the first two weeks in October.
She went down to the jetty every time a boat came in, watched the soldiers streaming up to the shop or to their work on the building going on around the harbour, but no one knew anything about those who were working on the outermost islands. Instead she was harangued at length about the poor food, the terrible clothes, the misery in the barracks out on the islands.
After two weeks Erik came home. He did little more than change his clothes and hand over a little money, and then he was off again. Anna-Greta didn't even manage to tell him she was expecting a child, the opportunity didn't arise. But it was true. She was twelve to fourteen weeks gone, according to the midwife.
Anna-Greta stood with her hands resting on her stomach as she watched Erik climb into Björn's fishing boat. She waved with her whole arm, and got a raised hand in response. Erik was with the boys, and didn't want to embarrass himself. That was the last she saw of him.
Ten days later she received a letter. Erik had been killed in an accident while carrying out his invaluable work for the defence of his country. The body arrived the following day, and Anna-Greta couldn't bring herself to look at it. A block of stone had come away from its mortar and fallen on Erik's head as he was plastering the walls on the inside of the defence post.
'He's not exactly in peak condition, if you know what I mean,' said the lieutenant who accompanied the body.
There was a funeral in Nåten and many expressions of commiseration and half-promises of help and support, but there was no widow's pension from the army, because technically Erik had not been a member of the armed services.
Anna-Greta was nineteen years old, in the fourth month of her pregnancy and widowed. She lived in a draughty house in a place that was not her home, and she had no particular skills or expertise. It's hardly surprising that at first it was a bleak and difficult winter for her.
Torgny and Maja had become as fond of her as if she had been their own daughter, and they helped out as best they could. Her father, too, did his best. But Anna-Greta didn't want to live on handouts. She wanted to be independent, for own sake and for her child's.
On top of everything else, the winter was unusually cold. The army drove across the ice in all-terrain vehicles until the cold became so severe that the engines froze up and they went over to horses. The soldiers who were on leave had to walk across the ice from the islands out in the archipelago.
One Saturday morning as Anna-Greta sat by her kitchen window, watching yet another lemming-like procession of frozen young men approaching the shore, she had an idea. There was a demand. She would meet it.
Maja had several sacks of wool in the hayloft in the barn. It would never be used, and she was happy to pass it on to Anna-Greta, who carried the sacks down to the kitchen in the Shack, the only room she used because she wanted to save on wood. She set to work. In a week she had knitted eight pairs of gloves in felted wool, the warmest you could imagine.
On Saturday morning, she positioned herself down by the jetty in Nåten and waited for the soldiers. The thermometer had read minus twenty-two that morning, and the cold hung in the air like a silent scream. She jumped up and down on the spot while she waited for the silent horde approaching from out in the bay.
The men's faces were bright red and their bodies were like knots when they came ashore. She asked if their hands were cold. Only one of them managed a vaguely indecent comment in response, the others merely nodded silently.
She showed them her wares.
There was muttering among the group. The gloves certainly looked considerably more substantial than the pathetic pot-holders supplied by the army, but three kronor a pair? They were off into town to enjoy themselves, after all, the money was needed for other things. They would soon be sitting on a warm bus and thawing out as the memory of the cold melted away. Pleasure before usefulness, they agreed.
The ice was broken by the lieutenant who had accompanied Erik's body a few months earlier. He dug out his purse and place three one- krona coins in Anna-Greta's hand. Then he pulled on the gloves to see how they felt.
'Incredible,' he said after a while. 'It's as if they warm you up from the inside.' He turned to his men. 'We're on leave now and I'm not going to start issuing orders. But take my advice. Buy some gloves. You'll thank me later.'
Whether it was because they were used to obeying, or because he'd managed to convince them, it didn't matter. Anna-Greta sold all her gloves. Despite their initial resistance, the men seemed very pleased with themselves as they tramped off towards the bus stop.
The lieutenant lingered behind. He removed his right glove and extended his hand as if they were meeting for the first time. Anna- Greta took it.
'My name is Folke.'
Folke looked down into the empty basket and pinched his nose. 'Have you considered socks? Pullovers, maybe?'
'Is there a shortage of those?'
'Well, not exactly. We do have them, but perhaps they weren't made for a winter like this, if you know what I mean.'
'In that case, thank you for the tip.'
Folke put his glove back on and saluted. When he had gone a few steps towards the bus stop he turned around and said, 'I'm on leave again in three weeks, anyway. If there's a pullover for sale, I'm…an interested party.
'When Anna-Greta got back home, she tipped the coins out on to the table and counted them. Twenty-four kronor, earned in the very best way, through her own work and her own idea. When she tried to share the money with Maja, her mother-in-law wouldn't hear of it. However, she might be interested in coming in on the deal if demand grew too high.
And it did. By the very next Saturday the word had spread about Anna-Greta's gloves, and she didn't have enough stock to satisfy everyone who wanted to buy for themselves, or for comrades who were still out on the islands. Maja took over the gloves while Anna- Greta concentrated on socks. And a pullover, of course.
If someone's alert, it only takes a hint to sniff the possibility of love. And that's what happened. At least on Folke's part. Once he had his pullover, he wanted socks as well. But they must be striped, so she had to make a pair especially for him. And then he needed a hat, of course.
Anna-Greta was bright enough to understand what was going on. Folke was kind and decent, and she did search her heart for signs of love, but found not a trace. There was nothing she could do about it. She played along as well as she could, but veered away from his tentative invitations.
Spring came and her belly expanded. The demand for warm clothing ceased, and Anna-Greta had to look around for something else. One day in April, a month before her due date, her father hove to at the jetty in a fishing boat she hadn't seen before.
After patting her stomach and inquiring after her health, he explained why he was really there. He had become acquainted with a Russian sea captain, and there was the chance of a good deal if he could just sail out to the three-mile limit and collect a load.
'But it's a bit…difficult for me in these waters, as you're perhaps aware.'
Oh yes, Anna-Greta knew. If a customs boat caught so much as a glimpse of her father, he would be searched immediately.
'So I was thinking that maybe if you could go, that would reduce the risk significantly. And they don't know this boat.'
Anna-Greta weighed up the pros and cons. It wasn't the risk of getting caught that bothered her as much as the purely moral step involved in moving over to criminal activity. On the other hand, there were already people who looked at her sideways because of her father. She might as well fulfil their expectations.
'How much would I get?' she asked.
Her father glanced at her protruding stomach and made an expansive gesture.
'Let's say half of the profit. Seeing as it's you.'
'Two thousand, more or less.'
The whole thing went without a hitch. Although the glory days of smuggling liquor were long gone, there was still the matter of rationing and housekeeping, and a thousand litres of Russian vodka could always find throats to slip down.
The transportation was taken care of in the old way. The cases were loaded into a torpedo that was towed behind the boat. If customs turned up, you simply cut the rope and the cargo sank, taking with it a little floating buoy and a bag of salt heavy enough to keep the buoy submerged. After a few days the salt would dissolve and the buoy rose to the surface. Then all you had to do was salvage the cargo.
Anna-Greta sat in the stern with the rudder in her hand, waving goodbye to the Russian captain. She turned her gaze to the prow, where her father was crouching, then lifted her eyes to the horizon. The child kicked in her stomach and a feeling of dizziness came over her. It felt a bit like fear, but when she thought about it she realised what it was: freedom.
She gazed out at the archipelago far away in the distance, where the soldiers were keeping watch in their defence posts and people were getting on with this and that in their cottages. All those people, sitting still and keeping watch over what was theirs. She tightened her grip on the rudder and lifted her face to the wind.
I am free. I can do anything.
The child was born in the middle of April, a healthy boy she named Johan. In the summer, Anna-Greta invested a thousand kronor of the money she had earned in a fishing boat of her own.
Ulla Billqvist was on the radio singing about the boys in blue, but the truth was the boys in blue were bored to death on their islands. The Russians hadn't so much as dipped a finger in Swedish territorial waters, and Sweden's defenders were sitting in their barracks playing cards, glowering at the gulls and being as bored as it is humanly possible to be.
Anna-Greta had spoken to quite a lot of people, and had identified a need. During the winter it had been warmth that was lacking, during the summer it was some kind of diversion. Anna-Greta set to work.
By various methods, some of them entirely legal, some slightly more shady, she bought herself a stock of things that can ease loneliness and dispel melancholy. Sweets, snuff, tobacco, magazines and easily digestible thrillers, along with a range of games and puzzles. She didn't dare take any alcohol, but she let the soldiers know that if they needed anything along those lines when they were on leave, it could be arranged.
Then she travelled around between the islands on regular days, selling her wares. Business was good. Anna-Greta was not vain, but she was aware of the effect she had on the men. Some of them probably bought from her just so that they could spend a short while in her company, having a bit of a joke and perhaps brushing against her hand by mistake.
She knew that, and to a certain extent she exploited it. But she declined all advances before they had even been formulated properly. She had her man, and his name was Johan. When she was out on her business trips he was with his grandparents, an arrangement that suited them all very well.
During the winter she went back to her knitting, and the following summer she was back out in her boat once again.
Anyway. What about those bottles of schnapps?
That didn't happen until after the war, and it was connected to Folke. He wouldn't give up. She sometimes bumped into him on her trips around the islands; he had been promoted to the rank of captain, and she always took the time to chat for a while, but never did anything to raise his hopes.
After the war, Folke left the army and went to work for the customs service. Within a couple of years he was the captain of one of the customs cruisers.
Presumably with the aim of impressing Anna-Greta, he moored the cruiser at her jetty one day and strode up to her house in full uniform: epaulettes, peaked cap, the lot. He asked if she would like to accompany him on a little trip, he had to carry out an official check.
Anna-Greta's father was visiting on that particular day, and there was an exchange of casual remarks with a caustic undertone between him and Folke. However, by that stage her father had given up his activities, and there was no real antagonism. Her father said he would be happy to look after Johan if Anna-Greta wanted to go out on a pleasure cruise with the enemy.
The cruiser raced out to the three-mile limit. Like most men, Folke was under the mistaken impression that travelling at a high speed can make a woman's heart melt, and he pushed the cruiser to the limit, standing there on the bridge and pretending to be unmoved. Anna-Greta thought it was quite entertaining to travel so fast, but nothing more.
The cargo boat just outside the limit was boarded with the usual polite exchanges. Anna-Greta thought it all looked somehow familiar. Everything became clear when the captain appeared. It was the same Russian captain who had sold vodka to her and her father several years earlier. He recognised her, too, but gave nothing away.
Anna-Greta had a little money with her, and when Folke and his men went below to check the interior of the boat, she whispered to the captain, Tour cases.'
The captain looked at her with a mixture of terror and delight. 'But where?'
Anna-Greta pointed. Right at the back of the customs cruiser hung a covered lifeboat. 'There. Underneath the tarp.'
The captain took the money and gave the order to his crew. Then he went below to make sure Folke and the others stayed there until the goods had been stowed.
They found what they expected to find in the hold, but there wasn't much they could do about it as the boat was in international waters. They just wanted to check the amounts, and to see if there was any need for special vigilance.
Anna-Greta had never seen the Russian captain smile, but he was certainly smiling as he waved goodbye to Anna-Greta and the customs boat. In fact, he was grinning from ear to ear.
'He seems like quite a good bloke, in spite of everything,' said Folke.
'He does,' replied Anna-Greta.
When the cruiser hove to at Anna-Greta's jetty, she asked if she could perhaps invite the crew to her house for coffee and cake just to say thank you for the trip. They accepted with pleasure, and the men trooped up to the Shack.
While they were playing with Johan, Anna-Greta took her father to one side and said there were a couple of things that needed to be collected from the lifeboat. Perhaps he could put them in the boat- house for the time being. Her father's jaw dropped and a fire ignited in his eyes. He said nothing, he merely nodded and went out.
And then, of course, Anna-Greta was having some problems with the leaky woodshed at the front of the house. As her father disappeared around the corner, she took Folke and the others to the woodshed and listened to their advice on how she could reinforce the construction or how she might go about building a new one.
After ten minutes her father was back, at which point she thanked the men for all their help and invited them to enjoy the promised coffee.
When the cruiser was on its way and their visitors had been properly waved off, her father turned to Anna-Greta as she stood there holding Johan by the hand, and said, 'This is the best bloody thing ever.'
'Not one word.'
Within a month the whole archipelago knew the story of how Anna-Greta had smuggled schnapps on the customs boat. Her father had probably tried to keep his mouth shut, but it just couldn't be done; he was far too proud of his daughter and of the great story in which he had played his small part.
Eventually the story must have reached Folke's ears as well, since he never came to call on Anna-Greta again. She told her father off for blabbing and thus destroying Folke's reputation, but what was done was done. Anna-Greta had never been one for regrets.
Anyway, the schnapps was decanted into bottles and one of them eventually ended up in Evert Karlsson's cupboard, where it stands to this day.
Life could have been perfect for Simon at the beginning of the 1950s. He was in his early thirties, the time when we reap, if we are lucky, what we have sown during our youth. And he was reaping a rich harvest. Success after success.
For a few years he and his wife Marita-under the name El
Simon & Simonita-had been among the most popular artists playing the summer shows in the big parks. For the last couple of summers they had even had to turn down some engagements to avoid double-bookings.
This spring, Simon had found out that they could look forward to the most desirable booking of all for the autumn: the variety show at Stockholm's Chinese Theatre, for two weeks in October. This would in turn give them the opportunity to ask for higher fees in the parks. Having performed at the Chinese Theatre was a mark of honour in the profession.
Their program wasn't actually anything special: a little mind- reading, some sleight of hand involving cards, a few tricks with cloths. An unusually quick substitution trunk, plus a version of sawing the lady in half, with the twist that Marita was divided into three sections rather than just two. An escapology feature. Nothing special.
But they did have a particular style on stage. Simon's measured, concentrated movements and patter set against Marita's light, whirling steps created a kind of dance that it was difficult to take your eyes off. In addition, Simon was elegant and Marita-well, Marita had glamour.
A weekly magazine had done an at-home-with feature on the couple, and the photographer had found it very difficult to stop taking pictures of Marita-posed beside the armchair, next to the gramophone; holding a lid and gazing ecstatically down into the saucepan.
And so everything should have been wonderful, but it wasn't. Simon was frankly unhappy and, as so often happens the same thing lay at the root of both his success and his unhappiness: Marita.
Simon had a tendency to brood. This could be very useful when it came to getting to the bottom of something, for example dissecting a conjuring trick so that he could work out how to improve it. Among other things, he was the first to saw the lady in half using a chainsaw. Most illusionists made a big thing of spinning the separated sections around on the stage. Simon had thought it through, and come to the conclusion that it wasn't the separate parts that were interesting, but the separation itself.
The huge handsaw that was normally used looked like a stage prop. But the raw physicality of a chainsaw, set against his own elegant appearance and Marita's feather-light frailty-that might possibly achieve the desired effect.
And indeed it was. At one performance a couple of people fainted when Simon started up the big chainsaw. Fortunately there was a reporter in the audience, and it proved to be excellent publicity. This was the result of Simon's brooding on the question of sawing the lady in half.
Marita was cut from a different cloth. When Simon met her in the mid-1940s, she had been a bright, energetic woman with ambitions to be a dancer, and she moved through the nightclubs of Stockholm like a wisp of smoke.
It was not until a year or so after they joined forces that Simon discovered her secret box. A shoebox containing some twenty Benzedrine inhalers. Simon assumed she was using it as an aid to slimming, and didn't mention the matter.
But he became vigilant, and soon he could see what she was doing. They might be having a drink, spirits or wine, and he would notice her fiddling with something in her handbag. Eventually one night he grabbed her hand, pulled it out of her bag and found…a strip of paper. He didn't understand.
By this stage Marita was quite drunk. She began to sneer at him in front of their companions at the table. How blind and stupid he was, and above all how boring. As Marita staggered off in the direction of the ladies' toilets, someone explained it to Simon: his wife was a drug user.
The strip of paper was what you found if you broke open an inhaler. It was impregnated with Benzedrine, a kind of amphetamine. All you had to do was roll up the strip of paper and swallow it: suddenly you had a spring in your step.
Simon left before Marita came back from the toilet. He went straight home and threw her destructive metal tubes down the rubbish chute. Marita went crazy when she found out what he'd done, but soon calmed down. Far too soon. Simon suspected she was confident she could replace the stash he had thrown away.
It took a few weeks for him to track down her supplier, a former boyfriend who had been a quartermaster in the army. He had stolen from the stores a huge quantity of inhalers meant to keep fatigue at bay during long watches. He had initiated Marita in the use of the drug and its effect on the central nervous system, and had carried on supplying her after their love affair ended.
Simon issued what threats he could muster. The police, a beating, public humiliation. He didn't know if it would have any effect, but he did his best.
The effect was that Marita's underhand ways took more dramatic forms. She could disappear for days on end, and refuse to say where she had been. She made it clear to Simon that he could sit and rot in their apartment if he wanted to, but she had a life to live.
She never missed a performance, though. Her disappearances always coincided with a gap between engagements. When it was time for her entrance she was there, sparkling as she always had, tripping lightly on to the stage. It was partly for this reason that Simon tried to keep their calendar as full as possible.
But he wasn't happy.
He needed Marita. She was his partner and the other half of his act-without her he would probably be no more than a competent conjuror. And she was his wife. He still loved her, in some ways. But he wasn't happy.
And so in the spring of 1953 Simon was at the peak of his career, leafing through their booking schedule with a feeling of unease in the pit of his stomach. The engagement at the Chinese Theatre lay ahead, and the summer was looking good. But the way things had turned out, there were three completely blank weeks in July. June and August were more or less full, but those weeks in July were bothering him.
He could see himself sitting there in the summer heat in Stockholm with a great lump of fear in his chest, while Marita was out enjoying herself God knows where or how. He didn't want that. He definitely didn't want that.
However, there was one possibility. Perhaps it was finally time to take action? He picked up the daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, and turned to the ads for accommodation. Under the heading 'Summer Cottages' he read:
'Well-maintained house on the island of Domarö in southern Roslagen. Sea frontage with own jetty. Hire boat available. 80 square metres. Large garden. Rented on an annual basis. Contact: Anna- Greta Ivarsson.'
Hopefully it really was an island, without a direct link to the mainland. If he could get Marita away from the destructive influence of Stockholm, then perhaps things would work out. And it wouldn't do any harm to have a place to get away to when life was moving too fast.
He made the call.
The woman who answered explained politely that no one else had expressed an interest, so all he had to do was come out and take a look. The rent was one thousand kronor per year, and that was non- negotiable. Would he like her to tell him how to get there?
'Yes please,' said Simon. 'But there was one other thing I was wondering about. Is it an island?'
'You're asking me if it's an island?'
'Yes, is there…is there water all around it?'
There was silence on the other end of the line for a few seconds. Then the woman cleared her throat and said, 'Yes, it is an island. With water all around it. Rather a lot of water, in fact.'
Simon closed his eyes as if he were in pain. 'I was just wondering.'
'Oh, we've just got a telephone link to the mainland, if that's what you were thinking?'
'No, it was just…so how do people get there?'
'There's a tender. From Nåten, which is on a bus route. Would you like more details?'
Simon made a note of the numbers of buses to and from Norrtälje, and said that he would ring in advance and come over one day. When he hung up he was sweating profusely. He had made himself sound ridiculous and felt very uncomfortable. Her voice alone had been enough to make him realise he didn't want to look ridiculous in front of this woman. Anna-Greta.
Marita made no comment on his plans for the summer, but he had to go out and take a look at the place by himself. One day at the end of April, Simon followed Anna-Greta's instructions, and after two and a half hours travelling by bus and by boat, he was standing by the waiting room on the steamboat jetty on Domarö.
The woman who came to meet him was wearing a knitted hat, with two long, dark brown plaits emerging from underneath it. Her hand was small, her handshake firm.
'Welcome,' she said.
'Fine, thank you.'
Anna-Greta waved in the direction of the sea.
'There's…rather a lot of water here, as you can see.'
As Simon followed Anna-Greta up from the harbour, he tried to imagine it: that this would be the place. That this was the first of countless times he would walk up this path, see the things he could see now: the jetties, the boathouses, the gravel track, the diesel tank, the alarm bell. The smell of the sea and the particular quality of light in the sky.
He tried to see himself in two years, five years, ten. As an old man, walking along the same path. Could he imagine that?
Yes. I can imagine that.
When they reached the top of the path, Simon kept his fingers crossed that it would be that house. The white one with a little glass veranda looking out over a grassy slope down to the jetty. It didn't look much on a cloudy day like this with not a scrap of green in sight, but he could just picture how it would look in summer.
A boy of about thirteen was standing in the garden with his hands pushed deep in the pockets of a leather jacket. He was slim with short hair, and there was something mischievous in the look he gave Simon, weighing him up.
'Johan,' said Anna-Greta to the boy, 'could you fetch the key for Seaview Cottage, please?'
The boy shrugged his shoulders and ambled off towards a two- storey house a hundred metres away. Simon glanced around the plot, which also seemed to include a cottage on the other side of the inlet. Anna-Greta followed his eyes and said, 'The Shack. There's nobody living there at the moment.'
'Do you live here alone?'
'Well, there's me and Johan. Aren't you going to inspect the property?'
Simon did as he was told and took a random stroll around. Looked at the lid of the well, the lawn, the jetty. It was completely pointless. He had already decided. When Johan came back with the key and Simon saw inside the house, he was even more certain. When they got back outside he said, 'I'll take it.'
Papers were signed and Simon paid the deposit. Anna-Greta offered him a cup of coffee, as it would be an hour before the tender went back. Simon learned that Anna-Greta had inherited her house from her parents-in-law, who had both died a couple of years earlier. Johan answered his questions politely, but said no more than was necessary.
When it was time for Simon to think about leaving, Johan suddenly asked, 'What's your job?'
Anna-Greta said, 'Johan…'
'It's a natural thing to ask,' said Simon, 'if we're going to be neighbours. I'm a magician.'
Johan looked at him with a sceptical expression. 'What do you mean, a magician?'
'People pay to come and watch me do magic tricks.'
'Yes. Really. Well, the tricks aren't real, it's just-'
'I know that. But you're an illusionist, then?'
Simon smiled. Not many people outside magicians' circles would use that term. 'You're very well informed.'
Johan didn't answer. Instead he sat there nodding to himself for a couple of seconds, then he burst out, 'I thought you were just some boring bloke.'
Anna-Greta brought her hand down on the table. 'Johan! That's not the way to speak to a guest!'
Simon got to his feet. 'I am just some boring bloke. As well.' He held Johan's gaze for a few seconds, and something happened between them. Simon sensed that he had just made a friend. 'I'd better be on my way.'
At the beginning of July, Simon hired their usual driver to take him and Marita to Nåten with all their luggage. Marita loved the place, and Simon was able to relax. For five days. Perhaps the abstinence got too much for her, or possibly the isolation, but on the morning of the sixth day Marita declared that she had to go into Stockholm.
'But we've only just got here,' said Simon. 'Try to relax a little. Rest.'
'I have rested. It's wonderful here, and I'm going crazy. Do you know what I did last night? I sat out in the garden staring up at the sky and prayed to God that a plane might appear, so that at least something was happening. I can't handle it. I'll be back tomorrow.'
She didn't come back the following day, nor the day after that. When she turned up on the third day, she dragged herself up the hill from the steamboat jetty. She had dark circles under her eyes and she immediately fell into bed and went out like a light.
When Simon went through her overnight bag, he didn't find any inhalers. He was just about to close the bag and thank providence for that small dispensation when he noticed the lining bulging oddly. He pushed his fingers inside and found a slender case containing a syringe and a small tin of white powder.
It was a glorious summer's day. There was a stillness everywhere; only the buzzing of the insects created any movement in the air at all. A pair of swans were teaching their young to look for food in the inlet. Simon sat in the lilac arbour beside the path as if he were in a trance, with a tin and a case in his hand. Yes, they fitted into his hand. Two innocent, trivial-looking objects that contained an army of devils. He didn't know what to do, couldn't summon up the energy to do anything.
When Anna-Greta walked by, there must have been something in his vacant gaze that made her stop.
'How are you?' she asked.
Simon was still sitting there with his hand open and outstretched, as if he had a present he wanted to give her. He had no strength left for lies.
'My wife is a drug addict,' he said.
Anna-Greta looked at the objects in his hand. 'What's that?'
'I don't know. Amphetamine, I think.'
Simon was on the verge of tears, but managed to pull himself together. If Anna-Greta did know anything about amphetamines, it wasn't appropriate to discuss it with her. Johan would sometimes come over for a chat, and Anna-Greta would hardly want her son to be spending time with drug addicts. Perhaps she might not even want to rent the house to him any longer.
Simon cleared his throat and said, 'But it's under control.'
Anna-Greta gazed at him incredulously. 'But how can it be?' When Simon didn't respond, she asked, 'So what are you going to do with that?'
'I don't know. I thought I might…bury it.'
'Don't do that. She'll just force you to tell her where you've hidden it. I've seen how alcoholics behave. I don't think there can be much difference. Throw it in the sea instead.'
Simon looked out towards the jetty, which seemed to be floating on the sparkling water. He didn't want to besmirch the place where he went down to swim every morning. 'Here?' he asked, as if seeking permission.
Anna-Greta also looked at the jetty and seemed to have the same thought. She shook her head.
'I was just going to go over to Nåten. If you come with me, you can…dump the rubbish on the way.'
Simone walked down to the jetty with her and stood there at something of a loss as she started up the engine with a practised hand, cast off and told him to climb aboard. Once they had set off he stole a glance at her as she sat by the tiller, gazing out to sea with her eyes narrowed against the sunlight.
She was no great beauty, her cheekbones were far too prominent and her eyes a little too deep-set for that. But she was arresting, and Simon caught himself following a chain of thought like the one he had followed when he came to Domarö for the first time.
Five years, ten years, a lifetime. Would I?
He had seen enough of ephemeral beauty in the theatrical world to know that Anna-Greta's looks were the kind that lasted. One of those blessed individuals who actually grow more beautiful with the passing years.
Anna-Greta caught his eye and Simon blushed slightly, pushing the thought away. She had given no indication that she might have the slightest interest in him in that way, not with a gesture or a word. Besides which he was married, for God's sake. He had absolutely no right to be thinking like this.
Anna-Greta slowed the engine and nodded towards the water. Simon got to his feet unsteadily and held the case and the tin out over the side. 'It feels as if I ought to sing something.'
'I don't know.'
He threw the objects into the sea and sat down again. Anna-Greta picked up speed. It felt as if they had just gone through some kind of ritual together, which was why he had got the idea about the song. He didn't know what kind of ritual it was, or what it meant. No song came into his mind. Just an emptiness and a sense of dread that grew and grew while they were in Nåten, developing into sheer terror by the time they moored at the jetty back home and said goodbye.
He was afraid of what was going to happen to Marita and he was afraid of Marita. Of what would happen now the mask was off and everything was out in the open.
Life with a junkie. The episodes are so tedious, and you've heard it all before. Let's just say that after this Marita made no effort to hide her addiction. She didn't spend many more days on Domarö that summer.
She held it together during the autumn, and her performances at the Chinese Theatre were stunning. Then things went downhill. Simon would go looking for her at addresses of ill-repute and would manage to get her into some kind of treatment for a short period. Then she would disappear again. She missed a couple of shows and was nowhere to be found, until Simon got a call from Copenhagen and went over there.
And so on, and so on.
He had called Anna-Greta and Johan to invite them to the Chinese Theatre. They came and were amazed. Then Johan rang and asked about other places where they could go to see illusionists, and when Simon called back it was Anna-Greta who answered.
After that they got into the habit of ringing each other once a week or so. Anna-Greta was completely self-sufficient, but she was also quite lonely. She let it be known, without going into detail, that she had been involved in certain activities which meant that certain people didn't want anything to do with her.
She enjoyed Simon's anecdotes from the theatrical world, and sympathised with his concerns for Marita. As spring moved into summer they both came to depend on these conversations, and became sulky and anxious if anything got in the way and led to the postponement of that week's call.
Via a hundred kilometres of copper cable they became friends, but neither of them touched on the topic of love with so much as a word. That wasn't the point; they were just two people with very different lives who could nevertheless meet on a level of mutual conversation. They understood each other, and they enjoyed each other's company. There was no possibility of anything else between them.
And Marita? What happened to her?
That was anybody's guess.
There was nothing to suggest that her drug use was increasing, and after a couple of lapses she was as reliable as before when it came to performances. But as soon as she had the opportunity, she disappeared. Simon heard from acquaintances that she was enjoying herself in various clubs at night, often with other men.
He had given up on her. When she asked for help he always gave it, but he no longer harboured any illusions of a normal home life with her, a woman who was too beautiful for her own good-or anyone else's. To avoid tempting fate, Simon put together a program that he could perform solo, and accepted a couple of bookings.
His attitude was stoical. As long as things didn't get any worse, he could cope. He had promised to love Marita for better or worse, and if he could no longer love her, he saw it as his duty at least to keep his promise when it came to the hard times.
One spring day Simon was walking along Strandvögen on his way down to the Chinese Theatre to discuss possible future bookings with the management. The leaves on the trees were just bursting into life, and all the happy little birds were chirruping away. Simon kept his eyes fixed on the ground, thinking about nothing.
Then a smell reached his nostrils. At first he couldn't even say what it was, but his chest expanded, he was suddenly able to breathe and tears came into his eyes. He looked up and saw that he had reached Norrmalmstorg. The smell was coming from the quayside at
Nybro, and it was the sea he could sense. That faint hint of salt that would grow stronger further away, further out. Out on Domarö.
He straightened up and filled his lungs with air. Not long to go. Despite financial pressures he had kept this summer free so that he could spend five, maybe six weeks on Domarö. He would have liked to stay longer, but Marita had expensive habits and he couldn't actually conjure up money, even if he made it look as if he could.
Perhaps I ought to do something out there? Try to arrange things so that I get a couple of bookings nearby?
He stopped on the edge of Berzelii Park and looked out towards Nybrokajen. That was when he got the idea.
Everyone had been waiting for it for almost a month now. At first it had been just a rumour, then posters had gone up. And then, the day before yesterday, it had even been mentioned on the radio. That magician who rented the cottage from Anna-Greta was going to perform his escapology number just by the Domarö steamboat jetty.
The time was set for twelve o'clock. Curious spectators began arriving from the mainland and from other islands as early as ten o'clock, to be sure of getting a good place and to sound out the terrain. You could see them walking around the jetty, staring down into the water to see if they could spot any special equipment to help him out, any secret arrangements.
At half-past eleven, a journalist and a photographer from Norrtelje Tidning arrived. By that time a couple of hundred people were crammed together on the steamboat jetty. The journalist explained to those who were interested that of course it was forbidden to advertise such risky enterprises in the newspaper, but writing about them was absolutely fine.
While they waited for the main attraction, it was a Stockholmer who rented a property on another island who drew the largest crowd of listeners. Many had heard of the famous Danish escapologist Bernardi, but the Stockholmer was the only one who had actually seen him appear, at the Brazil Jack Circus. The tense atmosphere was heightened as the Stockholmer told the story of how Bernardi had died on Bornholm during an escape attempt just like this one.
The crowd around the Stockholmer dispersed only when a police officer arrived. Although to be honest it wasn't a real policeman. It was Göran Holmberg. He had gone to the police training academy and worked in the field for a couple of years, that was true, but he was from the island after all. When he appeared dressed for the occasion in full uniform, complete with cap, he attracted teasing rather than genuine respect.
'Make way for the forces of the law', 'Arrest Karlsson, he's drunk and it's still only morning!' and similar comments were directed at Göran, who explained that it was Simon who had asked him to come along. For the effect, so to speak. He had also been asked to bring a pair of handcuffs with him, and these were passed around among all those who wanted to examine them. They were pulled and prodded, and it was established that, yes indeed, they were the genuine article.
A small number of people had seen Simon performing with his assistant in a show in the open-air venue Gröna Lund, but he hadn't performed an escapology number on that occasion. In any case, this whole event was a publicity stunt for the series of performances Simon was due to give at the local community theatre in Nåten during the summer. By twelve o'clock it looked as if he had undeniably succeeded. There were at least five hundred people gathered on and around the jetty as Simon came walking down from his cottage.
Which was a bit odd. A magician should make an entrance, after all, perhaps appear in a puff of smoke. But this was just that bloke who rented from Anna-Greta, strolling down from his cottage on the other side of the inlet. This diminished the mystique, but increased the level of anxiety. Would he be able to do it, this… summer visitor?
Room had been made for Johan and Anna-Greta right at the front when they came down to the jetty. After all, they were involved, in a sense. Someone nudged Anna-Greta.
'You might need to look for another tenant after this!'
Anna-Greta smiled. 'Well, we'll see.'
She wasn't in the habit of exposing her feelings for general consumption, and as she stood there on the edge of the jetty with her hands pushed deep into the pockets of her cardigan, her face gave away no hint of emotional turmoil.
But to tell the truth, even she was a little anxious. She knew that Marita had disappeared almost a week ago, and that Simon wasn't feeling well. And the water was cold. Nine degrees. She had checked it herself that morning.
It'll be fine, she told herself, gazing down into the dark water. I'm sure he knows what he's doing…let's hope so, anyway.
It wasn't easy to impress Anna-Greta. The number of people who had turned up didn't surprise her, people would gather for anything, as long as it was a novelty. When someone asked her how she thought Simon did it, she replied, 'I expect it's something to do with his joints.'
The person who had asked smiled indulgently: obviously Anna-Greta hadn't learned anything from Simon. But she had, in a roundabout way. When he walked around his garden without his shirt on, she had noticed that there was something strange about his frame: the bones stuck out at odd angles, as if the joints weren't quite in place.
She had come to the conclusion that his escapology had created that body, or that he had got into escapology because he was made that way. When she was young she had seen a contortionist at the circus, and he had looked very similar. Whatever it was that held the bones together was more flexible than in normal people.
From this she had concluded that some kind of manoeuvring lay behind the ability to free himself from chains and ropes. She didn't want to say any more: Simon's secrets were his own affair. Besides which, she didn't see how you could manoeuvre your way out of handcuffs. But there must be ways of doing that as well-at least, she hoped so.
As Simon approached the jetty dressed in his bathrobe, the crowd began to applaud. Anna-Greta joined in, glancing at Johan. He was clapping too, but his face was tense and his eyes were fixed on Simon, who was strolling along as if he were just on his way down to take a dip.
Anna-Greta knew that Johan was fond of Simon. Even the previous summer he would disappear for a couple of hours, then come home and show off some trick Simon had taught him. Simple things, according to Simon, but Anna-Greta certainly couldn't see how Johan did it when he smacked a salt-cellar straight through the table.
Anna-Greta stroked Johan's back and he nodded, without taking his eyes off Simon. It wasn't surprising that he was tense; Anna-Greta had read what it said on the poster:
CAN ANYONE ENDURE THIS???
To be fettered hand and foot with chains and handcuffs?
To be sealed in a sack and cast into the sea?
To cheat death as the sack sinks to the bottom?
On Saturday July 15th El Simon will attempt all this at the Domarö jetty.
WILL HE SURVIVE???
Johan was bright enough to realise that all this was for effect, but the very fact that the words 'drowning' and 'fettered' are on the same page as the name of someone you are fond of is quite enough to make you swallow a little harder. Anna-Greta had no particular feelings for Simon, he was pleasant company and a good tenant, nothing more.
And yet she still had to clench her fists in her pockets to stop herself chewing at her nails.
Simon went over to one of the boathouses, undid the latch and went inside. When he came out he was carrying a bundle, which he carried over to the spectators. There was a rattling noise as he threw the bundle on the ground and announced in a loud voice:
'Ladies and gentlemen! It's wonderful to see so many of you here. In front of me on the ground I have a set of chains, ropes and padlocks. I would like to invite two strong gentlemen from the audience to come up and use these items to bind and chain me to the best of their ability, until they are convinced that I cannot escape.'
Simon let his bathrobe fall to the ground. He was wearing only a pair of dark blue swimming trunks, and looked alarmingly thin and frail.
Ragnar Pettersson stepped forward, which was only to be expected. He was renowned for having single-handedly pulled out one of his cows that had got stuck in the bog down by the shore of the inlet. Nobody could work out how he had done it, but ever since then he had been generally regarded as a strongman.
He was followed by a man who worked at the shipyard in Nåten, but Anna-Greta didn't know his name. The short-sleeved shirt he was wearing looked as if it was a size too small. It strained over his muscles, and perhaps that was exactly the effect he was aiming for.
The two men got to work straight away, and something happened to their movements, their eyes. As soon as they had the chains and ropes in their hands, they ceased to regard Simon as a person. He was a nut to be cracked, a problem to be solved, nothing more or less. Beyond that there was nothing to be taken into account.
Anna-Greta gritted her teeth as the man from Nåten wound and pulled at the chains so hard that Simon's skin puckered and turned red. It looked as if it was painful, but Simon simply stood there with his eyes closed, his hands folded over his midriff. A couple of times his lips twitched when one of the men braced himself and gave the chains an extra tug before fastening the padlocks.
Finally they were satisfied. Both wiped the sweat from their foreheads and nodded to each other. There must have been thirty kilos of chains wound around Simon, secured in different places with four padlocks. They had hardly used the ropes, except in two places where they had brought them in as an afterthought, just to tighten the chains.
The men took a couple of steps back and contemplated their handiwork. They were quite satisfied, and you could see why. It looked utterly impossible to escape from the web of metal they had created.
Simon opened his eyes and Anna-Greta's stomach contracted. Around the fettered man was an empty circle perhaps twenty metres deep.
Anna-Greta thought: Alone. Simon looked so horribly alone in that moment. Someone who had been ejected from the community, utterly disarmed. And now they were going to throw him in the sea. There was a powerful element of degradation about the whole thing: an individual allowing other people to do this to him. A second after Simon opened his eyes, it was as if he had caught a glimpse of that very thing. It was that expression that made Anna-Greta's stomach contract, before it disappeared and Simon looked from one man to the other and said, Are you satisfied? Are you convinced that I can't escape?'
Ragnar grabbed hold of one of the chains and pulled at it, then shrugged and said, 'Well, I certainly couldn't do it.'
Someone in the crowd shouted, 'You want to do that with your cows, Ragnar, then they won't go running off!'
People from Domarö laughed, the rest didn't get the joke. Simon asked the two men to carry him to the edge of the jetty, which they did. Anna-Greta and Johan moved back to make room, and Simon ended up only a metre or so away from them. Simon's eyes met Anna- Greta's, and a smile flitted across his lips. Anna-Greta tried to smile back, but couldn't quite manage it.
'And now,' said Simon, 'I would like to ask a third person to pull the sack up around me and secure the top.'
Before anyone had time to step forward, someone further back shouted, 'What about the handcuffs, then? What's happening with them?'
Suddenly Simon looked a little bit scared. He closed his eyes without speaking. Then he nodded to Göran, who stepped forward with the handcuffs and asked, 'Are you sure about this?'
'No,' said Simon. 'But I suppose I'll have to give it a try.'
Göran scratched the back of his neck and looked as if he couldn't quite decide what to do. Situations like this had presumably not formed part of his training at the police academy. In the end he fed the handcuffs through the chains and locked them around Simon's wrists.
By this stage Anna-Greta had folded her arms tightly across her chest to stop herself from chewing at her nails. She examined Simon's face, trying to gauge how much of this latest turn of events was merely theatre, part of the show, or if Simon really wasn't sure if he could do it. It was impossible to tell.
The photographer took some pictures of Simon as he stood there out on the edge of the jetty. A man Anna-Greta had never seen before-a Stockholmer, judging by his slender hands-stepped forward and declared himself willing to tie the sack. Simon turned to Johan and said, 'Would you like to check one last time?'
Johan pulled at the chains, and as he did so Anna-Greta saw Simon lean forward and whisper something to him. Then Johan took a step back and nodded. The Stockholmer pulled the sack up around Simon and tied the top with a piece of rope.
It looked horrible. The brown sack right on the edge. It was a point of darkness, of finality. People seemed to sense this; the banter and the jokes had died away, and there was absolute silence now.
'Throw me in,' said Simon's voice from inside the sack.
Five seconds passed. Then ten. Still there was silence, and no one volunteered. It wasn't irrevocable yet. They could open the sack, undo the chains. But once the sack was in the water, there wasn't much anyone could do. The sea was six metres deep off the jetty.
If Simon failed, the person who had pushed the sack into the water would be responsible. People looked at each other, but no one stepped forward. Simon was moving inside the sack, they could hear the chains squeaking slightly as the links rubbed against one another. A couple of cameras clicked. Still no one.
'Throw me in the sea.'
Presumably it would have been easier if Simon had said something ordinary and amusing, such as Am I supposed to stand here all day?' or 'The chains are starting to get rusty in here', but obviously he wasn't interested in relieving the dramatic tension.
And yet it seemed he might have to. After a minute, still no one had come forward. People were beginning to feel uncomfortable. Perhaps this was how it felt when Jesus told the person who was without sin to cast the first stone.
Suddenly the muscular man from Nåten cleared his throat, and without further ado he stepped forward and shoved the sack. It hit the water with a dull splash, and a collective gasp ran through the crowd. People pushed forward to look, and Anna-Greta had to fight to avoid being nudged into the water by the surge.
There wasn't much to see. A stream of bubbles rose from the sack as it sank, but after thirty seconds the last bubble had burst on the surface, and there was only the dark water to be seen. Those who had been hoping to see something of Simon's struggle were disappointed; it was impossible to see beyond a depth of three metres.
When one minute had passed, people began muttering to each other: did anyone know how long a person could actually hold their breath? Would it be possible to bring the man up if he didn't succeed? Did anyone have the keys to those padlocks?
Another minute passed, and now a large number of people were becoming anxious. Why hadn't anyone attached a safety line to the sack, why hadn't a time limit been set, after which they should try to rescue the man, why…?
The man who had pushed the sack into the water appeared to be the most anxious of all. He was staring down into the water, and the body that had been so confident in its strength and authority now seemed to have sunk in on itself; his movements were jerky, his eyes were flicking here and there, his hands constantly rubbing against each other.
Anna-Greta stood there motionless, hugging herself. Hard. All around her people were looking from their watches to the surface of the water, back and forth, but Anna-Greta had fixed her gaze on Gåvasten lighthouse, far away in the distance. She stared at the lighthouse and waited. Waited for the splash as Simon's body broke the surface, the sudden intake of breath.
But it didn't come.
When three minutes had passed, someone shouted out, 'But he's going to die!' A murmur of agreement was heard, but still no one did anything. Anna-Greta tore her gaze away from the lighthouse, and couldn't help herself from looking down at the surface of the water. It was black and empty. Nothing was moving.
Come on. Come on now, Simon.
She could see it right in front of her, she could see right through the water, past the limit of normal visibility, right down to the bottom where Simon lay battling among the mud and rusty bits of metal. She saw him escape, saw the sack open and saw him push away from the seabed, up towards the light.
But that wasn't what happened. What did actually happen took place inside Anna-Greta. Something that had been sunken and thrown away freed itself down there in the darkness, broke the chain she had wound around it and swam towards the surface. It rose up through her body and fastened in her throat in a lump. She wanted to cry.
I love this bloody man.
She started to tremble.
Love. Don't disappear.
Her eyes filled with tears when someone behind her shouted, 'Four minutes!' and she clamped her hands together, pressed them against her heart and cursed herself because it was already too late, it was going to happen again, it was going to…
Then she felt a hand on her arm. Her vision was blurred as she looked up and saw that the hand belonged to Johan. He winked and nodded. She didn't understand what he meant, how he could be so calm.
The man who had pushed Simon in pulled off his shirt and dived into the water. Anna-Greta squeezed Johan's hand as the crowd surged forward once again. The man broke the surface of the water. He shook his head, took a deep breath and dived once more.
Then they heard a voice from inland.
'Is it me you're looking for?'
There was a rustling noise as fabric rubbed against fabric and the whole crowd turned around as one. Over by the boathouse stood Simon. A pattern of red lines left by the chains criss-crossed his body. He walked over to Göran and gave him the locked handcuffs.
'I thought you might want these back.'
Simon pulled on his bathrobe, and someone next to Anna-Greta shouted to the man from Nåten, who had popped up again, 'Kalle, he's here! You can stop looking!'
'What the hell!' shouted Kalle from down in the water, and a collective paralysis was broken. First came laughter, and then the applause broke out. It echoed across the whole area like the beating wings of a flock of birds lifting from the surface of the water, and it seemed as if it would never end.
People came forward and patted Simon as if he were their greatest treasure, rescued at long last from the bottom of the sea. Kalle's attitude was somewhat less positive as he hauled himself up on to the jetty with his teeth chattering. Simon had obviously foreseen this situation, because he brought a bottle of decent schnapps out of the boathouse and offered Kalle a drink or two to help him thaw out, which he gratefully accepted. After quarter of an hour he was the most enthusiastic admirer of Simon's feat.
People stood around the boathouse where the two men were sitting side by side on the steps. They laughed at Kalle, who was tipsy from the schnapps and the rollercoaster of emotions he had gone through in such quick succession, as he flung his arms out in Simon's direction and shouted, 'This man was bloody well trussed up like… like I don't know what, and I did it myself! Maybe I'm sitting here with a ghost!' He grabbed hold of Simon's shoulder. 'How the hell did you do that?'
Simon said 'Boo!' and everyone laughed again.
Anna-Greta was still standing out on the jetty with Johan. A lifetime of trade had taught her the art of manipulating people's emotions, but it seemed as if she had met her match. Simon's humiliation as he stood there in chains on the jetty had been transferred to Kalle, when he jumped into the sea in a misguided attempt at heroism. Then Simon had skilfully restored the balance by drawing Kalle into the glow of his achievement. Now there was only joy.
Nice, thought Anna-Greta. Polished.
She was relieved, she was confused, she was angry. Mostly angry. She'd been conned. Simon had made her behave like a fool in front of all these people. Not that anyone appeared to have noticed, but she knew. She had lost control. Hypothetically speaking, she could have screamed. She hadn't, fortunately. But the barb was there, and she was annoyed.
'Wasn't that brilliant?' said Johan.
Anna-Greta nodded curtly and Johan ran a hand through his hair, looking over in Simon's direction. 'I think he's absolutely incredible.'
'Yes, but there are plenty of people who can do that sort of thing,' said Anna-Greta. When Johan looked reproachfully at her, she asked, 'Anyway, what did he say to you? Before?'
Johan smiled secretively and pulled a face. 'Oh…I don't really know.'
Anna-Greta slapped him gently on the shoulder. 'What did he say?'
'Why do you want to know?'
'I'm just wondering.'
Johan looked across at the boathouses, where Kalle had embarked on a new tirade, claiming that he would personally throw in the sea anyone who didn't go and see Simon's shows at the local community theatre. Johan shrugged his shoulders.
'He said I shouldn't worry. That he was going to keep out of the way for a couple of minutes for effect.'
'Why did he say that?'
Johan looked at Anna-Greta as if she were making fun of him.
'So that I wouldn't be worried, obviously.' He looked at Anna- Greta and added, 'Like you were.'
She didn't even bother to protest. Johan knew her, and his eyes were sharp. Instead she said, 'Anyway, I think I've had enough of this now. Are you coming home?'
Johan shook his head and looked down into the water. 'No, I want to stay for a while.'
Anna-Greta pulled her cardigan more tightly around her and left the jetty and the crowd. When she was halfway to her house she turned and looked down at the harbour. She couldn't recall ever having seen so many people down by the jetty, not even on Midsummer's Eve.
Johan wasn't there anymore, no doubt he had joined the circle of admirers.
Oh well, she thought. I suppose it was good that he said what he did to Johan. It was considerate of him.
She continued on up towards the house, and although she barely allowed herself to think the thought, she could feel it: But he didn't say anything to me.
That same evening Simon was sitting at the table in his garden with a glass of cognac. The last tender had arrived and there was still no word from Marita. A few youngsters were swimming down by the steamboat jetty.
His whole body was hurting; the worst pain was in his shoulder joints, which he had had to twist almost completely out of their sockets in order to free himself from the chains. It hadn't been a particularly difficult escape because very little rope had been used, but the chains had been unusually tightly pulled, and it had taken him almost a whole minute underwater to get out of them. If he hadn't had that extra minute before the sack was pushed in, he would have had to go straight up to the surface when he was done.
But he had had an extra minute, and he had used it to swim along the bottom to the furthest jetty and climb out, hidden by the boats. He had achieved the desired effect, and he thought the forthcoming shows would be well attended.
Simon raised the glass to his lips and grimaced as he felt a tightness across his chest. He couldn't carry on like this for much longer. It put too much of a strain on his body. He had once ended up with a broken rib when a man had been absolutely determined to chain him up as tightly as possible. After that occasion he had stopped offering a reward to anyone who could do it successfully. People were energetic enough as it was.
The lighthouse at Gåvasten flashed in the light summer's evening; the lamp was only a dot, casting no beams across the water.
I ought to be enjoying this.
The performance had been a great success, it was a beautiful evening, and the cognac was spreading its warmth through his stiff body. He ought to be enjoying it all.
But it was often like this. After a successful publicity stunt with all guns blazing, the emptiness afterwards was all the greater. Besides which, Marita had disappeared again, and Simon had already drunk one glass more than he usually did. He didn't want to go the same way as so many of his colleagues, tumbling down into a sea of booze, never to surface again. But on this particular evening he thought he'd earned it.
I suppose this is how it starts, thought Simon, refilling his glass.
He was less concerned about Marita in her capacity as his wife than in her capacity as his assistant. The shows in Nåten were due to begin in three days. If she didn't turn up he would have to scrap some of the best numbers: the mind-reading and the hat box. It would still be all right, but he really wanted to put on a good show in this particular venue.
Simon took a deep draught of his cognac and sighed. This wasn't the way he had expected his life to be. It worked, but that was about all. Happiness had got lost somewhere along the way. He allowed his gaze to rest on the water, which looked as soft as silk in the colours of the summer's evening. Far away a gull cried.
Oh yes, happiness exists. Just not right here.
Behind him he heard the slap of footsteps and a faint rattling noise. He turned in his chair with some difficulty and saw Johan pushing a wheelbarrow towards him through the grass. He was wearing only a pair of swimming trunks and a voluminous shirt covered in damp patches, and his hair was soaking wet.
'Johan?' said Simon. 'What have you got there?'
Johan grinned and pushed the wheelbarrow forward. It contained all the chains and padlocks Simon had left on the seabed. He tipped them out at Simon's feet.
'I thought it was a bit of a waste.'
Simon laughed. He would have liked to stroke Johan's hair, but for one thing he couldn't manage to get to his feet at this particular moment, and for another he wasn't sure if it was the right thing to do. Instead he simply nodded and said, 'It would have been. Thank you. Sit down if you like.'
Johan sat down on the other garden chair and let out a great puff of air.
'However did you manage?' asked Simon. 'They must have been heavy.'
'They were,' said Johan. 'I couldn't lift them, so I had to fasten them to a hook and drag them ashore, one by one.'
That was what Simon himself usually did, and what he had intended to do this time. However, he had no intention of telling Johan this, and he was grateful to be spared the job.
'Not bad,' said Simon.
'No,' said Johan, reaching into the breast pocket of his shirt.
'And then there's this. It was in the sack.'
He handed a thin, wedge-shaped piece of metal to Simon, giving him a conspiratorial look. Simon raised his eyebrows and pushed it into his own breast pocket.
Johan leaned back in his chair and said, 'I still don't understand how you do it.'
'Do you want to know?'
Johan sat bolt upright. 'Yes!'
Simon nodded. 'OK, go and fetch a bottle of Pommac from the fridge. My wallet is on the kitchen table; help yourself to five kronor for bringing back the chains. Then come back and I'll tell you.'
Johan shot out of his chair and raced inside. After thirty seconds he was back. Simon couldn't understand why he'd said that. The words had just flown out of his mouth. He never usually revealed his secrets. It must be the cognac, the atmosphere. And after all, Johan already knew the only part that really involved cheating.
So he told him. When he had finished the Pommac bottle was empty and the bay had darkened to a deep blue carpet, with the flashing light from Gåvasten lighthouse drawing thin scratches through it. A bat flitted around them, hunting for moths.
Johan let out a fizzy belch and said, 'I still think it sounds pretty dangerous.'
'Yes,' said Simon. 'But if you just…' He was struck by a thought, and raised a warning finger. 'You're not to go trying this yourself, Johan!'
'Promise?' Simon extended his thumb towards Johan. 'Thumbs?'
Johan smiled and rubbed his thumb against Simon's. Then he inspected it as if to check if there might be a binding agreement somewhere in his thumbprint, and said, 'I think Mum's a little bit in love with you.'
'What makes you think that?'
Johan shrugged. 'I just do. She goes all peculiar.'
Simon emptied his brandy glass and refrained from pouring himself a refill. That was enough, a pleasant warmth suffused his whole body. He held up the glass, looking at the light from Gåvasten as it was refracted through the remains of the liquid around the rim, and said, 'Well, there are lots of reasons why people go peculiar.'
'I suppose there are, but…this is a particular kind of peculiar.'
Simon narrowed his eyes at Johan. 'You seem very well-informed about this kind of thing.'
'I know my mum.'
They sat in silence for a while. The only sound was the flapping of the bat's wings as it darted here and there, swooping after something only it could perceive. When the engine of a boat started up down in the harbour, the atmosphere was broken and Simon said, 'Can you help me up? I'm still a bit stiff. It'll be better tomorrow.'
Johan stood up and held out his hand to help Simon out of his chair. They stood facing one another. For a couple of seconds a mutual approval flowed between them. Then Simon patted Johan on the shoulder and said, 'Thanks again for your help. See you tomorrow.'
Johan nodded, took the wheelbarrow and left. Simon watched him go. When he had disappeared into the darkness beneath the aspen trees, Simon snorted and said quietly to himself, 'A particular kind of peculiar…'
Then he shuffled into his house and closed the door behind him.
The uninvited guest
The next morning Simon made a few calls, trying unsuccessfully to track down Marita. Then he sat down in the lilac arbour with a pen and paper to work out an alternative program for the performances at the community theatre.
He couldn't settle to the task. His thoughts kept sliding away towards the most extreme issues. Why was he carrying on with this at all, what was the point of everything, how is a person supposed to live a life with no future, and should you even bother.
This was his mood when Anna-Greta called out a brief, 'Thanks for yesterday, it was very good', on her way down to the jetty. He asked her to come and sit down for a while. She perched on the edge of the chair opposite him, and seemed uneasy. Simon wondered if this unease was a particular kind of peculiar, but of course he had no way of asking.
They talked about this and that, safe topics, and Anna-Greta had just settled more comfortably on her chair when Simon realised they were being observed. Standing by the gate, watching them, was Marita. Simon felt as if he had been caught out somehow and was just about to leap out of his chair, but the anger got there before the guilt. He stayed put and stared at Marita without moving a muscle.
Marita was blinking slowly, her eyelids moving in slow motion, as if it took a conscious effort for her to open and close them. Her hair was unwashed and she had dark circles under her eyes. She was scratching her arm mechanically. 'Well, would you look at that,' she said. 'Isn't that sweet.'
Simon continued to stare at her. From the corner of his eye he could see that Anna-Greta was about to get up, and he gestured to her to stay where she was. In a low voice, Simon asked the question that had become something of a mantra in recent years, 'Where have you been?'
Marita waved her head around in a gesture that could mean just about anything, and therefore meant: Here and there, hut mostly out in space.
Marita came and stood directly in front of Simon, looked down at him and said, 'I need money.'
She opened and closed her mouth; it sounded dry and sticky at the same time as she loosened her tongue from her palate.
'I'm going to Germany.'
'You can't. We've got work here.'
Marita's gaze slid between Anna-Greta and Simon. She seemed to be having some difficulty in focusing. 'I'm going to Germany. You have to give me some money.'
'I haven't got any money, and you're not going to Germany. Go inside and go to bed.'
Marita shook her head slowly, and seemed to be stuck fast in the same movement, as if her head were a pendulum and she had to keep it moving so that time would not come to a standstill. Anna-Greta stood up.
The sound of her voice attracted Marita's attention. She pointed at Anna-Greta. 'Have you got any money?'
'No, I haven't got any money for you.'
Marita's lips curled upwards in an imitation of a smile. 'You're carrying on with my husband. That means you have to pay, you must realise that.'
Simon shot up out of his chair, grabbed hold of Marita's wrist and pulled her towards the house. 'Shut your mouth!'
The violent movement made Marita stumble, and Simon dragged her along behind him towards the steps. Marita allowed herself to be hauled across the lawn for a few metres, then she yelled, 'Help! Help!'
Simon looked up in order to convey some kind of message to Anna-Greta with his eyes, I'm sorry or don't condemn me, but before he had time to formulate his expression he saw a man step out from behind the lilac bushes. Someone who had been standing there waiting.
Marita twisted herself free of Simon's grip, and as she crawled towards the new arrival on all fours she said in a pathetic little voice, 'Rolf, he's hitting me.'
Rolf was so big that he looked as if he could easily pick Simon up and carry him in his arms. A pale, grubby linen suit concealed his muscles, but he seemed to have limited control over his body. He walked towards Simon: irregular, staggering steps, his arms dangling uselessly at his sides. The skin on his face was dark red, and his nose was flaking. The corners of his mouth pulled downwards in an unnatural way, as if he might have had a stroke.
Since Simon was part of the way down the hill, Rolf towered over him by twenty centimetres or more as he wagged his finger.
'You mustn't hit your wife. You must give her money.'
Marita curled up at Rolf's feet like something on the cover of a cheap novel. Simon's heart was racing as he folded his arms across his chest, looked up at the giant's eyes-which were bloodshot-and said, 'And what exactly has this got to do with you…Rolf?'
Rolf moved his cheeks upwards so that his eyes narrowed. This looked utterly bizarre with his drooping mouth, but Simon refrained from laughing. Rolf's pupils darted about for a few seconds, then he said, 'You don't like my name, is that right? You think it sounds silly.'
Simon shook his head. 'No, I think it's a wonderful name, I just don't understand what you're doing here.'
Rolf blinked a couple of times and looked down at the ground. His lips were moving as if he were analysing Simon's words carefully and considering his response. Marita was gazing up at Rolf as if he were an oracle. Simon looked around and noticed that Anna-Greta was no longer there.
Simon made a quick mental inventory of items in the vicinity that might be used as weapons. The closest was the spade leaning against the steps ten metres away. Rolf had finished thinking, and said slowly, 'So you're not intending to give her any money, then?'
Rolf sighed. Then he placed a hand on Simon's arm as if he were about to share a confidence. Before Simon had time to react, Rolf grabbed hold of his right hand, wrapped his fist around the little finger and bent it backwards. The finger felt as if it might actually snap off, and Simon was forced to his knees. Marita was already down there, and she glowered at him in a way that made it clear he couldn't expect any help from that quarter. She looked…greedy.
She's been longing for this moment.
The finger was still being bent backwards, and Simon had no time to open his mouth to say he would give them money, or kill them or take them out for a boat trip, before Rolf jerked the finger and it broke. A spasm of pain shot up Simon's arm and came out of his mouth like a deep cough. For a fraction of a second all the things he would no longer be able to do with his hands went whirling by- the cards, the cloths, the ropes, the torn-up newspapers -before the dam broke and he screamed out loud. He saw his little finger hanging there like a pointless scrap of skin, filthy pain poisoning his blood as the tears filled his eyes. He screamed again, from despair more than pain. Marita sat quietly, watching him.
Then Rolf was on top of him. He sat on Simon's chest and forced his arm out to the side, pressing his hand against a rock. Out of his jacket pocket Rolf took a big clasp knife, which he managed to open using one arm and his teeth. He rested the tip of the blade on the rock just above Simon's useless little finger.
Once again, Rolf seemed to need time to formulate his next utterance. He looked at Simon's face, his hand. He looked as if he couldn't quite work out how things had ended up like this, and needed some thinking time before he could proceed.
Simon lay still, watching a little cloud drift by above Rolf's head. For a moment it looked as if Rolf had a halo. Then it tilted, freed itself from him and drifted on. A gull was calling out at sea, and for a couple of seconds Simon experienced absolute peace. Then Rolf spoke. 'You're a magician. So you need your fingers, right?' Simon said nothing, didn't move. He listened to the waves lapping against the pebbles on the shoreline. It sounded…wholesome. He was terribly thirsty. Rolf had found the right train of thought, and went on, 'I'm going to cut off your little finger now. Then I'm going to get hold of…what's that one called? The ring finger. And I'm going to break it. Then I'm going to cut it off. And so on.'
Rolf nodded at his own statement, pleased that he had expressed himself so clearly. He summarised, 'And that will be the end of your magic. Unless…'
He looked at Simon and raised his eyebrows, encouraging Simon to fill in the rest. When Simon didn't oblige, Rolf sighed and shook his head. He turned to Marita, sitting curled up on the grass, following the course of events through half-closed eyes.
'You said this would be easy.'
Marita made that wavy movement with her head that could be interpreted in any number of ways. Rolf grimaced and said to Simon, 'Well, you've only yourself to blame. You leave me no choice.'
He turned his attention to Simon's hand on the rock. One cut and the finger would be gone.
Anna-Greta's shrill voice broke through the paradoxical calm that had reigned for a moment or two. Rolf turned his head, looking tired more than anything. Anna-Greta was coming towards him with a double-barrelled shotgun in her hands.
'Get away from him!' she yelled.
There was a long pause. Anna-Greta was standing a metre away from Rolf, pointing both barrels straight at him. Rolf had once again become enmeshed in a careful analysis of the course of events. His lips were moving and he was gazing out to sea. Then he stood up. The barrels of the gun were pointing right at his chest.
'Drop the knife,' said Anna-Greta.
Rolf shook his head. Then he very carefully folded up the knife and put it in his pocket. The gun barrels shook as Anna-Greta waved them in the direction of the steamboat jetty.
'Get out of here! Now!'
Only now did it occur to Simon that he was actually present. That he could take an active role in what was going on. His arm was numb and when he had pulled it towards him he had some difficulty in getting up. He had only got as far as a sitting position when the lawn started moving from side to side like the deck of a boat.
Rolf took a step towards Anna-Greta, and she moved backwards, raising and lowering the gun at the same time.
'Stop! I'll shoot you!'
'No,' said Rolf quite simply, and reached for the gun. Anna-Greta backed away still further and the battle was lost. When Rolf once again made a grab for the barrels, she moved them to one side instead of pressing the trigger. Rolf quickly stepped forward and slapped her across the side of the head with the flat of his hand. Anna-Greta fell sideways. The shotgun flew into the hazel bushes and Anna-Greta collapsed in a heap on the grass, whimpering as she pressed a hand to her ear.
As Simon attempted to get to his feet, he heard Marita's voice. 'Isn't he just incredible?'
Anna-Greta was lying a few metres away, with Rolf leaning over her. Simon's brain wasn't working properly, he couldn't decide whether to try and grab the spade or just hurl himself forwards.
Before had finished thinking it through, he heard a buzzing noise behind him, like some huge insect. There was a click and Rolf went down. Simon got to his feet and saw Johan standing by the lilac arbour with his air rifle in his hands. He was just lowering the gun, and was biting his lower lip.
Rolf got up. A dark spot had appeared on his temple, and a small amount of blood was oozing out. His eyes were crazy and he no longer hesitated, he didn't require any thinking time now. He took out his knife and opened it as he moved towards Johan.
Simon was right behind him, but instead of trying to stop him, he dived into the hazel bushes and grabbed the shotgun. Before he had even got hold of it properly he yelled, 'Stop, you bastard!' but Rolf took no notice.
Johan had dropped his air gun, which was useless after firing its single shot, and was running up towards the house. Rolf was after him, with the knife in his hand. With a grimace of pain Simon lifted the shotgun to his shoulder, just as Rolf disappeared behind the lilac hedge fifteen metres away.
Simon had never fired a shotgun before, but he knew that the whole point of them was that the shot covers a wide area. He aimed at the lilac hedge and pulled the trigger.
Then a number of things happened in less than a second. There was a deafening bang and the recoil hit Simon so hard that he fell backwards into the hazel bushes, but before he had even begun to fall a hole opened up in the lilac hedge and fragments of leaves flew up like a flock of frightened butterflies. The first hazel twigs were just scratching Simon's back through his shirt as Rolf began to roar.
Simon was still pressing the stock of the shotgun to his shoulder as the branches closed around him and he fell into shimmering greenery. Rolf carried on bellowing. The thicker branches further in stopped Simon falling any further, and he could feel blood on the skin of his back. He clutched the wooden stock and breathed; he stayed where he was and one thought went through his mind in time with his panting breath, in and out:
I hit him. I hit him. I hit him.
It was only a few seconds later, when he had disentangled himself from the branches and saw Anna-Greta sitting with her hands covering her mouth and Marita rocking back and forth that other thoughts began to force their way through:
If I've killed him, if I…
Rolf had stopped roaring. Simon swallowed, but without any saliva.
Thirsty. So bloody thirsty.
A drop of sweat trickled down into his eye, obscuring his vision. He wiped it away and rubbed his eyes. When he opened them again, Anna-Greta was standing next to him. She was squinting, and looked as if she were in pain. She pointed at the hand holding the butt of the gun and tried to say something, but no words came.
Simon looked at the shotgun. Only now did he discover that there were two triggers one behind the other, one for each barrel. He had only pressed the outer trigger. There was one cartridge left. Anna-Greta nodded and put her hand over her ear. She walked towards the lilac hedge and Simon followed her with the shotgun raised.
Rolf clearly wasn't dead, because he was moving. Quite a lot, in fact. He was hurling himself back and forth on the ground as if he were trying to shake off some invisible nightmare. His jacket was ripped and covered in blood from the left shoulder to halfway down his back on one side. Only some of the shot had hit him. If Simon had fired half a second later, Rolf would probably have been lying completely still right now.
Johan came back hesitantly, approaching the man on the ground as if he were an injured wild animal that might leap up and attack at any moment. Then he walked a long way around the thrashing body and fell into Anna-Greta's arms. She stroked his hair and they stood there in silence just hugging each other for a long time. Then Anna-Greta said, 'Take your bike and go and fetch Dr Holmstrom. And Göran.'
Johan nodded and ran off. After thirty seconds he rattled past along the track on his bike. Rolf had settled down and was just lying there clenching and unclenching one fist. Simon still had the shotgun pointing at him, with his index finger resting on the trigger. He felt sick.
This isn't me. This can't be happening to me.
After twenty minutes both the doctor and the police had arrived. Rolf's injuries were not life threatening, just extremely painful. Some fifteen shotgun pellets had penetrated the muscles and tissue in his left shoulder and upper arm around the shoulderblade. He was bandaged provisionally just to stop the bleeding, and the doctor rang for transport. Göran wrote a report that would need to be completed at the police station in Norrtälje. Simon's little finger was put in a splint.
True to form, Marita had vanished, and they later found out that she had managed to catch the tender before anyone started seriously looking for her. Rolf was transported to Norrtälje, and both Göran and Dr Holmstrom went home, after establishing that they would go to the police station together the following day.
Simon, Anna-Greta and Johan sat in silence in the lilac arbour. The torn leaves in the hedge were the only sign that darkness had abused their hospitality just a couple of hours ago. Just as the slight movement of a finger can release a devastating hail of shot, so an event that lasted no more than five minutes can send its repercussions through days and years to come. It is impossible to ignore the consequences, there is too much to say, and the result would be silence.
Johan was drinking Pommac, Simon was drinking beer and Anna-Greta was drinking nothing. They had all saved each other at different points in the complex web created by one simple act of violence; gratitude and embarrassment were mixed up together, and words were difficult.
Simon fiddled with his bandage and said quietly, 'I'm sorry. That you both got dragged into all this.'
'Don't be,' said Anna-Greta. 'It can't be helped.'
'No, but I'm still sorry. I apologise.'
When the initial shock had faded they began to talk hesitantly about what had happened. The conversation continued during the afternoon and later up at Anna-Greta and Johan's house, where they ate a simple dinner. Towards nine o'clock a different kind of silence took over, a fundamental exhaustion of speech. They just couldn't bear to listen to the sound of their own voices any longer, and Simon went back down to his cottage.
He sat down at the kitchen table with the crossword in order to distract his mind, and for once he cut it out, filled in his name and address and put it in an envelope. The summer evening was still lilac outside his window when he had finished, and he regretted turning down the invitation to sleep on the kitchen sofa up in the big house. The day's events were turning over and over in his mind. Until today the future had been dismal but predictable, he had been able to see himself plodding on through the years. Now he couldn't see anything anymore.
Just as the recoil from the gun had thrown him backwards, so he had been thrown outside himself at the moment he fired the shot. It wasn't the action itself that frightened him-that had been born of panic and necessity-but what had happened inside him.
He had seen Rolf's head explode as he pressed the trigger, in fact he had fully intended to blow Rolf's head to bits. When Anna-Greta had pointed to the gun afterwards and Simon had realised that there was one cartridge left, his immediate impulse had been to shoot Marita as well. To execute her. Blow her head off. Get rid of her.
He hadn't done any of those things. But he had thought it, and had experienced a wild desire to do it. Perhaps he would have, if there hadn't been any witnesses. He had been hurled into a different version of himself, someone who wanted to kill whatever stood in his way. It was not a pleasant thought, yet at the same time it was a very pleasant thought: he could be someone different from now on, if he wanted to be.
But who? Who am I? Who will I become?
His thoughts continued to go around and around after he had gone to bed. He was ashamed of himself. For what he had done and what he had not done, for what he thought and who he was. He tried to make himself think about the forthcoming performances in Nåten, how he was going to get through them with a broken finger, but the images were washed away and replaced by others.
After a few hours he fell into an uneasy sleep, which after a short while was disturbed by banging, thumping, knocking. Just knocking. He got up quickly and looked around the room. Somebody had been knocking. Somebody wanted to come in. There was still a hint of light in the sky, and he could see the silhouette of a head outside the bedroom window.
He breathed out and opened the window. Anna-Greta was standing outside with her hands clasped over her breast. She was wearing a white nightdress.
'May I come in? For a while?'
Simon instinctively reached out to help her over the windowsill, but realised how stupidly he was behaving.
'I'll open the door,' he said.
Anna-Greta went around the side of the house and Simon opened the front door to let her in.
The dream about Elin
For a good two hours Simon and Anna-Greta had taken it in turns to tell their story. Anders' knees creaked as he got to his feet and stretched his arms up towards the ceiling. Outside the window the weather was neither worse nor better. Small raindrops caressed the pane, and the wind whispered among the trees without any great hurry. A walk seemed possible, and he needed some exercise.
Simon took the tray out into the kitchen and Anna-Greta brushed crumbs off the table. Anders looked at her wrinkled hands, imagining them holding the shotgun. 'What a story.'
'Yes,' said Anna-Greta. 'But it's only a story.'
'What do you mean?'
'Exactly what I say.' Anna-Greta straightened up with the crumbs in her hand. 'We can never know anything about what has happened in the past, because it has turned into stories. Even for those who are involved.'
'So…it didn't happen like that?'
Anna-Greta shrugged. 'I don't know. Not any more.'
Anders followed her into the kitchen where Simon was carefully stacking the best china in the dishwasher. Anna-Greta brushed the crumbs off her hands into the bin and got out the dishwasher powder. They moved around each other with a manifest ease. The dance of everyday life, worn smooth over the years. Anders looked at them in a kind of double exposure.
The smuggler king's daughter and the magician. Loading the dishwasher.
Whether their story was true or not, it had stirred things up in his mind. New associations must be made, new sequences of images must be put together. He felt a physical weariness as the synapses prepared the way for all these new connections.
'I'm going for a walk,' he said.
Anna-Greta gestured towards the fridge. 'Aren't you going to take some food with you?'
'Later. Thanks for the coffee. And the story.'
Anders stepped out on to the porch, lit a cigarette and strolled down the garden path. He passed the path to Simon's house and stopped, taking a deep drag.
My dad ran along here with his air gun. And without his air gun.
The gun was still around in a cupboard at the Shack, and he'd tried it once or twice when he was little. But the barrel was loose and the pressure was so poor that the pellet often got stuck in the bore. He'd wondered why his father kept it. Now he knew.
Leaves were rustling or falling all around him, and a light drizzle was dampening his hair as he carried on up towards the shop. The tender was just reversing away from the jetty after dropping off a small group of schoolchildren. A little girl of about seven came running along the track towards him, her school bag cheerfully thudding against her back. It was Maja-
– who had come back at long last-
it isn't Maja.
– and he had to restrain himself from dropping to his knees and scooping her up in his arms.
Because it could have been Maja. Every child aged around seven or eight could have been Maja. The thought had ground him down into despair during the first six months after her disappearance. All the children who could have been Maja, but weren't. Thousands of eager, happy or sad faces, small bodies on the move, and not one of them was the right one. His little girl, and only his little girl, had been removed. No longer existed.
He had loved her so much. It should have been someone else who disappeared. Someone who wasn't loved. The girl ran past him and he turned, watched her rucksack with its picture of Bamse the Bear grow smaller as she headed for the southern part of the village.
It should have been you.
He had given up teacher training when Maja disappeared, and it was just as well. He would never be able to work with children, not when his feelings were so divided. His first impulse was to love and embrace them all, his second was to loathe them because they were still alive.
There were already a number of bags hanging on hooks on the wall of the shop, along with the odd new or old mailbox and a couple of buckets with lids, with the box numbers marked in ink. Anders made a mental note to put something there in a day or two, before the photos came back.
The steamboat jetty lay empty and the white geese were running across the sea without taking off, the wind was tearing at the plastic bags on the wall of the shop. There was an irregular squeaking noise. Anders listened hard to try and identify the sound. It was coming from the steps leading up to the shop, or behind them.
He went over and when he saw the source of the noise he couldn't understand why he suddenly felt so afraid. He took a step backwards, gasping for breath, the hair on his arms standing on end. The GB ice cream man was standing there.
The GB-man was a plastic figure mounted on springs on a block of cement, and the wind made him swing backwards and forwards, squeaking. He usually stood outside the shop, but had been put away for the season. Anders looked at his grinning face and his pulse rate shot up, his breathing ragged. He cupped his hands over his mouth and tried to take deep breaths.
It's only the GB-man. He isn't dangerous.
That's what he'd said. To Maja. It was Maja who had been afraid of the GB-man, not him.
It had started as a joke. Maja had been afraid of swans. Not the swans on the sea, which might have been natural. Even Anders had a certain respect for them. No, she was afraid that a swan would come in through the door or the window when she was in bed.
Since Maja was always pleased to see the GB-man-which meant there might be an ice cream in the offing-Anders tried to make a joke of the whole thing by saying, 'Swans aren't dangerous, they're nothing to be afraid of. They're no more dangerous than…the GB-man. And you're not lying here worrying that the GB-man might come in, are you?'
Maja continued to be afraid of swans, but she became even more afraid of the GB-man. It had never occurred to her before: the fact that the GB-man might be lying under her bed, or come creeping in through a chink in the door with that smile plastered on his face. Anders came to regret that he had ever mentioned it. After that night he always had to open her window to check that the GB-man wasn't standing outside. Maja's bed was very low, there wasn't really room for a lion under there. But there was room for the GB-man, since he was completely flat.
The GB-man was everywhere. He was in the sea when she wanted to go for a swim, he was hiding in the shadows. He was fear incarnate.
Now he was standing here squeaking behind the steps to the shop, and Anders was filled with a horror he couldn't pin down. He forced himself to stare the GB-man in the eye, despite the fact that he was so scared he just wanted to run away.
But presumably alcohol was to blame for the whole thing. His nerves were shot. Oversensitive. Could suddenly feel scared of just about anything. But he steeled himself. Wasn't going to go home and start drinking. Was going to stare at the GB-man until the bastard looked away or didn't seem dangerous any more.
The GB-man was swinging to and fro as if getting ready to pounce. Anders didn't take his eyes off him. They weighed each other up. A shudder ran down Anders' spine.
Someone is watching me.
He spun around and took a couple of steps so that he wouldn't be standing too close to the swinging plastic figure behind his back. The enemy came from all directions. Anders quickly glanced over the jetty, the boathouses, the gravelled area, the sea. A lone gull was struggling with the air currents, seemingly incapable of forcing its way down to the surface of the water. There was no sign of anyone.
But someone is watching me.
Someone had been watching him as he stood there shaking in front of the GB-man, someone was still watching him. The only thing missing was a pair of eyes, or more than one pair. But they were nowhere to be found.
Someone with no eyes is watching me.
With his heart pounding he left the shop and set off along the track to Kattudden. The feeling faded as he got further away. He could still hear the squeaking of the GB-man in the distance, but the sense of being watched had gone. Anders walked on quickly, passing the closed-down school, the mission house, which was as good as closed down, and the alarm bell in its white wooden tower.
After a few hundred metres his heart was still pounding, but by now it was because he was so unfit, not because he was afraid. He slowed down. Once he got in among the fir trees he stopped at the foot of the narrow path leading up to the rock, the erratic boulder. His hands were still shaking as he took out a cigarette, lit it, and took a deep, greedy drag.
What was that?
A strong sense of something unpleasant remained in his body, and he wished he had some wine with which to wash it away. The cigarette in his damp fingers tasted mouldy; he stubbed it out among the fir needles strewn across the track. He didn't feel well. Something was shifting inside his body, and not in a good way.
He took a step towards the path up to the rock, then changed his mind. He didn't want to go up there. The path belonged to him and Cecilia, and he and Cecilia no longer existed, so…
Memories. Bloody memories.
Everything on Domarö was steeped in memories. If not his memories, someone else's. If only it were possible to get rid of all the memories. The path wound its way into the forest like a whispered promise of something else. Another place or another time.
I need to get away from here.
Anders followed the route of the path with his finger, drifting into a wave, a farewell.
I need to be here. And I need to get away.
He could see it with perfect clarity. That was the whole problem, in all its impossible simplicity. As he set off towards Kattudden again, a solution came to him. A practical solution for conquering his constant fear and anxiety.
Anders continued through the forest and passed Holger's house, which lay there brooding in the darkness. He worked out the details of his plan for the future, and there was nothing left unaccounted for, nothing that couldn't be solved. When he emerged from the forest his planning was complete, and he was breathing more easily.
Kattudden was desolate at this time of year. The houses were not insulated against the winter weather, and in most cases they were intolerably small without the access to the great outdoors that you had in summer.
Anders had spent a large part of his summers at Kattudden. Almost all his friends had been the children of summer visitors, and it was in rooms or cottages here that he had drunk spirits for the first time, watched forbidden horror films and listened to Madonna. Among other things.
Now it was no more than a deserted holiday village in the autumn gloom, and a pretty ugly one at that. Most of the houses were section- built. Ready-made packages delivered from the mainland on Kalle Gripenberg's barge. Up with the walls, on with the roof, in with the windows and doors and then off to the cottage to have fun! The kind of houses that tend to age without dignity-although most of them were still better built than the Shack.
Anders strolled along the track down to the jetties, looking at the abandoned traces of summer, the covered garden furniture. In one garden he saw a half-finished game of Jenga just standing there, as if the owners had suddenly realised they had to set off for the city immediately, and had simply dropped what they were doing.
There was a light on in one of the houses closest to the jetties. Anders had been inside that house many times. Elin's house. It must be ten years since he had actually seen Elin, almost twenty since they had stopped hanging out together. Until a few years ago he had seen her frequently on television and in the press, as had half the population of Sweden. Since then, nothing.
The house was one of the better ones in the area, with its own well and its own jetty. Unlike most of the others it had been built on-site, and Anders remembered how the hollow sound present in all the other houses was missing from Elin's. The door he was knocking on now was quite solid, with a doorknocker and everything.
He waited. When nothing happened he knocked again. He heard footsteps inside, and a voice said, 'Who is it?'
It could hardly be Elin's voice, this one belonged to an older person, so Anders said, 'My name is Anders. I was looking for Elin. Elin Gronwall.'
It was only when he said her name out loud that he remembered. Why they had stopped hanging out. Why they had all stopped hanging out, why the summers and their childhood had ended.
He had managed to forget. An impulse had made him knock on the door, but now he was grateful that Elin wasn't at home, that he didn't have to see her. He was just about to leave when the door opened. Anders attempted a smile, but it died away the moment he saw the person who opened the door.
If it hadn't been for the more recent magazine covers and the pictures on the gossip pages, he would never have recognised the woman who had been his friend long ago, and if he hadn't known her since she was a child, he would never have recognised the woman from the magazine covers.
What have they done to her?
He didn't know who 'they' were, but it was impossible to imagine that anyone would have done this to their appearance voluntarily. Anders managed to hitch up the corners of his mouth a fraction. 'Hi.' 'Hi.'
Even Elin's voice had changed. When she was seventeen she had adopted a babyish voice that had appealed to certain boys at the time, and which had later been ridiculed in the press. Now her voice sounded deeper and rougher. The voice of an older person, and that particular change was actually an improvement.
Anders couldn't say what he was thinking, so he said, 'I was just passing and I saw the light was on, and I thought…'
The house smelled almost exactly the same as it had done when he was young. It didn't feel as if there was anyone else there. Anders had expected the person who had Elin under their thumb would be around.
'Can I get you anything?' she asked. 'Coffee? Wine?'
'Wine would be nice, thank you.'
Anders looked up as he answered, but immediately looked down again. It was difficult to look at her. He concentrated on undoing his shoelaces and Elin disappeared into the kitchen.
What has she done?
She had been pretty when she was young, she'd had her pick of the boys. In between Big Brother and the centrefolds, she had had surgery on her breasts and her lips, turning herself into a classic bimbo. One of those individuals who circulate between photo opportunities and parties and scandals. A night on the town followed by the full story; another relationship break-up followed by the full story. Slap the make-up on a bit thicker each time it all goes south.
It's easy to see how it takes its toll, how the person behind the mask slowly becomes hardened-the smile grows rigid, the skin grows stiff and numb-until all that remains is a shining, fossilised shell surrounding an empty space. How glamour loses out to gravity.
But this still didn't explain Elin's transformation. She hadn't just aged, she had remodelled herself into something far worse than anything time could create. In some way, for some reason she had made herself ugly.
The picture window in the kitchen looked out over Kattholmen, and despite the cloud both the tiles and stainless steel worktops were bathed in light from the sky and the sea. Everything was as clear as in a photograph. Anders sat down with his back to the window while Elin filled his glass with Gato Negro from a cask. They raised their glasses to each other and drank. Anders made an effort not to gulp.
'How are you?' he asked.
Elin ran her finger over the cat on the wine cask. 'We used to spend whole evenings sitting here, didn't we? When Mum and Dad were out.'
'Yes. And nights too. Later on.'
Elin nodded, still following the contours of the cat with her finger. As she wasn't looking at him, Anders plucked up the courage to study her face.
Her nose, which had been slender and straight, was now twice as big and flattened. Her chin, which had been firm, quite prominent and somewhat square, was now pointed and receding, so that it became part of her throat. Her high cheekbones and dimples had disappeared, and her lips…
Those lips that had pouted in so many close-ups, topless glamour shots and full-length shots, and which had been desirable even before the silicon implants, had now been compressed into two narrow lines that did no more than mark where her mouth began and ended, if that.
She had bags under her eyes that would have looked unnatural on a woman twenty years older, and the baffling thing was that in the clinical brightness of the kitchen Anders could see the marks of badly healed scars beneath her eyes. As if she had had surgery on the bags. As if they had been worse at some point.
He took a large gulp of his wine, almost half the glass, and when he realised what he was doing it was too late, he could hardly spit it out, so he swallowed it. Elin was looking at him, and he couldn't interpret her expression. It was impossible to read her, just as it would be impossible to read a book that had been torn to pieces.
Time for small talk.
Time for him to pick up the thread and chat about all the times they had sat here, everything they had done all those years ago, and he wouldn't mention her face or the boathouse on Kattholmen where everything had come to an end.
What did we actually do?
He searched for some amusing memory. Something they could laugh at, something that might dispel the strange atmosphere between them. He couldn't think of anything. All he could remember was that they used to drink tea, lots of tea, with honey, that sometimes they ran out of honey and…The words came tumbling out of his mouth, 'What have you done to your face?'
The groove between Elin's lips widened and the corners moved up towards her cheeks; it could be interpreted as a smile. 'It's not just my face.'
She walked into the middle of the kitchen floor and ran her hands over her body. Anders looked down, and Elin said, 'Look.'
He looked. The heavy breasts that had given the caption writers at Slitz an excuse to write Bouncing beauties! had shrunk and been flattened until they were hardly noticeable. Elin pulled up her sweatshirt.
Her stomach was hanging over the waistband of her jeans. The lips pretended to smile again.
'It was actually possible to use the breast implants and put them in here.' She grabbed hold of the bulge above her right hip and squeezed it. 'Then I had to have quite a lot cut away, of course. They were quite big to start with, beforehand.'
She pulled up the sweatshirt a little further, so that the lower part of her breasts was visible. Anders saw the badly healed scar, and looked down at the floor again. 'Why?'
She straightened her sweatshirt and sat down at the opposite side of the table again, took a sip of her wine and topped up his glass.
'I just wanted to.'
Her voice was breaking slightly. Someone with serious injuries or deformities might behave this way, showing them off as a challenge to the other person-to say something, to dare to question. But now her voice was breaking.
'I haven't finished yet.'
'What do you mean?'
'I haven't finished yet. I'm going to have more work done. More surgery.'
Anders searched her altered face, her eyes, for signs of insanity, but found none. He thought she ought to be radiating something other than sorrowful resignation. Some kind of fanaticism, at least.
'I don't understand.'
'Neither do I,' said Elin. 'But that's the way it is.'
'But what…what are you aiming for, so to speak?'
'I don't know. I just know I haven't finished.'
'But what doctor would agree to…'
Elin interrupted him. 'If you've got money, there's always someone. And I do have money.'
Anders turned and looked out of the window. The wind was blowing among the few random fir trees still standing upright on Kattholmen. A storm a few years earlier had brought down most of the trees, and the island became one huge game of pick-up sticks, almost impossible to find a way through. The boathouse might have been smashed to pieces. He hoped it had.
'Are you thinking about the same thing as me?' asked Elin.
'Everything disappears. In the end.'
They avoided the topic and started talking about things that had disappeared, what had become of old friends. Anders told her about Maja, making a huge effort not to fall down the shaft that always opened up beneath him when he relived the story by retelling it. He managed to balance on the brink.
The afternoon had drawn a veil of darker grey across the sea, and the wine cask was all but empty when Anders got to his feet, steadied himself on the table and announced he was going home. 'I live here now. I think.'
He had to concentrate hard in order to tie his shoelaces in the dark hallway. Elin stood watching him, her head on one side.
'Why did you come back?'
Anders closed his eyes so that he could manage the laces without being distracted by the way the room was moving. Why had he come back? He tried to find the right words, and eventually said, 'I wanted to be close to something that has some meaning.'
He hauled himself to his feet with the help of the door handle. The door opened and he almost fell out on to the porch, but straightened up and regained his balance. 'What about you?'
'I just wanted to get away. From all the eyes.'
Anders nodded tipsily and for a long time. Completely understandable. All the eyes. Away from all the eyes. He remembered something, something to do with eyes, but he couldn't quite get hold of it. He waved goodbye and closed the door behind him.
The afternoon was rapidly darkening into evening as Anders made his way towards the forest. The wind was picking up; a few particularly playful gusts made him wobble to one side. He was thinking about Elin.
I haven't finished yet. I'm going to have more work done.
He laughed. If you looked at it as a project it was odd, but not incomprehensible. You have to have projects, and destroying your own body is just one of many options. He certainly knew that, if nothing else. Throwing away your money by going under the knife and getting uglier every time, that was grandiose in its way, a real cultural commentary.
Or an atonement.
A big paper bag full of food stood outside his door. He sent grateful thanks across the inlet, hauled the bag into the kitchen and put everything away in the fridge and the larder. When he had finished he drank almost a litre of water to dilute his alcohol-laden blood, then he sat down at the kitchen table and started fiddling with the beads. He added a few blue ones at random around the edge of the tile.
The kitchen curtains were billowing out slightly in the draught from the ill-fitting window, and he lit a fire in the kitchen stove to drive out the dampness that had gathered since the morning. Then he went back to the beads.
Ten blue dots around the edge of big white pattern, like a little patch of sky behind a cloud. He added a few more.
They didn't make love so often these days, but when they did, they did it properly.
That first summer Simon and Anna-Greta hadn't been able to keep their hands off one another. Out of consideration for Johan it had been mostly the nights that had been at their disposal, but it did happen that lust would suddenly strike them like a boiling shoal of herring in the middle of the day as well. Then they would lock themselves in the boathouse and fall on each other on top of the nets,
satisfying their hunger and paying for it with various abrasions.
They didn't do that any more. Just as well, really.
Weeks could go by before the circumstances were right. Since they didn't sleep in the same bed or even the same house, lovemaking wasn't something that just happened, unplanned, as an afterthought before they fell asleep. Nor had they got to the point where they could just come straight out with the question. They never would get there, because they both regarded sexuality as a mystery and a secret-not body parts seeking connection.
And so it was a matter of a web of unspoken questions and answers, small movements sounding out the terrain. A hand on an arm, a glance held for just a fraction too long, a smile hinting at mischief. It could go on for days, until they no longer knew who was asking and who was responding, but the certainty grew between them in silence: it was time.
Then they would go to the bedroom together, to Anna-Greta's bedroom as she had a bigger bed. They would light a candle and get undressed. Anna-Greta could still manage to get undressed standing up, but Simon had to sit on the edge of the bed to take off his underwear and socks.
It was increasingly rare that things went well from the start. Perhaps as some kind of preparation for death, Simon's spirit and flesh had begun to take their leave of each other. When Anna-Greta lay down beside him, it didn't matter how much his will wrapped itself around her beloved body, his lips caressing her hip. It just didn't work.
His failing erection was a problem that had been played down for many years, and nowadays it was an expected part of the proceedings. But it still bothered him; every time he thought: Right-now. Just this once. He had even thought about Viagra, if only so that, just once, he could surprise her with a really splendid hard-on right from the start, like a gift.
But for the time being, it just had to take as long as it took. They would caress each other, licking and nibbling. From time to time
Anna-Greta would suck tentatively, just to see if the erectile tissues had decided to wake up yet. If there was any sign of a response, she would carry on until he was ready, but usually it was like talking to the wall.
Simon had thought that this was the irony of old age: the only part of him that wasn't rigid and stiff was the part he wanted to be. The years of escapology had ruined his joints, and his skeleton felt like a beach monster, cobbled together from driftwood and rusty nails. He could feel, in fact he could almost hear, the creaking as he moved alongside Anna-Greta's more supple body.
It took longer every year, but gradually the miracle would begin to work. He would feel a warmth between his shoulder blades which slowly spread across his shoulder and down his back, until he could move his arms in a way that was never possible in his everyday life: gently. Anna-Greta smiled when his caresses became more flexible, his touch lighter.
He was at home in his body once again, and when Anna-Greta lowered her head over his midriff the response came like a tingle, and the dead rose. Even at that stage Simon was drifting in the pleasure that is the absence of pain, and he could easily have stopped there, satisfied with being soft and forgetful and close. But when Anna- Greta moved on top of him and guided him inside her, another slumbering feeling awoke. The preparations were over and his body was ready for action. He could release the lust.
When they had finally reached that point, their desire was perfectly matched. A burning sphere in the chest, sending red threads up into the head. He grabbed hold of her hips and they followed each other's movements or thrust against each other, doing whatever felt right, and only he and she existed in the whole world.
Once Simon got under way, he could go on for a long time. So they went on for a long time. It would have been stupid not to. Their bodies, weighed down by age, were never as light as they were then, and time and sorrows had never been of so little significance. They were swaying outside time and the years fell away; sometimes Simon was even able to use his stiff fingers, and he took the opportunity to do so.
They no longer dared to change position, since Simon had broken a rib two years earlier throwing himself around. So they stayed where they were, moved in the same place and murmured quiet words of love until everything exploded and became one.
Anna-Greta was asleep. Simon lay next to her, watching her. Her lips were sunken because she had taken out her false teeth after making love. Even with the most supreme effort he could not claim that her mouth was beautiful without teeth, so he didn't look at her mouth.
Her eyelids were thin, almost transparent in the glow of the half- burnt candle, and under the skin he could see her eyeballs moving. Perhaps she was dreaming. The deep lines between her nose and mouth moved up a fraction, as if in her dream she had become aware of a smell she didn't like.
Who are you?
The wind was blowing hard outside the window, and the candle flickered. A shadow passed across Anna-Greta's face, and her expression altered for half a second, became something he had never seen before. Then she was back.
Who are you?
Fifty years together, and he knew everything about her. Except who she was. She had told him stories of the time before they met, he had been with her for almost two-thirds of her life and knew how she would react in virtually any situation. And yet he couldn't get away from that feeling: he didn't know who she was.
Perhaps it was something that everyone experienced, no matter how close they were, but he didn't really think so. This was something more. Something along the lines of…Spiritus. He had never told her what he had in the matchbox. So in some ways he was a stranger to her.
Why haven't I told her?
He didn't know. Something had told him not to. Presumably it was all connected.
Simon sighed deeply and rolled towards the edge of the bed, hauling himself up into a sitting position with some difficulty. If his body somehow shed thirty years when they were making love, it piled an extra thirty on again afterwards. Muscles and joints creaked and complained, and he felt ready for his coffin.
I don't suppose there will be many more times.
He managed to put on his socks, underpants and trousers. In recent years he had thought the same thing every time after they had made love. But when it was time, the machinery would no doubt rumble into life once again. For as long as it lasted.
He dug out his vest and shirt, blew out the candle and crept out of the room. With the help of the banister he made his way slowly and carefully down the stairs, one step at a time. The wind was whistling around the house, and the wood in the old place was complaining more loudly than his own body. The force of the wind had increased to a real storm, and he ought to go down and see to the boat.
And what if it's broken away from its mooring?
Nothing he could do about that. He couldn't cope with that kind of manoeuvre. But at least he would know what the situation was. He grabbed a sweater that was lying on a chair in the kitchen, pulled it over his head and opened the outside door.
The wind seized the door and he had to fight for a few seconds before he managed to close it without a crash. Then he wrapped his arms around his body and shuffled rather than walked down towards his house.
It was a magnificent storm, but it was difficult to enjoy it. The huge birch trees were swaying menacingly over the house, and if one of them came down in the wrong direction the damage would be extensive. As always when it was windy, Simon thought that he ought to cut them down, and as always when the wind subsided he would manage to forget about it, because it was too much work.
He turned his face to the sea and the north wind grabbed him with its full power. The lighthouse at Gåvasten flashed far away in the distance, and the sea…
Something came away inside him. Part of what he needed fell off.
He groped for support and got hold of a branch of the apple tree. A lingering apple was shaken free and fell to the ground with a barely audible thud.
The branch gave way when he put too much weight on it, and he sank down on the grass. The branch slipped from his grasp and whipped across his cheek as it sprang back. He felt a stinging pain and fell on his back, his eyes wide open. The thing that had come away was floating around inside him and he felt ill. And weak. Weak.
The branches of the apple tree where whipping back and forth as if the tree wanted to erase the starry sky, and Simon lay there motionless, staring. The stars twinkled through the remaining leaves and the strength trickled out of Simon's limbs.
I have no strength. I'm dying.
He lay there like that for a long time waiting for the lights to go out, and he had plenty of opportunity to think. But the stars continued to shine and the wind continued to roar. He tried to move his arm, and it obeyed. His hand closed around a fallen apple and he let it rest there for a while. The exhaustion was diminishing slightly, but he was still weak.
He got to his knees and then to his feet, stood there swaying like a poplar sapling in the wind. One hand felt peculiar, and when he looked he saw that he was still holding the apple. He dropped it. He set off for his house again, his feet dragging.
When he eventually reached his door he peered down at the jetty. It was difficult to see in the faint light from the lighthouse and the stars, but it looked as if the boat was exactly where it should be. The stone jetty was absorbing the worst of it. Not that he would have been able to do anything, particularly not now, but it was good that he still had a boat.
He got himself inside and switched on the light, sat down at the kitchen table breathing in weak bursts, trying to get used to the idea that he was still alive. He had been convinced that he was going to die; he had even managed to reconcile himself to that conviction. To collapse beneath Anna-Greta's apple tree and be swept away by the storm. It could have been worse, much worse.
But it didn't turn out that way.
A thought had taken root in his mind during his painfully slow trek home, a suspicion. He took the matchbox out of the kitchen drawer and opened it. Despite the fact that it was as he suspected, he couldn't help gasping out loud.
The larva was grey. The skin which had been so shiny and black had shrunk and dried, acquired an ash-grey colour. Simon shook the box carefully. The larva squirmed slightly and Simon breathed out. He gathered saliva and let it fall. The larva moved when the saliva landed on it, but not much. It was weak; it seemed to be fading away.
The storm was rattling the window panes. Simon sat there staring down into the box, trying to understand. Was it he or Spiritus that came first? Did he influence the larva, or vice versa? Who was to blame-either of them?
Or some third party. Who influences both of us.
He looked out of the window and blinked. Gåvasten lighthouse blinked back.
Anders woke up because he was freezing cold. The storm was raging around the Shack and inside the house there was a light-to-moderate wind. The curtains were billowing, and cold air swept across his face. He got up with the blanket around his shoulders and went over to the window.
The sea was in turmoil, the waves hurling themselves forward furiously in the moonlight. Stray drops were actually reaching right up to the window, which was creaking ominously under the pressure of the storm. The old windows with their secondary double- glazing were a poor defence against the fury of nature. Plus a couple of windows were already cracked from before.
What will I do if something breaks?
He would just have to see what happened. He put the kitchen light on and drank a couple of glasses of water, lit a cigarette. The clock on the wall showed half-past two. The smoke from his cigarette whirled around in the draughts slicing through the house. He sat down at the table and tried to blow smoke rings, but without success.
Fifty or so blue beads and five white ones were pushed down in one corner of the bead tile. The white ones were in a little clump, surrounded by the blue ones. He rubbed his eyes and tried to remember when he had put them there. He had come home feeling quite tipsy, and had pushed in a few beads at random. After that he couldn't remember a thing until he lay down on the sofa and listened to the wind until he fell asleep.
The pattern formed by the blue and white beads was meaningless and not particularly attractive. He cleared his throat as the smoke formed a viscous lump there, and looked around for a knife or something similar with which he could ease the beads off. There was a pencil lying next to the tile and he picked it up before realising that it wouldn't do.
Then he caught sight of the letters.
The pencil had been lying on some letters, written directly on the surface of the table with so much pressure that they had made grooves in the old wood. Anders leaned forward and read. It said:
He stared at the letters, ran his finger over the faint indentations they had made.
It was as if his eyes were glued to the sprawling letters and he didn't dare to look either to the right or left. A shudder ran down his back.
There's someone here.
Someone was watching him. He tensed the muscles in his legs, swallowed hard and without warning he shot up from his chair with such speed that it fell over backwards. He looked quickly around the kitchen, in all the corners and shadows. There was no one there.
He looked out of the kitchen window, but although he cupped his hands around his eyes, the pine trees obscured the moonlight so that it was impossible to see if there was anyone out there. Anyone watching him.
He crossed his arms over his chest as if to keep his racing heart in its place. Someone had been in here and formed the letters. Presumably the same person who was watching him. He gave a start and ran over to the outside door. It wasn't locked. He opened it and saw the swing being hurled in the air, spinning around and slamming into the tree trunks. Nothing else.
He went back to the kitchen and sluiced his face with cold water, dried himself with a tea towel and tried to calm down. It didn't work. He was horribly afraid, without knowing what he was afraid of. An extra-powerful gust of wind made the house shake, and there was a creaking sound.
The next moment one of the windows in the living room shattered, and Anders screamed out loud. Glass came rattling in across the floor, and Anders kept screaming. The wind raced into the house, grabbed hold of anything that was light and loose, threw it around, whistled up the chimney, howled in every hollow and Anders howled along with it. His hair was flapping and damp air poured over him as he stood there screaming, his arms locked around his body. He didn't stop until his throat began to hurt.
His arms released their grip and he relaxed slightly, breathing slowly through his open mouth.
No one came. It's only the wind. The wind broke a window. Nothing else.
He closed the kitchen door. The wind retreated, withdrawing to the living room where Anders could hear it fighting with old newspapers and magazines. He sat down at the kitchen table and put his head in his hands. The letters were still there. The wind hadn't taken them.
He pressed his hands over his ears and closed his eyes tightly. Everything went dark red in front of his eyes, but he couldn't escape. The letters appeared in bright yellow, disappeared and were written once more on his retinas.
Suddenly he took his hands away, got up and looked around. No. The drawings weren't here. He reached the kitchen door in a couple of rapid strides, pulled it open and passed the living room without a thought for the wind that grabbed at the blanket he was wearing like a coat.
He went into the bedroom and closed the door behind him, dropped to his knees next to Maja's bed and groped around with his arm until he found what he was looking for. The plastic folder containing Maja's drawings. With shaking hands he managed to pull off the elastic band and spread the drawings out on the bed.
Most of them had no writing, and on those that did it said, 'To Mummy', 'To Daddy'.
But there was one…
He turned over the various drawings of trees, houses and flowers to check the back of each one, and at last he found it. On the back of a drawing of four sunflowers and something that could be either a horse or a dog, Maja had written:
It had taken her ten minutes and two outbursts of rage before she was satisfied with what she had written. Earlier versions were angrily rubbed out. The drawing had been for Anna-Greta's birthday, and for some reason had never been handed over. It said, 'To Great Grandma Anna-Greta'.
The letter R was the wrong way round just as it was in the words on the table, but what made Anders press his hand against his mouth as the tears sprang to his eyes was a more unusual error: in both cases the bottom stroke of the letter E was missing.
Of course he had known all along what was written on the kitchen table. He had refused to accept it. The handwriting was exactly the same as on the drawing, and it said:
It was quarter-past three and Anders knew he wouldn't be able to sleep. The storm had abated somewhat and the sensible thing would be to try and sort out the mess in the living room, if possible board up the window somehow.
But he just didn't have the strength. He felt exhausted and wideawake at the same time, his brain working feverishly. The only thing he could do was to sit at the kitchen table twisting his fingers around each other as he looked at the message from his daughter.
Where was he to carry her from? Where was he to collect her? Where was he to carry her to? How?
'Maja? Maja darling, if you can hear me…say something else. Explain. I don't understand what I have to do.'
There was no reply. The anxiety was wearing him away, he was about to dissolve into ghostly form. If she was a ghost. If she hadn't actually been here and…
But in that case why did she go away again?
He got up and walked around, unable to settle. He spotted some empty half-litre bottles of Imsdal, the water they had taken with them on outings sometimes. He still couldn't do anything, he was getting nowhere. He might as well put his plan into action.
From the larder he took the six one-litre cartons of Spanish wine he had brought with him to Domarö. He filled the four Imsdal bottles about one-third full. Then he topped up one of them with tap water and drank some of the mixture. It didn't taste good. More like flavoured tap water than diluted wine.
Right at the back of the larder he found two small packs of grape juice. He squeezed some into one of the bottles, on top of the wine. Then he added water. It didn't taste watery now, just like really weak wine. Four and half per cent alcohol maybe, about the same as beer.
He put the top back on and pulled up the cap so that he could suck at the liquid, then sucked down a good mouthful.
His plan to escape the constant urge to drink himself into a stupor was very simple: he would drink constantly, but he would drink less. Maintain a reasonable level of drunkenness from morning till night. He hoped that with this plan both the lacerating, tearing desire and the sharp edges of the world would be softened and made manageable.
He prepared the remaining four bottles in the same way. When he had finished he still had five cartons and a pack of grape juice left. He would use these to fill up the four bottles when they were empty.
He closed his eyes and tried to picture the scene. Maja coming into the kitchen, picking up the pencil, writing those letters and then… then…arranging some beads on the tile before leaving. She was still wearing the red snowsuit and it was soaking wet, she was dripping as she walked and her eye sockets were empty. Greedy fish had… Stop it!
He opened his eyes and shook his head, took a drink from the bottle. The picture was still there. The small body, her round face, the soaking wet snowsuit…
He examined the floor to see if there was any trace of water. Nothing.
It's me who wrote it. It's me who put the heads on the tile.
That could be what had happened. In which case he was actually going mad. But it was just a memory lapse, surely? It was during that missing period that he…
He had thought he'd had a memory lapse when he saw the beads, since he couldn't remember putting them there. Now, of course, there was another explanation.
He banged the table with his fists.
'Show yourself! Say something else! Don't do this!'
He couldn't believe he was quite this crazy. The only explanation was that somebody was playing a really sick joke on him, or…that it was exactly what it appeared to be. That Maja existed in the world, somehow, and was trying to communicate with him.
He placed his palms on the table. Breathed in and out a couple of times, calmly and deliberately.
Yes. All right, so be it. I'm making the decision. I choose to believe it.
He carried on nodding, had another drink of wine and lit a cigarette. He felt better now. Now that he had accepted the situation. He took a deep drag, held it in his lungs, leaned back in his chair and slowly let the smoke out. The storm had died down, so that the smoke reached the ceiling without dispersing.
I believe. You exist.
The circle of light cast by the lamp expanded and turned into a warm feeling that grew in his chest until it radiated a pure, clean happiness.
He threw the cigarette in the bin, got up and spun round and round in the middle of the kitchen floor, his arms spread wide. He attempted a few clumsy dance steps, jumped up and down and whirled around until he felt dizzy, started coughing and had to sit down. The happiness was still there. It was crackling and gushing, it wanted to find a way out somehow.
Without thinking he pulled the telephone towards him and keyed in Cecilia's number. He could still remember it, because she had taken over her parents' apartment in Uppsala when they moved into a house. She had the same number as when they were teenagers, spending hours on the phone to each other and longing for their next meeting. If she was still living there.
The phone rang three times. Anders pressed the receiver firmly to his ear, looked at the clock and grimaced. It was just after four. It occurred to him belatedly that this might not be the best time to call. He took a swig from the bottle as the fifth tone rang out.
It was Cecilia, and she sounded exactly as you might expect-as if she'd just woken up. Anders swallowed the wine in his mouth and said, 'Hi, it's me. Anders.'
There was silence for a few seconds, then Cecilia said, 'You're not to ring here when you're drunk. I've told you that.'
'I'm not drunk.'
'What are you, then?'
Anders thought it over. The answer was simple.
'Happy. I'm happy. And I thought I ought to…to ring and tell you. Why.'
Cecilia sighed, and Anders remembered. He had called her like this several times. After they had separated he had called her sometimes to say…what had he said? He'd been drunk and he couldn't remember. But he had never called and been happy. Well, he didn't think so anyway.
'I see,' said Cecilia. 'So why are you happy?'
It didn't sound as if she was genuinely interested, but he supposed he could understand that, so he took a deep breath and said, 'Maja has contacted me.'
He heard the rustle of bedclothes at the other end as Cecilia sat up. 'What are you talking about?'
Anders told her what had happened. He left out the detail about Elin and all the wine, just said he had fallen asleep and then woken up during the night, found the message on the kitchen table. As he was talking he ran his fingers over the letters on the table, over the beads.
When he had finished there was a long silence. Anders cleared his throat and said, 'What do you think?'
From the sounds at the other end he gathered that Cecilia was lying down again.
'Anders. I've met someone else.'
'So…there's not much I can do for you. Not anymore.'
'But…this isn't about that.'
'Then what is it about?'
'It's about…about…Cecilia, this really is what's happened. Honestly. It's true, what I told you.'
'What do you want me to do?'
What had been so simple suddenly became difficult. Anders looked around the table as if he were searching for a clue. His gaze landed once again on the seven spindly letters.
'I don't know. I just wanted…to tell you.'
'Anders. The time we had together…even though it ended the way it did…if you need help. If you really, really need help. Then I'll help you. But not otherwise. I can't. Do you understand?'
'Yes, I understand. But…but…'
The words got stuck just inside his lips. He heard what he'd said, how the conversation had gone. And he realised that she couldn't have said anything other than exactly what she had said.
What would I have said?
He thought about it. He would have fallen on the chance, been ready to believe just about anything. Wouldn't he? After all, he had resisted the miracle himself. But he still wouldn't have responded the way Cecilia did. He would have believed her, just so that he had an excuse to be with her. He felt a stabbing pain in his chest and he coughed.
Cecilia let him finish coughing before she said, 'Good night, Anders.'
'Wait! Just one thing. What could it mean?'
'Carry me. What could it mean?'
Cecilia breathed out; it wasn't quite a sigh, because there was a little sound with it, a fragment of a whimper. She could have been on the point of saying something else, but what she actually said was, 'I don't know, Anders. I don't know. Good night.'
'Good night.' After a breath he added, 'Sorry,' but the line was dead and she didn't hear him. Anders put the phone down and rested his forehead on the table.
Only now did he realise how much he had hoped, in some corner of his pissed-up heart, that somehow, somewhere, they might…
Someone else. Had he been there, had he been listening? No. It hadn't felt as if there was another person there. Cecilia hadn't talked as if someone else was listening.
So they're not living together yet. Maybe…
He banged his head against the table. Hard. White pain surged through his skull. Tangled thoughts rose to the surface, were washed away.
Give up. Give up.
He raised his head and the pain was a liquid that altered the situation, was washed from his brow to the back of his head and stayed there. He looked around the kitchen with clear eyes and said, 'There's only you and me.'
The sea embraced the pebbles on the beach, relinquished and embraced them once again. Back and forth, back and forth. The same movement for all eternity. Take hold and let go, begin again.
He was tired now, he hadn't the strength to cope with anything else.
"With his headache in place and quiet, he got up and walked through the living room, ignored the glass on the floor and the firelighter dust that had been blown around and crunched beneath his feet. He carried on to the bedroom. Without switching on the light or getting undressed, he slid into Maja's bed and pulled her blanket over him.
There now. Everything's all right now.
He looked at the double bed in the middle of the room, faintly illuminated by the moonlight shining through the window.
There's the double bed. I can go over there if I get frightened.
He closed his eyes and fell asleep in seconds.
A discovery by the shore
When someone knocked on his door at eight-thirty in the morning, Simon had been asleep for only a couple of hours. The wind and premonitions of evil had kept him awake until the first light of dawn broke through his bedroom window. By that time the wind had dropped and he had finally relaxed and given himself up to a light sleep. His body was stiff and heavy. He felt as if he was moving underwater as he got out of bed, pulled on his dressing gown and stumbled to the door.
Elof Lundberg looked as if he had woken up just as Simon was falling asleep. Wide-awake and bright eyed, his cap firmly in place. He looked Simon up and down and pulled a face.
'Are you still in bed?'
'No,' said Simon, twisting his head to relieve the stiffness in his neck. 'Not anymore.'
He glowered challengingly at Elof, encouraging him to spit out whatever it was he wanted. He wasn't in the mood for small talk. Not now. And not with Elof. Elof sensed the atmosphere and became truculent. His lower lip jutted out and he raised his eyebrows. 'I just wanted to tell you that your boat has come away from its mooring. If you're interested.'
Simon sighed. 'I am, yes. Thank you very much.'
Elof couldn't help making the most of this opportunity. He had come here with the best of intentions, and was met with a rebuff. He said, 'Of course, there are some people who prefer it that way. With just one rope. But the engine just keeps scraping all the time. And that might not be such a good thing.'
'No, it isn't. Thank you.'
Elof was standing there as if he was waiting for some kind of reward, but Simon knew that wasn't it. He just wanted to help out with the boat, then be invited in for coffee so that he could sit and chat about what could happen when boats broke free, and so on. About how things should be taken care of in the proper way, between neighbours.
But Simon wasn't in the mood, so when Elof had been standing there nodding for a while and Simon hadn't said the right thing, he rubbed his hands together and said, 'Right then. That's that then', and stomped off, every fibre of his body signalling that he had been treated most unfairly. Simon closed the door and lit a fire in the kitchen stove.
If the boat's been like that all night, it can stay like that for a while longer.
He and Elof had got on well until Maja disappeared. When Anders and Cecilia went back to the city, Simon had called on Elof to ask what he had meant when they were standing on the veranda: when he told Simon to ring Anders and tell him to come home.
'Why did you say that?' he had asked.
Elof had become extremely busy with the fry-up he was preparing, and hadn't even looked up from the chopping board when he replied, 'It just occurred to me, that's all.'
'What did you mean?'
Elof was dicing boiled potatoes with exaggerated care. He didn't want to look Simon in the eye.
'Nothing in particular. It just occurred to me that maybe it wasn't a good thing. For them to be out there.'
Simon sat down on a chair and stared at Elof until he had finished with the potatoes and had no choice but to meet Simon's gaze.
'Elof. Do you know something I don't know?'
Elof stood up and turned his back on Simon, started busying himself with the frying pan and butter. He shrugged his shoulders. 'Like what?'
In the end Simon had given up and gone home, leaving Elof with his potato and his chopped bacon. After that day the relationship between them had soured. Simon couldn't begin to guess what it was that Elof knew, but there was something, and he couldn't come to terms with the fact that Elof was refusing to tell him. It was Simon's grandchild they were dealing with here, after all. As good as his grandchild.
When he told Anna-Greta she had more or less taken Elof's part. Said it was probably just something that had come into his head, nothing worth bothering about. What else could it be?
Simon had let the matter rest. But he hadn't forgotten.
The fire in the kitchen stove refused to catch. After the storm during the night the wind had exhausted its strength. There was barely a breath of wind, and the chimney wasn't drawing well. Simon sprayed liquid firelighter on the little flame that was there, and the fire burst into life with a puff of surprise.
He gave an enormous yawn and pulled a chair up close. He had carelessly left the matchbox out on the kitchen table. When he opened it he could see that the larva seemed to have recovered slightly. The skin was no longer grey, but pale black, if such a shade existed. However, it was not shiny, not even after he had given it some saliva. It no longer looked as if it was dying, but it didn't look healthy either.
Spiritus had been in his possession for ten years now. He had given it saliva every day, and changed matchboxes when the old one grew too worn. And yet he had never done what he did now: he turned the box over and tipped the insect into his hand.
Something had happened during the night. After regarding Spiritus with a mixture of respect and disgust for all these years, his feelings had changed when he saw it looking pitiful, moribund. Sympathy was not the right word, it was more a kind of shared fate. They were subject to the same conditions.
The skin of the larva met his, and he bit his tongue gently. It is always slightly repulsive to hold an insect. The faint movement, the little life that exists independently of one's own.
But not in this case.
Nothing happened, and Simon relaxed. He sat with the larva on his open palm, and it was warm. Warmer than he was, since he was aware of it. Only a few degrees, but enough for him to perceive it as a warm spot on his hand.
Cautiously he closed his fingers around it and shut his eyes. Gently, gently the larva moved inside his loosely closed hand, and the tickling sensation on his skin ran up his arm, passed through his heart and continued up into his head, where it moved around like a weak electric current, making his scalp tingle.
Simon looked out of the window. The morning dew was shining on the grass and he felt as if he could see every single drop, could touch every single drop with his thoughts. In the trunks of the trees he could see the hidden vessels, the water being sucked up by the capillary action, out into the thin veins in the leaves. As if he were in a trance he walked to the outside door and out on to the porch, his hand still closed around the larva.
It was a shock.
All the water…all the water…
He saw all the water. The moisture in the earth and how it was constituted. The rainwater in the barrel, a living body wrapped around dead insects and old leaves. Through the lawn he saw the underground veins running through the bedrock. And he saw how everything, everything that lived and was green or yellow or red… how it consisted almost entirely of water.
He carried on down towards the jetty and he saw the sea.
It was a wordless knowledge, not a clearly formulated thought: the sea was broken. There was something wrong with it. He walked out on to the jetty and he was walking over water. Broken water.
With an effort of will he managed to superimpose his own thoughts over the all-encompassing knowledge that had taken possession of him. The old cotton rope attached to the stern of the boat had broken, and the boat was pointing away from the jetty.
In the past he had needed to be in contact with the water for things to happen. Now he simply asked for a wave to give the boat a push so that it would drift towards the jetty. The wave came and the boat turned on its own axis until the stern bumped into a bollard.
He crouched down, but couldn't reach the stump of rope trailing behind the boat, so he asked the water to throw it to him. A movement from the seabed broke the surface and the rope was thrown up on to the jetty in a cascade of water. Simon was thoroughly soaked, and the end of the rope slipped back into the water before he managed to grab hold of it.
He wiped the water off his face and looked at the rope as it sank towards the bottom; he could see that it had soaked up water in its fibres, so instead he asked the water in the rope to come to him. Like a snake rising from a basket the rope obediently rose up from the surface and slipped into his outstretched hand. He made a simple knot with the short length of rope that was left, and the boat was safely moored once again.
He was frozen in his soaked dressing gown, and as he walked back to the house he asked the water in the fabric to get a little warmer, and the water obeyed. He didn't want to ask it to leave him, because it would probably look rather peculiar if anyone saw him. Walking up from the jetty in a cloud of steam.
The trembling from Spiritus was still running through his body as if his blood had begun to simmer, and he could still see all the water around him with overwhelming clarity. It was like a fever, and he was beginning to feel exhausted. It was overload: unsuitable for humans.
Once he was inside and had placed Spiritus in its box, he tried to complete his last thought.
Unsuitable for humans.
That was the way of it. He had something in his possession that was unsuitable for humans. Perhaps that was why he had kept it a secret: because he wasn't meant to have it. It belonged to someone else. Something else.
Eventually he got dressed and went outside. With Spiritus back in its box in his pocket, the perception of the water's presence had slipped back into its usual place: as a consciousness and a sense, nothing more. He sat down on the seat on the porch and tried to take in the beautiful autumn day without unnaturally heightened senses.
He couldn't quite do it. A pair of jays were rooting around among the bright red rowan berries and he saw only birds. The morning light was slanting across the maple leaves in a thousand nuances between red and yellow, but he saw only a tree. The clouds in the sky were clouds and the sky behind them a vast emptiness.
Everything was in its place, but with no mutual connection. He saw everything that his eyes saw, but the totality escaped him. From a quivering seismograph needle, he had become a rigid stick. He shook his head and patted his pocket.
You're dangerous, you are. I think a person could develop an addiction.
Liberated from his gift of second sight he gazed around his little kingdom on earth: the lawn, the garden, the jetty, the stony shore, the clump of reeds in the inlet. Everything was quiet and nondescript. But there was something in among the reeds. He narrowed his eyes against the glittering surface of the water, and stood up to see better.
It looked like a log. Perhaps a jetty somewhere had been broken up during the night, and strewn across the archipelago. If that was the case, there was probably more driftwood to be collected in the inlet. He straightened up with a groan and walked along the shoreline.
When he got closer he could see that it wasn't a log, unless of course someone had decided to dress a log in a skirt and cardigan.
It's a person. A woman.
The character of his footsteps changed. As he waded out into the water his gait was cautious, respectful. The thing he was approaching was a dead person, and he also thought he recognised the clothes.
Sigrid. Holger's wife.
The water was almost up to the tops of his boots when he was a metre away from the person he was now certain was Sigrid. She was floating on her stomach, but there was no doubt. The grey cardigan and the thick, brown skirt were the clothes she had always worn in the village and at sea, day in and day out.
Sigrid. He stopped. Her medium-length grey hair was floating outwards around her skull as if a big jellyfish was hovering over the back of her head. She was lying a couple of metres into the reeds, and had broken or bent a number of stems under her body on the way in. Simon didn't want to see what her face looked like. With the help of Spiritus he could easily have turned her over, even lifted her ashore, but it was pointless. She had definitely drowned. She had been lying motionless in the calm water all the time he had been moving towards her.
How long has she been lying here?
It must have happened during the night. She had been gone for almost a year, and now the movement of the sea had brought her up, dragged her towards the shore.
One of Sigrid's arms was stretched out, and he could see a white hand. Simon studied the fingers, and jumped when he thought he saw them move. But it was only the lapping of the water, the shifting sunlight. Nevertheless, he took a step back and rubbed his hand over his face.
Shouldn't she be…a skeleton by this time?
He didn't really know about these things, but he didn't think a person who had been lying in the water for almost a year should still have their fingers intact. There are many hungry creatures in the depths.
Only now did he see himself, standing here with water almost up to his knees looking at a corpse. It was as if there was a bubble around them, an unpleasant spell that was difficult to break. He could remain standing here for a long time.
That's what he had to do. He would wade back to the shore and contact Goran. That was it. Slowly he began to back away from the floating body. He didn't want to turn his back on it. Once he reached the shore he finally dared to turn around, and lumbered up to his house as quickly as possible. A couple of times he glanced back over his shoulder just to check.
That she isn't following me.
Fortunately Göran was at home and knew what had to be done. He telephoned the appropriate authorities and an hour later the lifeboat service had retrieved Sigrid's body and transported her over to Nåten. A young police officer asked Simon some questions about the details of his discovery. When he had finished he closed his notebook and asked, 'There's a husband, isn't there?'
'Yes,' replied Simon, glancing at Göran who was standing with his hands in his trouser pockets staring at the ground.
'Where does he live?'
Simon pointed towards Kattudden and was just about to give directions when Göran said, 'I can deal with that. I'll tell him.'
'Is that OK?'
Göran smiled. 'It's less awful. I think you might find Holger a bit…difficult to talk to.'
The police officer looked at his watch. He clearly had better things to do than talk to difficult people.
'Fine,' he said. 'But you ought to warn him that we might have some questions later. When she's been examined.'
'He's not going to run away.'
'What do you mean?'
'The same as you, I presume.'
They looked each other in the eye and nodded in a moment of professional accord.
The officer jerked his thumb in the direction of the inlet and said, 'I mean, she can't have been lying in the water for a year, can she?'
'No,' said Göran. 'Hardly.'
When the young man had gone back to the police launch, Göran and Simon remained on the jetty gazing out across the almost dead calm sea. Apart from the furrow ploughed by the police launch as it headed for the mainland, the water was a gigantic mirror, reflecting the sky and hiding its own secrets.
'Something is happening,' said Simon.
'Something to do with the sea. Something's happening to it.'
Out of the corner of his eye Simon saw Göran turn to look at him, but he kept on gazing out over the cold, bright blue surface.
'In what way?' asked Göran.
There were no words to formulate what Simon knew. The closest he could get was the perception that the sea was broken. He couldn't say that, so he said, 'It's changing. It's getting…worse.'
A very small event
Perhaps everything would have been different and this story would have followed a completely different course if a leaf had not fallen. The leaf in question was on the large maple tree that stood twenty or so metres inland from Simon's jetty. Only that morning Simon had glanced at that very leaf as he sat on his porch, liberated from the heightened sensory awareness evoked by Spiritus.
Since it was the middle of October, the maple had lost many of its leaves during the storm, and those that remained were only loosely attached to their branches, in shifting shades of dying. However, it looked as if most of them would cling on for today. The afternoon was dead calm and only, very occasionally, the odd leaf drifted down to join the dry heaps already on the ground.
Who can really say how decisions are made, how emotions change, how ideas arise? We talk about inspiration; about a bolt of lightning from a clear sky, but perhaps everything is just as simple and just as infinitely complex as the processes that make a particular leaf fall at a particular moment. That point has been reached, that's all. It has to happen, and it does happen.
The leaf in question requires no more detailed description. It was an ordinary maple leaf in the autumn. As big as a coffee saucer, some black and dark red patches on a yellow and orange background. Very beautiful and absolutely unremarkable. The cellulose threads that had kept the stalk attached to a branch halfway up the tree had dried out, gravity gained the upper hand. The leaf came away and fell towards the ground.
After Göran had gone to talk to Holger, Simon stayed on the jetty for a long time, staring out across the water. He was searching for something that was impossible to see, the way it is impossible to see land in thick fog, but it was worse than that: he didn't even know what he was searching for.
He gave up and turned inland, intending to go inside and have a cup of coffee. As he left the jetty, his arms swinging and his gaze lost in contemplation, he saw a flickering movement. A second later he felt a caress on his hand. He stopped.
There was a maple leaf on the palm of his hand; it looked exactly as if it were stuck there. He raised his eyes and looked up at the crown of the tree. No more leaves fell. Just this one leaf had fallen, the leaf that he was holding in his hand through no effort of his own; it had drifted down and landed on his hand at the exact moment when he was passing the tree.
He lifted his hand and studied the veins on the leaf as if trying to decipher unfamiliar writing. There was nothing there, and the leaf had no message to give him. The wind was holding its breath, and everything was still.
Here I am.
A sudden and unexpected happiness rose up through his body. Simon looked around, close to tears. He experienced a bubbling gratitude for the fact that he existed at all. For the fact that he could walk under a tree in the autumn and a leaf could fall and land on his hand. It was like a message from the leaf, a reminder: You exist. I fell and you were there. I am not lying on the ground. Therefore, you exist.
No, the leaf was not lying on the ground and Simon wasn't lying dead beneath the apple tree or dead among the reeds. Their paths had crossed, and here they stood. Simon was perhaps a little oversensitive after everything that had happened, but it seemed to him like a miracle.
He no longer wanted to go home. He changed direction and headed up to Anna-Greta's house with the leaf in his hand, as some lines by Evert Taube played in his head.
Who has given you your sight, your senses? The ears that hear the waves come rushing, the voice you lift in song.
The autumn world was beautiful around him, and he walked with careful steps to avoid disturbing it. Gently he opened Anna-Greta's door and crept into the hallway, lingering in the feeling that the world was a holy place and every sensory perception a gift. He could smell the aroma of her house, he could hear her voice. Soon he would see her.
'No,' said Anna-Greta in the kitchen. 'I just think we have to talk about the whole thing. Something has changed, and we don't know what that means.'
Simon frowned. He didn't know who Anna-Greta was talking to or what she was talking about, and it made him feel as if he were eavesdropping. He was turning to close the door and thus announce his presence when Anna-Greta said, 'Sigrid is the only case I know, and I have no idea what it means.'
Simon hesitated, then grabbed the door handle. Just before the door slammed shut he heard Anna-Greta say, 'The day after tomorrow, then?'
The door closed behind him and Simon walked through the hallway, making sure he could be heard. He reached the kitchen just in time to hear Anna-Greta say, 'Fine. I'll see you then.' She put the phone down.
'Who was that?' asked Simon.
'Only Elof,' said Anna-Greta. 'Coffee?'
Simon turned the leaf between his fingers and tried to sound unconcerned as he asked, 'So what were you talking about?'
Anna-Greta got up, fetched the cups, brought the coffee pot over from the stove. Simon had asked his question so quietly that she might not have heard it. But he thought she had. He twisted the leaf and felt like a small child as he asked again, 'What were you talking about?'
Anna-Greta put down the coffee pot and snorted, as if the question amused her. 'Why do you ask?'
'I'm just curious, that's all.'
'Come and sit down. Would you like a biscuit?'
The joy that had been bubbling through Simon withdrew, leaving behind a dry riverbed in his stomach. Stones and thorny bushes. Something was wrong, and the worst thing was that he had experienced this before, on a couple of occasions. Anna-Greta had been away, and when he asked her where she had been, she avoided his questions until he gave up.
This time he had no intention of giving up. He sat down at the table and put a hand over his cup when Anna-Greta tried to pour him some coffee. When she raised her eyes to meet his, he said, 'Anna- Greta. I want to know what you and Elof were talking about.'
She tried a smile. When it found no response whatsoever in Simon's face, it died away. She looked at him and for a second something…dangerous crossed her expression. Simon waited. Anna- Greta shook her head. 'This and that. I don't understand why you're so interested.'
'I'm interested,' said Simon, 'because I didn't know that you and Elof had that kind of relationship.' Anna-Greta opened her mouth to give some kind of answer, but Simon carried on, 'I'm interested because I heard you talking about Sigrid. About the fact that something has changed.'
Anna-Greta abandoned the attempt to keep the conversation on an everyday level. She put down the coffee pot, sat up straight and folded her arms. 'You were listening.'
'I just happened to hear.'
'In that case,' said Anna-Greta, 'I think you should forget that you just happened to hear. And leave this alone.'
Anna-Greta sucked in her cheeks as if she had something sour in her mouth that she was just about to spit out. Then her whole posture softened and she sank down a fraction. She said, 'Because I'm asking you to.'
'But this is crazy. What is it that's so secret?'
That hint of danger, of something alien, appeared in Anna-Greta's eyes once again. She poured herself a cup of coffee, sat down at the table and said calmly and reasonably, 'Regardless of what you say. However disappointed you might be. I have no intention of discussing it. End of story.'
Nothing more was said. A minute later Simon was standing on Anna-Greta's porch. He still had the maple leaf in his hand. He looked at it and could hardly remember what he had thought was so special about it, what had made him come here. He threw it away and walked down towards his house.
'End of story,' he mumbled to himself. 'End of story.'
Way back in the Bible
our nursery teachers
had made a note of our real origin:
floated ashore out of the shadows.
Anna Ståbi -Flux
About the sea
Land and sea.
We may think of them as opposites; as complements. But there is a difference in how we think of them: the sea, and the land.
If we are walking around in a forest, a meadow or a town, we see our surroundings as being made up of individual elements. There are this many different kinds of trees in varying sizes, those buildings, these streets. The meadow, the flowers, the bushes. Our gaze lingers on details, and if we are standing in a forest in the autumn, we become tongue-tied if we try to describe the richness around us. All this exists on land.
But the sea. The sea is something completely different. The sea is one.
We may note the shifting moods of the sea. What the sea looks like when the wind is blowing, how the sea plays with the light, how it rises and falls. But still it is always the sea we are talking about. We have given different parts of the sea different names for navigation and identification, but if we are standing before the sea, there is only one whole. The sea.
If we are taken so far out in a small boat that no land is visible in any direction, we may catch sight of the sea. It is not a pleasant experience. The sea is a god, an unseeing, unhearing deity that surrounds us and has all imaginable power over us, yet does not even know we exist. We mean less than a grain of sand on an elephant's back, and if the sea wants us, it will take us. That's just the way it is. The sea knows no limits, makes no concessions. It has given us everything and it can take everything away from us.
To other gods we send our prayer: Protect us from the sea.
Whispers in your ear
Two days after the storm, Anders was standing down in the wormwood meadow inspecting his boat. It was upside down on blocks, and it was a depressing sight. There were good reasons why he had got it for nothing five years ago.
Since there was no system for the disposal of worn-out plastic boats, they were either left lying around, or given away to someone in need. The last resort, if you were really determined to get rid of the wretched thing, was to tow the boat out into the bay, drill holes in it and let it sink. Anders' boat looked as if it might be ready for that final journey.
There were cracks all over the hull, and the engine mounting was split. The fibreglass around the rowlocks was so brittle that it would probably splinter if you attempted to row. Anders did actually have an engine, an old ten-horsepower Johnson up in the shed, but he wasn't sure if he'd be able to get it started.
The boat was really beyond repair, it was just a matter of having some kind of vessel, something to put in the water so he didn't have to borrow Simon's boat when he wanted to stock up on supplies.
He walked out on to the jetty, mainly to see if it was strong enough to bear his weight. Oh yes. Some of the planks were rotten and a log had come loose from the lower section, but the jetty would probably last for another couple of years at least.
A light breeze was blowing from the south-west, and he had to cup his hand around his lighter in order to light a cigarette. He blew smoke into the wind, pulled out the plastic bottle of diluted wine, took a couple of swigs and listened to the sighing of the wind in the reeds in the inlet. It was only eleven o'clock in the morning, but he was already pleasantly mellow, able to contemplate without a trace of anxiety the green reeds rippling in the breeze.
Without the wine he would probably have started imagining things. Sigrid's body had been found in the reeds a couple of days earlier. There was no end to what he might have been able to come up with to scare himself witless. Simon had told him it was as he suspected. Sigrid had been lying in the water for less than twenty-four hours when he found her. Where she had been lying before that, no one knew.
A couple of forensic technicians in waders had prodded around in the reeds. Anders had stood at the bedroom window watching them, but it hadn't looked as if they had found anything that might solve the mystery. They had left trampled reeds behind them and returned to the mainland.
After checking the piece of chipboard he had nailed over the broken window, Anders went inside, poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. The number of beads on the tile had now reached a good hundred. Apart from the very first ones, he hadn't put one single bead there himself. It happened at night, after he had gone to bed.
He was still waiting for a message, and the beads gave him nothing.
Apart from the white patch, only blue beads were used.
He could feel Maja's presence in the house more strongly with each passing day, but she refused to give him a clear indication. He was no longer afraid, but rather comforted by the certainty that something of his daughter lingered on in the world. He had her with him, he talked to her. The constant level of slight intoxication prevented him from gathering his thoughts, made him receptive.
There was a knock at the door. After three seconds it opened, and Anders could tell from the footsteps that it was Simon.
'In the kitchen. Come in.'
Anders glanced around quickly to make sure he hadn't left any wine bottles out. All clear. Just a carton of grape juice, standing innocently on the worktop.
Simon walked into the kitchen and sat down without ceremony. 'Have you got any coffee?'
Anders got up, poured a cup and put it down in front of Simon, who was sitting contemplating the bead tile.
Anders made a dismissive gesture and caught his own cup, which wobbled but didn't tip over. Simon didn't notice. His gaze was turned inward, and it was obvious he had something on his mind. He sat there for a while running his finger over the surface of the table, drawing invisible shapes, then asked, 'Do you think you can know another person? Really know another person?'
Anders smiled. 'You ought to be the expert in that field.'
'I'm beginning to think I'm not.'
'What do you mean?'
'I mean you can never become another person. However much you might sometimes imagine you can. Have you ever been in the situation where you're so close to someone that sometimes…just for a moment…when you look at that person, you get the impression, just in passing, that…that's me. A kind of confusion, a vacuum where you don't know who is thinking the thought. If this other person is me.
And then you realise. That you were wrong. That I am me, after all. Has that happened to you?'
Anders had never heard Simon talk like this, and he wasn't sure he liked it. Simon was supposed to be uncomplicated and stable-Anders had enough existential uncertainty of his own. However, he said, 'Yes. I think so. I know what you mean, anyway. But why? Is it something to do with Gran?'
'Among other things. It's strange, isn't it? You can spend your whole life with another person. And yet you can't know. Not really. Because you can't become that person. Can you?'
Anders didn't understand what Simon was getting at. 'But I mean, this is obvious. We know all this.'
Simon tapped his index finger on the table. Quickly, crossly. 'That's the point. I don't think we do know it. We take ourselves as the starting point, and we imagine a whole lot of things. And just because we understand what the other person is saying, we think we know who she is. But we have no idea. No idea. Because we can't be that other person.'
When Simon had gone, Anders lay on Maja's bed for a long time, looking up at the ceiling where the cobwebs floated outwards like dirty lines. He had made up a new bottle, and at irregular intervals he sucked away at it. He thought about what Simon had said.
We can't become another person. But we think we can.
Wasn't that what had driven him to ring Cecilia? The fact that he had assumed she would understand, that she would be able to see what he could see, because they had been a part of each other for so many years. Become the same person, almost.
But there was no mystical connection. They separated, and no longer had anything to do with one another. If their affinity had been real, it would not have been so easy to break. They would have soldiered on and understood each other completely, all the way through the hell in which they found themselves.
Anders raised his bottle and made a circular movement with his hand, encompassing the room and the house, and said out loud, 'But I do understand you.'
Or did he?
He thought about all the times he had stood looking at Maja when she was a baby, sleeping in her cot. How amazed he had been at the rapid movements of her eyes beneath her eyelids when she was dreaming. How he had wished he could get inside her head, see what she could see, try to understand what it was that her young mind could possibly have to work through. What the world looked like to her, really.
No. We don't understand.
After Maja's disappearance he had carried her with him all the time. He had talked to her in his head, or out loud. As time passed, he had formed a clear picture of her. Since she was no longer alive, she couldn't change, and he had carried her like a doll, a frozen image to turn to.
'It's not like that any more,' he said out into the room. 'Now I'm wondering what you're doing. What it looks like where you are, what's happening to you. I'm pretty scared, and I wish I could see you again. That's what I wish most of all.' Tears welled up in his eyes, spilled over and ran down on to Maja's pillow. 'Just to see you again. Hold you in my arms. That's what I wish. That's what I wish.'
Anders snuffled the snot back up his nose, wiped his eyes, dried his tears. He sat up on the edge of the bed and drew his shoulders together, cowering like an anxious child afraid of a telling-off. He spotted the heap of Bamse the Bear comics under the bed, and picked up the top one. Issue number 2, 1993. He had bought a whole pile at a flea market so that Maja would have something to read, or rather look at, when they were on Domarö.
The cover showed Bamse and his friends Little Leap the rabbit and Shellman the tortoise on a boat, on their way to an island shrouded in mist. As usual Little Leap looked terribly worried. Anders lay down on his back on Maja's bed and started to read.
The story was about Captain Buster and some buried treasure, which turned out to be a trick. Anders carried on reading, smiling at the familiar dialogue he had read aloud to Maja so many times, in different interpretations:
'Wait, Bamse! I've got some thunder honey.'
'Puff…thank you, Little Leap…puff!'
'Oh no! He's dropped the pipe. Now they're in trouble.'
Anders moved on to the next story, which was about the vanity of Jansson the cat. From time to time he had a drink from his bottle of wine. When he finished the comic and was looking at the back cover, a picture of two children wearing Bamse hats that you could buy for only fifty-eight kronor, he caught sight of himself.
He was lying in Maja's bed with a Bamse comic in one hand and his bottle in the other. He laughed. Maja had stopped having milk and baby rice a long time ago, but at the age of six she still wanted her juice in a baby's bottle so that she could lie there sucking at it while she was looking at her Bamse comics or listening to tapes.
He realised what he was doing. As long as Maja's bed stood empty and her comics lay unread, there was an empty space where she had been. If he didn't want to erase her and throw away her things, then something had to fill that empty space, and he was using himself. Living her memories and doing what she had done meant that she hadn't disappeared. The things she had loved were still there.
'And in any case, you still exist. Somewhere.'
His legs were heavy as he climbed off the bed. In the hallway he pulled on the fluffy Helly Hansen top that Maja had called his bearskin, and went out to the woodpile.
If he was going to spend the winter living in the Shack, he was going to need wood, lots of wood. The small inheritance he had received after his father's death was almost gone, and he couldn't afford to run the oil-fired central heating any more than was absolutely necessary.
A pile of logs Holger had delivered that last winter still lay there, waiting to be dealt with. Anders went and fetched the chainsaw from the toolshed, topped it up with petrol and oil for the chain, said a little prayer and yanked at the starter cord. The saw didn't start, of course, nor had he expected it to.
When he had pulled the cord maybe thirty times, his right arm was beginning to feel numb and he was dripping with sweat. No sign of life from the saw. He got out his Phillips screwdriver and box spanner, unscrewed the spark plug and cleaned it. It could be something as simple as a rusty spark plug.
When he'd replaced the spark plug he lit a cigarette, took a swig of his wine and stared at the saw for a while; he patted it and tried to coax it along, persuade it that there was nothing wrong with the carburettor or some other part he couldn't fix. That the problem had been with the spark plug, and that was all sorted now.
'And I have to have wood, you see. If I'm going to stay here. If I haven't got any wood I'll have to move, and you'll end up out there in the shed rusting away for another winter.'
He took another swig of wine, thought things over and realised that there was a hole in his argument. The saw would be out in the shed even if he did get some wood.
'OK, how about this. If you start up now, you can spend the winter indoors in the warmth, just as you should have done in the past. My mistake. OK?'
With his heel he ground the cigarette stub into the carpet of old sawdust that covered the area.
I'm talking a lot. I'm talking to everything.
He picked up the saw, pulled out the choke, took a deep breath and yanked the cord. The motor coughed, one cylinder fired and Anders quickly pushed the choke back in, but the motor died. When he yanked again, it worked. The saw was obviously open to persuasion.
The chain was as good as new, and it was easy to slice the logs into manageable blocks. By the time the tank was empty, he had sawn up a good third of the logs.
His head was buzzing when he took off his ear protectors. During the half hour when he had stood bent over the logs with the saw, slicing and rolling, slicing and rolling, he had not thought about anything. No bad thoughts, no good thoughts, nothing. Just the roar of the saw and the tickling sensation of the sawdust spraying against his shins.
I could live like this.
He was sweaty and his mouth was dry, but instead of quenching his thirst with wine he went into the house and had a long drink of water. He felt better than he had for ages, he even felt as if he'd done something just a little bit worthwhile. It had been a long time since he felt like that.
Back outside he finished off the wine to celebrate, smoked a cigarette and fetched the axe. More than half the wood was fir, and it had been lying there drying for two years. He started on that. It was hard work, most of the blocks took several minutes to chop. In between he relaxed with a piece of birch or elm.
He had been working with the axe for about an hour, his arms were aching and he was just about ready to call it a day, when he felt it again. Someone was standing behind him, watching him. This time he wasn't afraid. With the head of the axe he pushed away the piece of birch that was lying on the chopping block, tightened his grip on the handle of the axe and spun around.
'Who are you?' he yelled. 'Come out! I know you're there!'
The yellow foliage of the poplars rustled and he squinted up at the quivering leaves as if they were metal slats on an advertising hoarding. At any moment a message would appear, or a face become visible. But nothing came. Only the continued perception of a dark threat. Someone weighing him up and sharpening a knife.
Suddenly he heard a flapping sound and a dark ball flew past his head. Instinctively he raised the axe to protect himself, but the ball carried on past his head, and soon afterwards he heard a thud from inside the toolshed.
A bird. It was a bird.
He lowered the axe. The bird was banging about inside the shed, a panic-stricken rustle of feathers, the scrabbling of claws. It was a small bird, he could tell that from the sound. Anders waited. The feeling of being watched had gone.
No, it wasn't the bird that had been watching him. It was something bigger and darker. The bird had just happened to come along. Anders took a couple of steps towards the shed and peered in through the door. Even if it was a small creature, there is something about birds in enclosed spaces that encourages caution. The sudden, rapid movements, the beak and claws. They might be small, but they're also sharp.
It wasn't until he had summoned the courage to go right up to the open door that he spotted the bird. He was useless at identifying different species, it might have been a bullfinch. Or a great tit. It was sitting right at the back of the shed, on top of a plastic bottle on a shelf. It was clambering around like a circus artist, balancing on the bottle's narrow stopper.
Anders took a step into the shed. The bird shifted uneasily, its claws rasping on the plastic. The black eyes were shining, and Anders couldn't tell what it was looking at. He leaned closer and whispered, 'Maja? Is that you, Maja?'
The bird didn't react. Anders reached out his hand towards it. Slowly, a few centimetres at a time. When he was on the point of just brushing against the feathers, the bird jumped and flew out of the shed. Anders stood there with his hand outstretched, like someone who had tried to capture a mirage. He closed his fingers around the neck of the bottle instead.
He looked out of the door, but the bird had disappeared. For the lack of anything else to do, he examined the bottle in his hand. It was filled with a cloudy liquid that looked like neither fuel nor oil. He undid the stopper and a bitter odour came surging out. He had no idea what it could be. As he screwed the stopper back in he turned the bottle slightly and noticed a hand-written label.
He recognised the writing. The curly, unsteady letters belonged to his father. On a scrap of torn-off sticky tape he had written, 'WORMWOOD'. The bottle contained some kind of wormwood concentrate, perhaps to get rid of insects. Or roe deer.
Anders shook his head. Wormwood was poisonous, and this bottle must have been standing here when Maja was running around the place playing.
Typical lousy parent.
As a belated penance Anders screwed the stopper in firmly and placed the bottle on the shelf above the workbench, where Maja wouldn't be able to reach it. Then he went out and fetched the wheel barrow. Before he could put the newly cut wood into the store, he would have to move the old, dry wood to the front.
Once again he found that the work gave him the peace of oblivion which he now realised was something worth striving for. After a good hour he had reorganised the wood store and was able to put the new wood inside. Twilight had begun to dim the brightness of the sky by the time he tipped the wheelbarrow up against the wall of the shed. He took off his gloves and rubbed his hands together as he contemplated the wood store, which was now looking much healthier.
A day's work. A good day's work.
He was famished after all his efforts, and cooked a meal consisting of a huge portion of macaroni with half a kilo of Falun sausage. When he had finished eating and smoked a cigarette, he sat for a long time looking out of the window. His whole body was aching, and he almost felt like a real person.
He considered taking a stroll over to Elin's to see if she fancied sharing a little undiluted wine, or rather a lot of wine, but he decided against it, partly because she had been away for two days and probably wasn't home, and partly because he didn't think he would need any wine in order to get to sleep tonight. For the first time in ages.
Simon had had enough.
The discovery of Sigrid's body and what had followed had been the final straw. He could no longer close his eyes to what had been moving closer for fifty years. Enough was enough.
The story of his escape by the steamboat jetty had been polished over the years, bounced between him and Anna-Greta and worn smooth until it was now the jewel of a story they had told Anders only four days ago; he was merely the latest in a long line of listeners. A story of heroic deeds and awakening love.
Of course it was that kind of story as well, but something essential was missing. He had taken up that something with Anna-Greta, but she had refused to have anything to do with it, and it had been expunged from the official story. This bothered him.
But Simon remembered it very well. What had really happened.
It had been an unusually simple escape, to start with. Only chains had been used, and chains rarely posed a problem. While he was still standing in the sack he had got out of most of them, and had also picked the lock on the handcuffs.
When the push that sent him down into the water came at last, he had calculated that he would need a maximum of thirty seconds to free himself from the last of the chains and get out of the sack. Then all he had to do was swim over to the jetties and wait a minute or two, just for effect.
The sack hit the water and he sank. He had learned to close the airways in his nose so that he could even out the pressure without using his fingers. On his way down to the bottom he pressed twice, which made the eardrum push outwards in the right way and reduced the noise and the pain in his head. He closed his eyes to enable him to concentrate better as the cold water penetrated through the sack and began to make his limbs stiffen.
The greatest danger in spending a long time underwater was not the lack of oxygen. He had trained himself to be able to hold his breath for more than three minutes. No, the real danger was the cold. After only a minute the fingers would start to become incapable of precise movements. That was why he always tried to make sure the handcuffs were dealt with as quickly as possible.
This time that problem had already been resolved. When his body hit the bottom he had only a few simple twists left before he could rip open the sack with the sharpened picklock and swim towards his triumph.
It was then, just as he was easing the penultimate chain over his shoulder, that the water above him suddenly became heavier. Something laid itself on top of him. His first thought was that someone up on the jetty had thrown something into the water. Something large and heavy. He was being pushed down to the bottom, and had to make quite an effort to stop the air being forced out of his lungs.
He opened his eyes and saw only darkness. The cold that was working on his skin from the outside now had help from the cold fear on the inside. His heart began to beat faster, consuming the valuable oxygen he had left. He tried to understand what could possibly be lying on top of him, so that he would have a better chance of escaping from its grip. He couldn't come up with anything. It had no shape, no seams. The first feeling he had had was the closest he got: the water had become heavy.
Panic threatened. His eyes had now grown accustomed to the faint light that penetrated through the sacking and six metres of water. When a few bubbles of air escaped from his lips, he could see them as blurred reflections.
I don't want to die. Not like this.
With an enormous effort he managed to twist his body in the grip of the water so that the last chains fell off. He still had time. When he was training himself to hold his breath he had sometimes had Marita there to help, which had given him the courage to hang on as long as possible. He could tell when he was about to lose consciousness. He wasn't there yet.
But he couldn't escape from the weight. It was lying on top of him like a giant pestle, and the sack was a peppercorn in the bottom of the mortar.
He managed to rip open the sack with the picklock, and was rewarded with a glimmer of real daylight. He was lying on his back, pressed against the seabed, and way up above he could see the contours of the people on the jetty, the blue sky above them. Nobody had thrown anything, there was nothing on top of him. Except water. Six metres of impenetrable water.
The cold had now got a serious grip on him, and a feeling of calm was beginning to spread through his body. A calm that resembled warmth. He relaxed and stopped fighting. He had at least a minute left before it was over. Why should he spend that minute struggling and fighting? He had freed himself from the chains, the handcuffs and the rope, but he knew he wouldn't be able to free himself from the water. He had been defeated in the end.
Everything was beautiful.
Quiet and helpless, Simon lay there on the seabed. He lay there like the dead, and through the tear in the sacking he could see the sky and vague figures waiting for him. It was the angels calling him to them, and in a while he would be there. He was in darkness, but soon he would come into the light, and it was good.
He didn't know how long he lay like that. It might have been one minute or two, perhaps ten seconds, when the water suddenly released its pressure. As lightly as a veil the weight was withdrawn, and he was free.
With a calm which he would later find difficult to comprehend, he merely thought something along the lines of: I see, we're doing it this way, then. He got out of the sack and swam with even strokes over to the far jetty. Nothing grabbed at him, nothing wanted to get at him. There was no weight, only lightness. When he broke the surface of the water, hidden from view by the boats, he took a deep breath, and only then did everything go black. He grabbed at the rail of the nearest skiff and managed to stop himself from sinking. He breathed evenly and calmly, and the world began to come together once again.
From the steamboat jetty he could hear someone shouting, 'Three minutes!' and he couldn't believe they were referring to him. He had been gone much longer than that.
Simon hung on to the rail and tried to regain his grasp of reality. When the voice on the jetty yelled, 'Four minutes!' he had come to his senses. He recognised the faint smell of tar from the skiff, the taste of salt and old fear in his mouth, the piercing cold in his muscles.
He swam towards the shore and after a couple of metres he was able to walk in the shallows, crouching down behind the boats. He carried on up on to the rocks, and the rest of the story matched the official version.
This was the first in a series of things he had allowed to pass over the years. A number of people had disappeared under dubious circumstances, he had found Spiritus, and Maja had vanished into thin air. He had allowed himself to be assured that everything was as it should be, because it was easier that way and because the alternative was impossible to put into words. It was just ridiculous to think there was some kind of silent conspiracy among those who lived on Domarö all the year round. And yet he had begun to wonder if that wasn't precisely the situation.
Simon pulled his old leather jacket on over his overalls and went out. There was a thread, and now he was going to tug at it to try and provoke a reaction. The thread was called Holger. The discovery of Sigrid's body had obviously shaken him, because there had been no sign of him, so perhaps he was off balance and susceptible to a chat.
It was four o'clock in the afternoon, and the sound of an axe chopping wood echoed across the inlet. Simon nodded to himself. Anders was obviously hard at work, and that was a good thing. The dull sound of a lump of wood being repeatedly thumped against the chopping block suggested that he had made a start on the dry fir.
Well, that will give him plenty to do.
The village was deserted in the soft afternoon light. The school children had gone home, and were probably having something to eat. Simon looked down towards the jetty and remembered that day long ago when he had stepped ashore for the first time. Astonishingly little had changed. The wooden boats around the jetty had become fibreglass boats, and some kind of transformer station stood there humming quietly at the end of the jetty, but otherwise everything looked just the same as it had done then.
The waiting room had been torn down and rebuilt. The boat- houses were listed as cultural heritage these days, and thus remained unchanged, the diesel tank was still there spoiling the track up to the village, and the sea buckthorn perhaps looked a little better, but was still in exactly the same place. These things had seen him step ashore, had seen him almost drown, and now they saw him walking through the deserted village kicking pebbles along in front of him as he went.
You know more than me. A lot more.
He was so absorbed by his own feet that he didn't notice there was a light on in the mission house until he was virtually on top of it. It was only in exceptional cases that the mission house was used at any time other than a Saturday morning, when a small flock of the older residents gathered to drink coffee and sing hymns to the accompaniment of a treadle organ.
The curtains were closed and the chandelier on the ceiling, the pride and joy of the mission house, was visible only as a pale blotch. Simon went up to the window and listened. He could hear voices, but not what was being said. He thought for a moment, then went around the side and opened the door.
The village council. I'm part of this village as well.
The sight that met his eyes as he walked in was in no way remarkable. A dozen individuals aged between sixty and eighty were sitting on chairs in a loose huddle beneath the votive nave. He knew or recognised every one of them. There was Elof Lundberg and his brother Johan. There was Margareta Bergwall and Karl-Erik something-or-other from the south of the village. There was Holger. And Anna-Greta. Among others.
The conversation stopped the second he opened the door. Every face turned towards him. They looked neither caught out nor embarrassed, but their expressions made it very clear that his intrusion was not welcome. He looked at Anna-Greta, and saw something different in her face. A hint of pain. Or a prayer.
Go away. Please.
Simon pretended not to notice anything; he just walked in and said cheerfully, 'So what are you all cooking up, then?'
Glances were exchanged, and the unspoken agreement seemed to be that Anna-Greta should be the one to respond. When a few uncomfortable seconds had passed without her saying a word, Johan Lundberg said, 'A Stockholmer wants to buy the mission house.'
Simon nodded thoughtfully. 'I see. And what are you thinking of doing?'
'We're wondering whether to sell.'
'Who is this Stockholmer? What's his name?'
When no reply was forthcoming, Simon went over to the group, pulled up a chair and sat down.
'Carry on. I think this is interesting as well.'
The silence was suffocating. A faint clicking sound came from the old wooden walls, and a petal drifted down from the wilting flowers on the altar. Anna-Greta scowled at him and said, 'Simon. You can't be here.'
'Because…you just can't. Can't you accept that?' 'No.'
Karl-Erik stood up. He was the most well-preserved of those present, and a pair of still muscular arms protruded from his rolled- up shirt sleeves. 'Well, that's the way it is,' he said, 'and if you're not prepared to leave of your own free will, then I'll just have to carry you out.'
Simon stood up as well. He hadn't much to offer in comparison to Karl-Erik, but he looked him in the eye anyway and said, 'You're welcome to try.'
Karl-Erik raised his bushy eyebrows and took a step forward. 'If that's the way you want it…' Without any definite purpose in mind, Simon closed his hand around the matchbox in his pocket. Karl-Erik angrily shoved a couple of chairs out of his way, working himself into a rage.
Anna-Greta shouted 'Karl-Erik!' but it was no longer possible to stop him. He had a glint in his eye, and a task to see through. He stepped up to Simon and grabbed hold of his jacket with both hands. Simon lost his footing and hit Karl-Erik's chest with his head, but he didn't let go of the matchbox.
With his forehead pressed against his opponent's ribs, he asked the water in Karl-Erik's blood, the water in his tissues, to hurl itself upwards. The strength in Simon's request was not as great as when he had held Spiritus in his bare hand, but it was more than enough. Karl-Erik staggered, let go of Simon's jacket and put his hands up to his head. He reeled backwards a couple of steps, then leaned forward and threw up all over the antique rug.
Simon let go of the matchbox and folded his arms across his chest once more. 'Anyone else?'
Karl-Erik coughed and retched, threw a venomous look at Simon and retched a little more, then wiped his mouth and hissed, 'What the fuck do you…'
Simon sat down on his chair and said, 'I want to know what you're discussing.' He looked from one to the other. 'It's the sea, isn't it? What's happening to the sea.'
Elof Lundberg rubbed a hand over his bald head, which looked indecently naked without the obligatory cap, and asked, 'How much do you know?'
A couple of the others looked angrily at Elof, since his question implied an admission that there was something to know. Simon shook his head. 'Not much. But enough to know there's something wrong.'
Karl-Erik had pulled himself together and was on his way back to his seat. As he passed Simon he spat, And what exactly are you intending to do about it?'
Simon unzipped his jacket to indicate that he intended to stay. He looked at the group, which was tightly closed around an invisible centre, making no move to invite him into the circle. Anna-Greta wouldn't look in his direction, which he found hurtful. Despite his bad feeling, he hadn't wanted to believe it would be like this.
What are they so afraid of?
It couldn't be anything else. They sat there like some little sect, fearfully protecting their secret and their belief, terrified of any intrusion. What Simon couldn't understand was that Anna-Greta was part of this. If there was ever a person he had met in his life who didn't seem to be afraid of anything, it was her. But here she sat now, her eyes darting everywhere, focusing anywhere but on him.
'I'm not intending to do anything,' said Simon. 'What could I do? But I want to know.' He raised his voice. 'Holger!'
Holger, who had been deep in thought, jumped and looked up. Simon asked, 'What really happened to Sigrid?'
Perhaps Holger hadn't really picked up on any of the previous aggression towards Simon, because he answered sourly, as if Simon already knew, 'That's exactly what we're talking about.'
Simon was about to say something ironic about the fact that he thought they were talking about the mission house, but if he did that they could carry on attacking him and bickering until the cows came home, so instead he folded his arms and simply said, 'I'm not going anywhere. It's up to you how you deal with that.'
At last Anna-Greta was looking at him. Her gaze was direct and impossible to interpret. There was no love in it. No loathing or any other emotion either. She was a function looking at another function and trying to assess it. She looked at him for a long time, and Simon looked back. The sea lay between them. In the end she clamped her lips together, nodded briefly and said, 'Would you be kind enough to go out for a couple of minutes, at least? So that we can come to a decision.'
Simon considered the matter and decided this was a reasonable request. With exaggerated care he zipped up his jacket and went out. Just before the door closed he heard Karl-Erik say, 'Bloody summer visitors, they think…' then the door closed on the rest of his comment.
Simon walked a few metres away from the mission house and stood there contemplating the autumn. The thicket of dog roses next to the mission house wall was covered in rosehips, red and alive like insects. All the leaves were gradually turning yellow, and the rust- coloured roof tiles shone slightly with dampness. Odd chips of gravel sparkled on the path when a shaft of sunlight penetrated through the foliage.
The loveliest place on earth.
It wasn't the first time he had thought that. Particularly in the autumn, he had often been brought to a standstill in admiration of the beauty of Domarö. How could this be a depopulated community, why didn't everyone want to live here?
He walked a little way along the track, drinking in more of the autumn's miracles: the clear water in the rock pools, the wet tree trunks, the moss saturated with green dampness. The white-painted tower of the alarm bell, stretching up towards the sky. He wasn't thinking about anything other than what was before his eyes. He knew he could think about something else, about the change that was perhaps about to take place, but he refused. Maybe he was saying a kind of goodbye.
He had been ambling about in this way for perhaps five minutes when the mission house door opened. Anna-Greta came out and waved him over. He couldn't tell from her face what the decision was, and she turned away before he reached her.
When Simon walked back into the warmth he had no need to ask. An extra chair had been drawn into the circle, between Johan Lundberg and Marta Karlsson, who used to run the shop before her son took over. Simon didn't know if it was deliberate, but he had been placed opposite Anna-Greta.
He took off his jacket, hung it over the back of the chair and sat down with his elbows resting on his knees. Karl-Erik was two seats away to the left, sitting as if he were holding a barrel of nitro-glycerine on his lap. If he moved or slackened his grip, he would explode.
Anna-Greta looked around the group and licked her lips. She had obviously been nominated as chair. Or perhaps she always had taken that role.
'First of all,' she said, 'I want you to tell us how much you know. And how you know.'
Simon shook his head. 'So that you can work out what to tell me? No. It seems as if you've decided…' Simon glanced briefly at Karl- Erik. '…that I'm allowed to know. So tell me.'
Anna-Greta looked at him in that way again. But there was a difference. It took Simon a moment to work out what it was. Then he realised: she was embarrassed. All this was her fault, because she was the one who was Simon's partner. He was her responsibility.
Elof Lundberg slapped his hands down on his knees and said, 'We can't sit here all day. Tell him. Start with Gåvasten.'
So she did.
It was a hazardous business, being a fisherman in the olden days, before meteorology. There were no forecasts to consult, nothing to tell you how much of its better nature the sea was planning to show; or whether it was intending to whip itself into winds that would smash both people and vessels to pieces.
And if things went very badly, if the fragile boats that had set out to gather in the nets ran into a strong wind, what chance was there for the crew to communicate the fact that they were in distress? The most they could hope for was that God would hear their cries, and his readiness to help was somewhat capricious.
But they did their best. When it seemed as if all hope had gone, when the crew were lined up along the gunwale to stop the waves crashing over the deck, they would sometimes make lists of the promised collections that would be taken up when they came ashore, if they ever came ashore. Sometimes God allowed himself to be persuaded, and the lists would be read out in church the following Sunday and the collection would be taken.
But it wasn't a reliable method. Many notes detailing extensive promises of contributions to the glory of God sank to the bottom with those who had made them. Incomprehensible, one might think. But Our Lord is no businessman.
Yes, life as a herring fisherman was a risky business in the olden days, but sometimes it could be very rewarding. Entire families moved to the outer islands during the summer, spending a few months laying, gathering in and checking their nets. The herring were salted in barrels and stored away, and later in the autumn they would be transported home and sold.
Sweden is built on salt herring. What did they use to feed the army, what did they give to the foreigners who came to build churches, and to other workers? Herring, that's what! And what kept those who lived on the coast alive during the dark winter months?
People were so afraid of upsetting this valuable fish that the official document of the harbour guild states, 'Any person who shows disrespect towards any fish, and calls it by an incorrect name in a spirit of contempt will pay a fine of 6 marks'.
The silver of the sea. It had to be brought up, and that involved risk. But people looked for opportunities to stack the deck, so to speak. To reduce the risks and be able to feel secure.
Anna-Greta's story took place many hundreds of years ago. The area that today comprises Nåten was still partly under water. Domarö with its surrounding archipelago made up the outermost islands. This was also the site of the rock that used to be called Gafwasten even further back in time. This was the place where people were in the habit of leaving gifts for the sea, after, for example, a successful trip across to Aland and back.
Exactly how the next phase began is shrouded in darkness. It is possible that someone might have got stranded on Gåvasten and been swept away into the waves, or simply disappeared. At any rate, people noticed that after this event the catches improved significantly, and the sea remained obliging all summer long.
It made people think.
The following summer, an insolent young man who had no time for superstitious nonsense declared that he was willing to be left on Gåvasten. He was provided with sufficient food and drink for a week, and if nothing had happened during that time, someone would come and rescue him.
They left the young man on the bare rock, rowed back to the fishing grounds a nautical mile or so away, and carried on laying their nets as if nothing had happened. The very next day they had the record catch of the summer, and the herring continued to pour into their nets in the days that followed.
When they returned to Gåvasten after a week, the young man was gone. They inspected the leftover food and drink, and found that it was virtually untouched. He couldn't have spent many hours on Gåvasten before the sea took its tribute, and gave them herring in return.
And so the situation was clear. The problem was how to proceed in the future.
The catches were enormous that summer, and during the October market they were able to sell more than twice as much fish as in previous years. Come the winter, discussions were held, and this was the decision they made: since no one was willing to offer themselves as a gift to the sea, they would simply vote. Women and children were not allowed to participate, but nor were they at risk of being sacrificed. This was a matter for the men.
Now, it would be nice to be able to tell of the heroic resignation with which the chosen person received the verdict. Unfortunately this was not the case. The voting was carried out with no mercy, and simply turned into a vote as to who was least popular in the fishing community. It was usually some angry and unreasonable individual who was selected, and the dubious honour didn't make him any more amenable.
The victim would be hauled off to Gåvasten with something of a violent struggle, then his companions would row away as fast as they could with his curses echoing across the bay. Everybody kept their eyes down.
It came to be common practice simply to bind and fetter the victim before depositing him on Gåvasten. As the years passed, the custom was rationalised even further. No one really wanted to set foot on Gåvasten, and it turned out it was enough to chain up the victim and drop him in the sea. The desired effect was still achieved. The herring poured in, and the sea did not seek any further sacrifices.
By this stage people had settled permanently on Domarö. The pact with the sea made the population as rich as it is possible to be from fishing, and the houses were in no way inferior to those on the mainland. And yet it was not a happy island.
The annual sacrifice took its toll on the souls of the people. It wasn't many years before they stopped excluding women and children from the sacrificial duty. Since it was still only the men who voted, it was, shamefully, the women and children who ran the greatest risk of being selected.
It's unlikely that anyone was exactly happy at having to tie up a child, and then, as it sobbed and pleaded for its life, to throw it over the gunwale and watch it sink. But they did it. They did it, because that was the custom. And it ate away at the people.
No one was pleased when spring arrived, because spring was merely a forerunner of the summer. The leaves burst into life late in the archipelago, and when the trees became flecked with green it was not long to the summer solstice, and the whole of Domarö lived in fear of that day, the day when the vote traditionally took place.
You might imagine that the risk of being voted out would make people amenable and less inclined to use harsh words, for fear of being regarded as difficult. You might certainly imagine that. However, that wasn't how it turned out.
Instead of friendliness, a climate of ingratiation flourished; instead of honesty, falseness blossomed. The kind words lost their way and turned into whispers and conspiracies, people gathered in clandestine groups and formed alliances. It had been bad enough when the vote was a matter of excluding the person who brought least joy to the group. That time was now past. Now they drowned the person who had failed in the game of intrigue.
There were heroic gestures, of course, born out of a kind of love. A mother or father took the place of their child, a brother allowed himself to be put in chains instead of his sister. But after a few years that love also disappeared. Someone whose life was spared one year could be the victim the following year. People sank into apathy, brought home their plentiful catch of herring and took no pleasure in anything.
At this time, Domarö was virtually isolated. The only contact with the outside world was in connection with selling the fish in autumn. However, as the years went by, rumours inevitably began to spread. The odd visitor reported on the oppressive atmosphere on the island, and the people from Domarö always kept themselves to themselves at the market. Spoke to no one unless it was a matter of business, never ventured a smile. And after all, people kept disappearing. That couldn't be concealed in the long term.
In 1675, a thorough investigation was finally carried out into the situation on Domarö. A delegation of aldermen, priests and members of the constabulary from Stockholm were conveyed to the island to see if the epidemic of heresy and devil worship that had taken
root in the capital had also spread to the archipelago.
They found that indeed it had. Accustomed as they were to slandering each other and conspiring, the residents of Domarö were not slow to denounce others when they were under pressure. There was no end to the confessions that spilled out behind closed doors, but always about the neighbours. Always about the neighbours.
The members of the delegation found it impossible to untangle the skein of accusations and counter-accusations with which they were confronted, and they decided that as an interim measure they would have a number of men arrested-those who seemed to be the most compromised. These men were transported to Stockholm and held in custody.
Under questioning the men admitted that the sacrifices had been made with the aim of gaining material benefits, but they refused to admit there had been any kind of pact with the Evil One. After a couple of weeks of intense interrogation involving pincers and thumbscrews, most of them changed their minds. It seemed, when it came down to it, people had not only prayed to the Evil One but danced with him.
The torturers and the scribes between them finally managed to produce a comprehensive document that was completely in line with what the authorities had feared they might find. Domarö was a cauldron where the Devil's stinking juices were slowly stewing, and the island was a danger to the entire archipelago.
They were somewhat surprised when they returned to Domarö to call the rest of the population to account and found that nobody had fled. They interpreted this as obduracy and a stubborn belief that the powers of evil would stand by them. Therefore, they would be shown no mercy. Domarö was emptied of its people, and a long drawn-out investigation began.
After a whole year, the verdict was delivered. There was better evidence here than in many other trials going on at the time. This was not merely a question of a fleeting word that might have sullied the honour of God, or ambiguous confessions from children and servants-no, in this case human sacrifices had definitely taken place, and evil surrounded the accused like a cloud. They wanted to make an example of the people of Domarö.
All the men were sentenced to death, along with a number of women. For reasons that are unclear, some individuals were accorded the privilege of being beheaded first. Perhaps they had been particularly assiduous in denouncing others. The rest were burned alive.
The women who were left were sent to work in spinning workhouses, the children were distributed around different institutions. On Domarö the nets rotted on the drying racks, and the winter ice crushed the boats to matchwood. No one wanted anything to do with the island, and ideally they would have liked to erase it from the maritime charts if not from the surface of the earth.
To some extent their wishes were granted. The following summer, a few days after the solstice, a storm passed over the archipelago. Its effects were felt everywhere on the inhabited islands, large and small, but nowhere was the devastation greater than on Domarö.
As already stated, no one was keen to step ashore, but when the storm had abated and people dared to venture out in boats again, they could see from a considerable distance what had happened. The magnificent houses that the residents of Domarö had built and paid for with their evil trade were gone. Their boats were gone and the jetties off which the boats had been moored were gone.
Not that they had disappeared into thin air, oh no. The foundations of the houses were still there, and the wreckage of the houses they had supported was strewn across the rocks. The odd log from a jetty was still sticking up out of the water. But there was not one single building left.
It was impossible to interpret this in any other way than to assume that God had been offended by the sight of Domarö. The island had been like a needle in his eye, and now he had allowed the sea to draw its rake across it in order to free the archipelago of this abomination.
During the whole of that summer and far into the autumn the mainland and surrounding islands were tormented by driftwood from Domarö. Timber from houses and jetties drifted up on to other shores, and were received with the same delight as clothes handed down from someone who had died of the plague. Fire was the only cure, and at irregular intervals bonfires flared up on the rocks as they burned what was left of the settlement of Domarö, down to the very last splinter.
So ends the first chapter in the story of Domarö.
Simon was feeling ill at ease. Anna-Greta had not told her story as if it were some shaggy dog story from the past, but as if she were relaying a sacred text. Her expression had been distant and her voice husky, thick with the seriousness of what was coming out of her mouth. Simon didn't recognise his Anna-Greta at all.
However, he couldn't just dismiss it as a folk tale which for some reason had become gospel. His own experience got in the way. What had happened to him by the steamboat jetty fifty years ago fitted perfectly with the story Anna-Greta had just told.
There was silence in the hall. Simon closed his eyes. The narrative had gone on for a long time; it must be dark outside by now. When he listened he could hear the sea far away. The wind was getting up. A tickling sensation ran down Simon's spine.
The sea. It hasn't finished with Domarö.
When he opened his eyes he discovered that everyone was sitting looking at him. These were not anxious, enquiring looks, there was no sense of you do believe us, don't you? Just a silent wait for what he might say. He decided to respond in the same vein; he cleared his throat and told them what had happened during his escape. When he had finished, Margareta Bergwall said, 'Yes, Anna-Greta told us about that.'
Johan Lundvall snorted and wagged a finger at Simon, 'So you did have a picklock after all. Just as I thought.'
So Anna-Greta had told the others his story, which she had simply dismissed when he told her.
'So this is historical fact?' Simon asked, turning to Anna-Greta.
'Yes. There are records from the interrogations. And from the interviews before…Satan entered the picture.'
'And you don't think it's him? Satan?'
A salutary wave of sniggers and giggles swept through the group. People smiled and shook their heads. Their reaction was answer enough.
To the right of Simon sat Tora Österberg, an elderly woman who was very active within the mission, and who lived in almost total isolation on the southern side of the island. She patted his knee and said, 'The Devil exists, you can be sure of that. But he has nothing to do with this.'
For once Gustav Jansson had kept quiet until now. In his heyday he had been the leading accordion player in the village, a legendary toper and an inveterate joker. Now he just couldn't stop himself. 'Maybe he's been to visit you, Tora?'
Tora's eyes narrowed. 'Yes, Gustav, he has, and he looked exactly like you. Although his nose wasn't quite as red.'
Gustav laughed and looked around, as if he actually had the nerve to be pleased about being compared with the Evil One. Simon realised that a normal human mechanism was coming into play. This was a closed group where everyone had a set role. Now they had a new audience, and immediately began to overplay their roles. Or perhaps they were just trying to get away from the subject under discussion.
'But why all this secrecy?' asked Simon. 'Why can't everyone who lives here know about this?'
The more relaxed atmosphere that had been about to join the company stopped dead in the doorway. The heaviness returned like a physical force, making shoulders droop and bodies slump on their chairs. Anna-Greta said, 'I think you've realised this is not something
that belongs to the past. That it's something that's going on right now.'
'We no longer give people to the sea, but it takes them anyway. Perhaps not one per year anymore, but it takes many. Summer or winter.'
The objection that had been bubbling inside Simon throughout Anna-Greta's narrative, making him so furious with the original population of Domarö, also applied to the group sitting here cowering in the mission house, and at last he could put it into words. 'But all you have to do is move! They could have done it, and you…we can do it. If the sea really is taking people in a way that isn't natural, if everyone is walking around in fear of becoming the next victim, why don't we just move, and leave this island?'
'Unfortunately it's not that simple.'
Anna-Greta took a deep breath and was about to answer, when Karl-Erik straightened his back and said, 'Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought we were meeting today to discuss this business of Sigrid and what it might mean, not to go over things we already know.' He looked at his watch. 'And I don't know about you, but I'd like to get home in time for the news, at least.'
Watches were examined, with some people expressing concern that it was so late; Simon was the target of some sideways glances, since it was his appearance that had led to the whole thing being so drawn out.
Simon couldn't believe it: they were sitting here discussing terrible forces, how they should be dealt with, and their own survival. And yet this paled in comparison with the risk of missing the news on TV. Then he realised it was only to him it looked that way. For them the threat had become a part of their everyday life, a depressing fact, not something that needed to be discussed. Like people in a war zone or a city under siege, they clung to the small elements of happiness that still exist in life. If the news can be regarded as a component of happiness.
Simon raised his hands to show that he was giving up, that he wasn't going to make any more demands on their time. For now.
Anna-Greta nodded to Elof. He looked bewildered, then realised that he was expected to carry on from where he had left off a couple of hours earlier.
'Right, well, as I said before…before we were interrupted…I can only think that this is a positive development.' Simon noticed that several of the others were shaking their heads, but Elof went on, 'It's never happened before, no one has ever…come back. I would say this is an indication that…it's getting weaker. Somehow.'
His lips moved but he couldn't work out how to proceed. Anna- Greta helped him out, 'And what do you think we should do about that?'
He didn't get any further before he was interrupted by a noise. At first Simon thought it was a distant foghorn, but then he remembered what it was. It had been heard that time when some idiot from Stockholm had set fire to some brushwood at the end of June, and almost set the whole of Kattudden alight.
Everyone was on their feet immediately.
Jackets and coats were pulled on, and within a minute the room was empty. Only Simon and Anna-Greta remained. They looked at each other without speaking. Then Simon turned on his heel and went out.
After the light inside the hall, the autumn darkness was dense. The little megaphone in the alarm bell tower was sending out its pulsating tone, but there was no sign of a fire down towards the village. In any case, the wind was coming from the south-west. He should have been able to smell the smoke on the breeze if the fire was in that direction.
There was a fire service, but it was focused on the area around the harbour, the original settlement. A powerful pump next to the jetty was connected to a four-hundred-metre pipe, and in an emergency this could be used to hose sea water over most of the buildings in the central part of the village.
But the fire wasn't in the central part of the village. When Simon's eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness, he could see the outlines of the others from the meeting. They were heading for Kattudden. The low-lying clouds to the east were tinged with pink. When he had gone a few steps in that direction, Anna-Greta appeared by his side. She groped for his hand, and Simon pulled it away.
After about fifty metres they caught up with Tora Österberg. Her gumboots creaked slowly in the darkness as she moved along with the help of her wheeled walker. She was dangerously close to the edge of the track and the ditch. Anna-Greta grabbed her arm and stopped her from tipping over the edge.
'Go home, Tora,' said Anna-Greta. 'You're not needed here.'
'It's got nothing to do with being needed,' snapped Tora. 'I want to see what's going on.'
Simon took the opportunity to put some distance between himself and Anna-Greta. He strode out as fast as he could, and slowed down only when Tora's indignant voice was far behind him. He was so disappointed in Anna-Greta, and he just didn't know what to do.
The purely symbolic rent he had been paying for so many years had enabled him to put quite a bit of money away, and he could probably afford to buy a house. Perhaps he could buy the house he lived in from Anna-Greta?
He smiled bitterly. No. For one thing he wouldn't be able to pay what a house so near the shore was worth, for another he might not want to live close to Anna-Greta any longer, for another…for another it would be like paying back the rent he really owed.
Fuck her. Fuck the lot of them.
Suddenly the ground fell away beneath his feet and he tumbled over. The darkness in the forest, the darkness in his head had led him to the ditch. As he landed he grazed his hand on a rock. Tears of pain and fury welled up in his eyes and he screamed out loud, 'Fucking hell!'
Then he pulled himself together and checked himself over. Nothing was broken or damaged, and he didn't want Anna-Greta to see him like this. He crawled out of the ditch and got to his feet, pressing the cut on his hand against the edge of his shirt. He was about to set off again when he heard the sound of an engine approaching. It was coming from the forest, from the path leading down to the shore on the northern side of the island.
The sound was strained, hysterical, like a moped engine being revved much too hard. He peered into the forest and there it was, the headlight of a moped bouncing along the narrow track, its engine roaring.
Who the hell is that? It's virtually impossible to ride along there!
The only house in that direction was Holger's, and Holger didn't have a moped. Besides which, he would never have driven a moped with a cargo platform-because Simon could hear from the rattling noise that it was a platform moped-along the bumpy path.
The moped swung up on to the track ten metres ahead of him, and Simon was blinded by the powerful headlight. He had thought the moped would turn in the opposite direction, towards the fire, but instead it swerved to the right and came straight at him. He was about to step to one side, but remembered that he was already standing by the verge.
The dazzling light made it impossible for him to see anything at all. He just heard the roar as the moped zoomed past him, felt the faint thrust of air as the metal body passed by. The moped carried on at high speed along the track towards the village.
He turned and saw the beam of light from the moped racing along the track. He could also see a vague silhouette of the person who was driving. He couldn't see who it was, just a figure bent over the handlebars with something on the platform, something roughly the same size as a child standing up.
Immediately afterwards he saw Anna-Greta and Tora caught in the beam. They had been sensible enough to step to one side, and the moped passed them with plenty of room to spare. Simon breathed out. He might be deeply disappointed in Anna-Greta, but he definitely didn't want to see her run over by some lunatic on a moped.
Who was it?
In his mind Simon went through the small number of young people living on the island, but couldn't come up with a single candidate. As far as he knew, they were all quiet kids who spent too much time playing computer games and longed for the day when they would be able to leave Domarö. At worst they might scrawl rude graffiti about Stockholmers on the steamboat jetty shelter.
Speculation was pointless right now, however. There was a fire to put out, and he was serving no purpose standing here debating with himself. But he felt dizzy and exhausted, and not at all in the mood for a rescue effort.
He had been involved last time. They had managed to link up a couple of garden hoses in order to spray water on the burning ground, but most of the water had been hauled up from the sea in buckets and passed from hand to hand along a human chain; and there had been more of them on that occasion.
When he emerged from the forest he could see that the finest house on the whole of Kattudden was burning, the Gronwall house. One of the first to be built when the summer tourist industry was in its infancy.
There wasn't much that could be done. The external walls were virtually gone, and through the yellow and red flames the beams and framework could be seen as darker lines. There was a loud crackling, and despite the fact that he was standing a good hundred metres away from the blaze, he could feel a faint breath of the fire's heat.
It was a pity about the beautiful house, of course, but at the same time it was fortunate that it was this particular house that was on fire. It was set in a large garden, and there didn't seem to be any real risk that the fire would spread to other properties, as long as they kept an eye on the sparks and burning fragments that might drift through the air.
The people delineated against the bright glow of the fire like matchstick men seemed to be of the same opinion. Nobody was doing anything, they were just standing at a safe distance or walking around checking that no new blaze was about to break out.
Simon really wanted to go home, but he realised that wouldn't look good. When he spotted Göran standing to one side talking on his mobile phone, he headed over to him. Göran said something into the phone, nodded a couple of times then snapped it shut. He caught sight of Simon and came to meet him.
'Hi there,' he said. 'The fire service are on the way, but it'll be mainly a matter of damping down, I think.'
They stood side by side for a while, contemplating the burning house without speaking. The heat now lay like a dry film over their faces, and a shower of sparks flew up as one of the roof beams collapsed.
'How did it start?' asked Simon.
'No idea. But it seems to have caught hold incredibly fast.' Göran jerked his thumb in the direction of one of the houses further up towards the forest. 'Lidberg, I think his name is. Lives up there. He said it just went boom and the whole place was on fire.'
'Was anyone there? Inside the house?'
'Not as far as I know. But I mean a fire doesn't start just like that for no reason.'
'The Grönwalls-they're only here in the summer, aren't they?'
'That's right. But I think the daughter stays here now and again.'
They took a few steps towards the fire, and Simon peered into the bright glow as if he expected to be able to see something in the flames. A person, something moving. Or a blackened skeleton. Another supporting post came down, bringing with it a couple of roof beams in a cloud of crackling flames. If there had been anything living in there, it certainly wasn't alive now.
The grass in the garden surrounding the house had dried out, and patches were beginning to burn. Simon, watching the fire moving towards the well, was overcome by the urge to do something significant. He could call up the water from the well, order it to pour down on the fire and make the work of the fire service unnecessary. With Spiritus in his bare hand he might be able to do such things.
If it had been a matter of saving lives, he would probably have done it. But in the current situation it would just be a meaningless demonstration that would also give rise to unpleasant questions. He didn't want to touch Spiritus. He didn't know why, but there it was.
Who's that knocking on your door?
Anders didn't know if he was swimming up towards the surface, or deeper towards the bottom. He was trapped in a dreadful, shapeless nightmare of a kind he had never experienced before. Part of his consciousness was telling him it was only a dream, and without that small comfort he would probably have gone crazy.
He was under water, in total darkness. There wasn't the slightest hint of light anywhere, nothing that could tell him what was up and what was down. The only thing he knew was that he was under water, that it was dark, and that he was drowning.
His arms were flailing desperately, he was dying, and his eyes were wide open, to no avail. He waited for the calm resignation that is said to visit those who are drowning or freezing to death, but it didn't come. Instead there was only panic, and the certain knowledge that he had only seconds to live.
But the seconds passed; he kept drowning but was not allowed to die. If fear can be matter, then he was inside that matter. And it was growing more dense. His heart was racing and his head was about to explode. He wanted to scream, but he couldn't open his mouth.
Denser. Closer. Something came to him out of the darkness. An immense formless body had picked up his scent, and was getting closer. His head twisted from side to side, but there was nothing to see. Only darkness and the knowledge that something bigger than it is possible to imagine was getting closer.
There was a thumping and banging in his ears, and the thumping was a relief. A noise. Something real, something that had direction and permanency, something other than darkness. The thumping was very loud, something was banging and it wasn't inside him. The darkness dispersed and the abyss in which he had found himself was no deeper than his eyelids.
He opened his eyes, and the sound of the last blow on the door hung in the air like an echo. It took him a few seconds to realise that he was inside his own house, that he was alive. Then he got to his feet and ran towards the front door. He slipped on the kitchen floor and almost fell, but managed to grab hold of the lukewarm kitchen stove, and carried on into the hallway.
This time you're not going to get away.
He yanked open the door and yelled, hurled himself backward to avoid the thing that was standing on the porch. A grinning face loomed over him as he fell back on to the hall floor. Still in the grip of blind terror, he scrabbled a metre backwards, dragging the rag rug with him. Then the calmer voice of reason kicked in, plucking at the fear and beginning to unravel it.
It's only the GB-man. He can't do you any harm.
The plastic figure's violent swinging slowed down. Anders lay on the hall floor looking at it. His senses were returning, and he could hear two things: some kind of siren from down in the village, and the sound of a moped engine accelerating up the hill then fading into the distance. He could also hear a faint rattling, and Anders realised it was a platform moped.
The GB-man was still standing there staring at him, and Anders couldn't make himself get up. If he moved, it would leap on him. In order to break the spell, he looked away from the GB-man's hypnotic gaze and allowed his head to fall back and hit the floor. He stared up at the ceiling.
It's nothing to be afraid of. Stop it. It's… a plastic doll produced as a marketing tool. Stop it.
It made no difference. It was as if he were two people. Or like Donald Duck, with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each giving conflicting comments and advice. He couldn't get himself together.
'Go away you stupid ghost, you don't exist.'
What was that? Alfie Atkins, that's what. When he's going to go down into the cellar and he's scared of ghosts. That's what his daddy taught him to say. It had been one of Maja's favourite tapes. Anders raised his head. The GB-man was still standing there, and had completely stopped moving now.
'Go away you stupid ghost, you don't exist.'
The siren down in the village fell silent. He could no longer hear the moped's engine. Anders drew his legs under him and stood up. He pulled himself together and went over to the GB-man, gazing out into the darkness in vain. There was nothing to see.
Who put it there?
The same person who rode off on the moped, obviously. But who?
Despite the fact that the palms of his hands were saying No because they were terrified of touching it, Anders managed to make himself grab hold of the GB-man's sharp plastic edges and heave the thing down off the porch. The cement block on which it stood was unexpectedly heavy, and he only managed to drag it about a metre along the lawn before he had to let go. The GB-man swung back and forth a few times, then settled in its new spot. It was still staring at him.
Ought to smash it up.
He considered going to fetch the axe, but it was as dark over by the woodshed as it had been in his dream, and besides…the GB-man might take his revenge.
He tried moving the figure a quarter turn to the side, but that didn't help. It was looking at him out of the corner of its eye.
Who? Who knew?
The person who had placed the figure on his porch had done it to frighten him, and who could possibly know that he was scared of the
GB-man? Wrong. That he had become scared of the GB-man. Who?
The same person who's watching me.
The GB-man looked at him. Anders went and got a black plastic sack, which he pulled over the figure and tucked under the cement block. The sack rustled faintly in the wind, and to anyone else the figure probably looked even more unpleasant now. But it had stopped looking. He had shut off its eyes.
'I am not afraid.'
He said it out loud into the darkness. He said it again. Beneath the plastic the GB-man whispered: You haven't even got the nerve to go and fetch the axe. But no, you're quite right. You're brave and strong. Always.
Anders got angry. He went back into the hallway, pulled on his jacket, checked that there was still some wine left in the bottle in his pocket, grabbed the torch and went out again. He went and stood in front of the GB-man's indistinct outline beneath the sack, raised the bottle and said, 'Cheers, you ugly bastard'; he took a long drink, then switched on the torch and set off towards the track.
He wanted to check what the siren had been for. It had sounded a bit like an air-raid siren, but that was hardly likely to be the case.
As long as the Russians haven't come back.
The beam of the torch moved ahead of him along the path and he played with it, throwing it up the trees and down into the ditch, pretending it was an eager little animal investigating its surroundings. Snuffling through the bushes, running through the grass. An eager animal made of light, which no one could catch. To test himself, he switched off the torch.
The October darkness closed around him. He waited for the horror of the dream to seize him, but it didn't come. He listened to the sound of his own breathing. He wasn't under water. Nothing was chasing him. He tipped his head back and saw that the sky was full of stars.
'It's fine,' he said. 'There's no danger.'
He switched the torch back on and set off once more. He pulled out the bottle and had another drink to celebrate. His body was still a little dehydrated following the day's hard work, and his muscles were aching, so he took another swig. The bottle was almost empty.
The street lamps started by the ramblers' hostel. A light mist lay in the air and the glow of the lamps had taken hold, forming hovering enclosures of light around themselves. He switched off the torch and looked along the row of lights. It was reassuring. It led between people's houses and told him that nothing bad could happen, despite the autumn darkness and dampness.
The hostel lay in silence and darkness. He remembered when he was little he used to feel sorry for the people who had to live there. Those who didn't have a proper house. Even if the hostel was quite a stylish building, there were just so many of them who came to stay there. The ramblers. They would arrive by boat and stay for a day or two, then they would be off again, presumably to the next hostel.
But there's someone sitting there.
Anders switched on the torch and shone it on the hostel steps. There was indeed someone sitting there, the head drooping towards the knees. Anders swept the beam of the torch to either side to check if there was a moped nearby. There wasn't. But still he approached carefully.
'Hello? Are you all right?'
The woman raised her head, and at first Anders didn't recognise Elin. Her face had altered even more since he last saw her, it had become…older. She screwed her eyes up against the light and pulled back, as if she were afraid. Anders turned the torch on to his own face.
'It's me, Anders. What's happened?'
He directed the beam of the torch a metre to the right of Elin to avoid dazzling her, and saw that she had relaxed. He went over and sat down on the step below her, then switched off the torch.
Elin was hunched over, her arms tightly wrapped around her knees. He placed a hand on her shin, and she was trembling. 'What's the matter?'
Elin's hand seized his and held it tight. 'Anders. Henrik and Björn have burned down my house.'
'No,' he said. 'No, Elin. They're dead.'
Elin's head was moving slowly back and forth. 'I saw them. On that fucking platform moped. They burned down my house.'
Anders closed his mouth around the words he had been about to say.
The platform moped.
But then there were lots of platform mopeds on Domarö. Practically every other person had one. That didn't prove anything. On the other hand: the GB-man. Henrik and Björn's favourite hobby had been moving stuff around. Taking someone's water butt and putting it in a garden on the other side of the island, or sneaking into someone's woodshed, stealing the chainsaw and putting it in the neighbour's woodshed.
It all made sense. But there was a major problem with this line of reasoning.
'But they drowned. Fifteen years ago. Didn't they?'
Elin shook her head. 'They didn't drown. They disappeared.'
Hubba and Bubba
Every gang has them. The ones who don't fit in. Maybe at one stage they tried to belong properly, but after a while they realise it's never going to work and they begin to work on their outsider status, making it a badge of honour.
They. They can count themselves lucky if there are two of them. Usually it's just the one. They are not necessarily relentlessly victimised or bullied. Sometimes, yes; but often their role is to be the one against whom the gang measures itself, so to speak. The gang is a gang by not being the outsider.
These individuals are tolerated for that very reason. As a yardstick, or as an audience. It's often a sad story. If a gang is a royal court, then this person is its fool- thrown a few crumbs of friendship or temptation occasionally so it will jingle its bells or say something stupid that can be brought up later. Over and over again.
Such is the role of the fool. It is disagreeable, but can work quite well as long as the quasi-outcast is aware of his limits. It is when he tries to overstep them that tragedy strikes and everything goes wrong.
So there were the two of them, Henrik and Björn.
Unlike the rest of the gang, they were the children of parents who lived on the island permanently. Björn's father was a carpenter who built jetties, and his mother worked in geriatric care. Henrik lived alone with his mother, and it wasn't clear what she actually did.
Usually the children belonging to the summer visitors and those belonging to the permanent residents were separate tribes who lived in separate camps, but in this case there was a go-between: Anders. His mother had been a summer visitor; she'd met his father and moved to Domarö when Anders was born. It lasted just about a year, and then his mother caught the boat back to the city and took her son with her.
Anders came out to visit his father in the holidays and sometimes at weekends, and thus ended up with a foot in each camp. He had his summer friends on Kattudden, but in the winter he sometimes played with Henrik and Björn, his only contemporaries in the village at the time.
They went sledging on the slope down to the steamboat jetty, played in abandoned barns and called each other 'dickhead'.
'Shall we do something, dickhead?'
'We could do, dickhead. Where's the other dickhead?'
After a few years Henrik and Björn moved closer to the summer gang via Anders and became part of it, to a certain extent. However, they refrained from calling each other dickhead when the rest of the gang could hear.
There was one summer, just one, when Henrik and Björn were fully fledged members of the gang. In 1983, when Henrik was thirteen and Björn was twelve, they were sought after and desirable in every situation. The reason for their popularity was purely mechanical: Henrik had acquired a platform moped.
Since there were no cars on Domarö, all the children were allowed to ride their bikes as much as they wanted as soon as they had mastered the art, and they would whiz back and forth between houses, along the forest tracks, between the harbour and Kattudden. In the summer of 1983 the bikes suddenly seemed rather childish; after all, there were cooler things out there.
Even though Henrik wasn't quite old enough, his father had given him the old but well-renovated three-wheel moped for the same reason that six-year-olds were allowed to ride their bikes wherever they liked: if there was an accident, it was because the child had run into something, not because they had been run over. And the moped didn't go fast. Thirty-five at the most, going downhill with the sun and the wind behind it.
However, the oldest members of the gang were thirteen and next to the often rusty just-for-the-country bikes, the moped was a Lamborghini. It was speed and it was cool and it was status, and since Henrik and Björn were inseparable, Björn got his share of the boom in Henrik's popularity.
That summer, and only that summer, Henrik manoeuvred skilfully between the desires, disappointments and petty intrigues that exist in every group. His newly won popularity made him bold, and suddenly he was doing everything right. He didn't give in to Joel's demands to be allowed to ride the moped when the whole group was together. He did, however, let Joel have a go when there were just the two of them, which gave Henrik points without the loss of status that would have resulted from allowing Joel to take over in front of everyone.
He also made sure he gave Elin a lift when he knew that some of the others could see, since the combination of his own moped and Elin was virtually unbeatable. The hormones were stirring, and Elin had acquired breasts. When Henrik pulled up in front of the shop with Elin on the platform, her breasts bouncing from the uneven track, he was king. That summer.
Otherwise he and Björn could often be seen riding along the tracks, down to the shore, through the forest. Since Anders was the only member of the gang apart from Henrik and Björn who lived in the old village, he often got a lift home after an evening at Martin's or Elin's.
'Jump on, dickhead.'
In the middle of August they all parted over a period of a few days. Henrik and Björn remained behind, while the rest of the gang disappeared to Stockholm and Uppsala. When Anders came out for a week during the Christmas holidays, the inlet down below his father's house had frozen, and he, Henrik and Björn amused themselves dragging each other around on skis behind the moped, or just generally slithering about.
The following summer, something had changed. When Henrik tried to impress by riding on two wheels along the entire length of the forest track, no one was particularly interested. Some had been riding mopeds in the city, slick models modified for better performance, and when it came down to it, a platform moped was actually quite…rural.
Henrik and Björn fell from grace, and they fell hard. Perhaps as a reaction to the artificial importance they had enjoyed the previous summer, they now started to attract a certain amount of ridicule. They had the wrong clothes and the wrong hairstyles, they talked funny and they knew nothing about music. It was during that summer someone came up with that business of H and B. Hubba and Bubba. Big bubbles, no troubles.
Both Martin and Joel had let their hair grow during the winter. Anders, somewhere in between as usual, had medium-length hair, as did Johan. Hubba and Bubba had very short hair, and the others decided it was so the fish scales wouldn't get stuck in it. Or the dung, come to that.
Both Malin and Elin teased their hair up like Madonna, lots of spray, and although Cecilia and Frida, who were a year younger, didn't go that far-or use that much make-up-they too had started to show an interest in how they looked.
Joel had a T-shirt with 'Frankie says RELAX' on it, and through his dad, who had been on a business trip to London, he had the single 'Two Tribes' before anyone else had even heard it on Tracks. Henrik and Björn didn't know who Frankie Goes to Hollywood were, but since Joel kept on referring to them as 'Frankie', they drew the wrong conclusion.
One evening at Elin's, Joel was going on and on about how incredibly cool the video to 'Two Tribes' was, with Reagan and that Russian guy, whatever his name was, punching each other until the blood flowed. Joel had spent a couple of days back home in the city; he'd been watching Music Box, and had all the latest info.
'Two Tribes' was thundering on the stereo in the background, and Björn was sitting there following the beat with his head. When there was a break in Joel's monologue, Björn said, 'He's pretty good, isn't he?'
Just as a tern catches a flash of silver in the water and dives, Joel snapped up Björn's comment. 'Who is?' he asked.
Björn nodded towards the stereo. 'Him.'
'Who do you mean, Holly Johnson?'
Björn realised he was on thin ice and glanced at Henrik, who was unable to provide any help. Then he said uncertainly, 'Frankie, of course.'
This reply would be quoted frequently in the future. Whenever anyone in the gang asked who someone was the reply would be, 'Frankie, of course.'
The episode was typical. A number of similar situations made it perfectly clear that even if Henrik and Björn were more or less OK, they were basically peasants and not worth bothering with.
When Martin climbed up into the alarm bell tower, it was a feat. When Henrik did the same thing a week or so later, nobody was interested, despite the fact that he climbed higher than Martin, so high that he could rap on the bell itself with his knuckles, and the tower ought really to have given way. What fools do has no importance.
Not that Anders got involved in the status of Henrik and Björn. That was the summer he and Cecilia went up to the rock one evening, and there were other things to think about. He also had Music Box at home in the city and read the music magazine OA" from time to time, so he was able to keep up and avoid the worst of the hidden reefs; he was even able to venture an opinion sometimes, 'I just don't know what George Michael is doing with Andrew Ridgeley. They must be at it or something.' But he was mainly into Depeche Mode, and he was on his own there.
One evening before it was time to head home at the end of the summer, he and Cecilia had been alone in Anders' house, and he had actually done it: he played 'Somebody' to her. To his boundless relief she really liked it, and wanted to hear it again. Then they'd snogged. A bit.
When Anders came out for Christmas, Henrik and Björn had changed. There was six months between them, but even in their physical and psychological changes they seemed to stick together like Siamese twins. Both had grown, both had a fine crop of pimples, and they had left behind the innocent naivety that had characterised them up to now: they were quieter, more introverted.
But they still hung out together from time to time during the week; they rode the moped over to Kattholmen and played the odd fantasy game in the forest. There was no need to spell out that this was not to be mentioned to anyone else, it was self-evident. Through the same silent agreement they also stopped calling each other dickhead. Those days were gone.
Anders told them about his new discovery: The Smiths. He had been given a Walkman for Christmas, and it played Hatful of Hollow more or less continuously. Henrik had been given the guest cottage in the garden as his own room, and they sat there listening to 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' and 'Still 111'. When Anders was due to go back to the city, Henrik asked if Anders could make him a tape.
Anders gave him the one he'd brought with him, because he could easily make a new one when he got home.
When the summer came it was clear that Henrik and Björn had found their thing. Meat Is Murder had come out a few months earlier; Anders thought it was OK, but nowhere near as good as Hatful of Hollow. Henrik and Björn had a different view. They knew every single line of every single song, and both had become vegetarians, possibly the first ever on Domarö.
It isn't necessary to go into any more detail about the music that was cool that summer, suffice to say that The Smiths were definitely not cool. If Henrik and Björn had enjoyed a higher status, then perhaps the whole gang might have joined in and embraced the notion of meat-eating as murder, but that was not the case. With hindsight, of course, it was Henrik and Björn who were the most hip and the most London, but what good did it do them at the time? None. They were farmers, head cases.
They tried to get Anders to become a member of their private sect, but Anders wasn't having any of it. For one thing it wasn't in his nature to get so obsessed about something to do with music, and for another there was now a kind of sickness surrounding Hubba and Bubba. If you spent time with them you risked being seen as infected. They were still tolerated when the whole group was together, but nobody wanted to be regarded as their friend.
If the gang had gathered on the shore to barbecue sausages and drink weak beer, Henrik and Björn wouldn't eat any sausages, because meat is murder. If 'Forever Young' by Alphaville was playing on Joel's ghetto blaster, they would sit grinning scornfully at the infantile lyrics in poor English, making comparisons with the greatest living poet of the day: Stephen Patrick Morrissey.
And so on. They cultivated their outsider status, and knew they had a friend in the pale young man from Manchester. Someone who knew what it was like to grow up in a place where nothing happens. A brother in exile.
That winter Anders paid only a short visit to Domarö, and he avoided Henrik and Björn. They called him in the spring when they were about to embark on their pilgrimage to Stockholm to buy The Queen Is Dead, and wondered if they could stay over, but Anders said he was going to dinner with Cecilia's mother. Which he was, but not until the following week.
By the summer when everything got blown apart, Henrik and Björn's interest had escalated to unhealthy proportions. They dressed like Morrissey, both had acquired rockabilly haircuts, and when it turned out that Björn's eyesight was so bad he needed glasses, he was absolutely delighted, because it gave him a reason to get mottled grey frames like the army-issue ones, and even more like…well, you get the picture.
Close study of Smiths' lyrics made them more proficient in English than anyone else on Domarö, and when Wilde, Keats and Yeats were mentioned in 'Cemetery Gates', they made a point of ordering their stories and poems in the original at the library in Norrtälje, then spent the dirty grey spring deciphering the books with the help of dictionaries.
They could have been happy.
They didn't try to fit in, because they knew it was impossible, and they regarded the others with ill-concealed contempt, tying leather cords around their wrists and listening to bands with a 'z' in the name. They peppered their conversation with oblique references to Smiths' songs, translated into Swedish, with particular emphasis on the riches of the poor.
But that line came from the song 'I Want the One I Can't Have', and therein lay the problem. It would have been OK to have Henrik and Björn as a couple of oddballs on the fringes of the gang, if only they had known their place. If only they hadn't reached out for what they couldn't have.
Summer 1986. Olof Palme was dead, and the blueberry bushes on the south side of Domarö were regarded with suspicion as they stood there sucking up water from rain clouds moving in from the east.
Sonny Crockett from Miami Vice was a style icon, and everything was pastel colours on the one hand, Black Celebration on the other. And Anders stuck with Depeche Mode, despite the fact that Tracks was playing 'A Question of Lust' to death.
Henrik and Björn dismissed more or less the whole lot as dick- heads. The only thing that found favour in their eyes was I, Claudius, a fairly old production by the BBC. From England, from London. Björn could do an excellent imitation of the stammering emperor, but unfortunately this was as pearls before swine, since nobody apart from him and Henrik wanted to watch 'a load of old men wearing sheets and talking funny'.
Enough said. Some people remember how it was, and the rest will have to make do with these daubs-pastel splashes on a black background. Summer 1986. Mortal fear and white teeth, Armageddon and workouts. Enough said.
For the gang, that was the summer when they started to drink alcohol. It had started with the odd sneaky drink from their parents' supply the previous year, but in the summer of 1986 they started taking the ferry to Aland.
Martin was tall and well-built. He even had the start of a decent beard, which he made sure he cultivated a few days before they made a couple of trips in Joel's boat to transport the whole gang to Kapellskar, where they caught the ferry. Martin bought the booze in the duty-free shop, then they would slur their way around Mariehamn drinking as much as they dared.
Henrik and Björn weren't always included when the booze was doled out, and during the third trip that summer, at the beginning of August, they took the matter into their own hands. They were quieter than usual during the trip home, and only went into the duty-free shop to buy some sweets.
The reason for their secretive behaviour became clear when they had disembarked in Kapellskar, and were safe. They opened their jackets. In the waistband of their trousers and in their pockets they had stuffed twelve half-litre bottles of Bacardi. Everybody thought they were fucking crazy, and they were rewarded with pats on the back and places on the first run home in Joel's boat.
There was usually a litre or two of booze left over after a day in Mariehamn. Now they suddenly had a stash, and not only that, it was free. They decided the bottles should be hidden underneath the old boathouse on Kattholmen. Henrik and Björn were of course included in all these discussions-they were the heroes of the hour.
But by the following day it was all forgotten, and their incomprehensible comments and strange manner-a mixture of submissiveness and a maddening superciliousness-became the objects of the usual ridicule. But they were the ones who had nicked the bottles, there was no getting away from that fact.
And so when the time came for the final party of the summer, they were included from the start. Otherwise Henrik and Björn usually just turned up at parties without being invited, then sat on the sidelines making remarks that only they laughed at, while everybody else laughed at the gibes against Henrik and Björn.
But in that way they fulfilled their particular function. They consolidated the group and the language of the group by sitting outside and speaking a different language. Nobody would have admitted it or even realised it, but a good party needed Henrik and Björn sitting there like a couple of aliens in order to create the right atmosphere.
The evening had arrived. Sausages and charcoal, chips and drink were transported over to Kattholmen, and everyone was there. Joel and Martin, Elin and Malin, Anders and Cecilia. Frida's mother had said she couldn't go, but she was there anyway. Samuel who lived in Nåten and played in the same football team as Joel came in his own boat. Even Karolina, who spent only a couple of weeks on Domarö each year, was there. And Henrik and Björn. The suppliers for the evening.
The Bacardi was produced and mixed with Coke in plastic mugs, someone got a fire going outside the boathouse. Henrik and Björn had brought some kind of special meat-free sausages that were pale grey and looked like penises; they were informed of this fact, despite the Bacardi.
For once Anders was permitted to put Depeche Mode on the cassette player. 'A Question of Lust' had paved the way. But after the first couple of bottles, nobody wanted to listen to such gloomy music, and at the girls' insistence it had to be Wham! instead.
The fire died down and the party continued inside the boathouse. At first there had been nothing but a table, two chairs and a bunk bed for fishermen who were staying the night. A few wooden chairs and a rag rug had been added. It was a bit crowded with everybody in there, but Anders and Cecilia helped out by clambering up on to the musty horsehair mattress on the top bunk, where they lay kissing and cuddling.
They had had to put up with a good deal the previous summer after Malin had seen them kissing, but that was all in the past now. They were a couple and there wasn't much to say about it, even if it was a bit peculiar to be together for so long. They had slept together for the first time during the winter, and had carried on in spring, so there was none of that initial desperation as they lay on the horsehair mattress. They could take it easy now, resting on each other's lips and fingertips.
Down below them the atmosphere was even more over-excited. Somebody had produced a pack of cards, and they were about to play strip poker. Karolina immediately dropped out, barely raising even a dutiful protest. She was chubby and not particularly attractive. Unfortunately she had no way of getting home on her own, so she had to curl up on the bottom bunk and pretend, as far as possible, to be fine with the whole thing.
And so the fun lay with Elin and Malin, who were the best- looking girls. Frida was quite pretty, but she didn't have the kind of body you could talk or fantasise about. On the other hand, there was no way she was pulling out if the other girls were up for it.
When Elin and Malin gave each other a high five and said 'Go for it!', Anders saw how Frida's eyes darted from side to side, and her shoulders drooped slightly. But she gritted her teeth and straightened up. Perhaps she was hoping she might be able to play without losing. She would lose more by backing out.
Anders took a swig from the bottle of ready-mixed rum and Coke and buried his nose in the back of Cecilia's neck. He had a bad feeling about this, and was grateful for the fact that he and Cecilia were so far out of the reckoning that they'd been forgotten.
On the ghetto blaster Joey Tempest was singing about the final countdown, and Martin dealt the cards. He hesitated when he got to Henrik, who said he'd like to drop his trousers to the world, and Björn giggled. Nobody else understood what was funny, but they got their cards.
Martin carried on dealing, hands were won and hands were lost. As items of clothing were removed, they were thrown on a pile in the middle of the floor. After perhaps twenty minutes Anders must have fallen asleep, because the situation had changed completely when he raised his head again.
The door had just closed behind Joel, who had come back in. He was stark naked except for a scrap of torn fishing net which he had arranged so that it half covered his dangling penis.
Booing and laughter came from around the table. Joel threw his arms out wide and executed a couple of dance steps. He didn't seem unhappy with the situation. He went to the gym regularly and was making the most of the opportunity to show off what he had.
It was so hot in the boathouse that Anders' hair was sticky with sweat. The oxygen was being eaten up by all the candles and by the alcohol burning in their bodies. Another two half-litre bottles had been emptied and were lying next to the pile of clothes. They had drunk at least a litre more than they ever had before, and Samuel was just opening a new bottle.
Frida, who had done quite well and was still wearing her bra and pants, pointed at Joel and protested, Admit you've lost. That's just cheating.'
Joel went over to her and waggled his midriff in front of her face.
'What do you mean, I'm wearing something, aren't I? Go on, feel.'
Frida pushed him away and Joel almost fell backwards on top of Karolina, but grabbed hold of the bed frame and straightened up. He was very drunk, and sweat was pouring down his neck and back. He waved a hand over his fishnet pants and said, 'Last chance, OK? Last round. Then I'm…bust. OK?'
Despite the fact that Anders hadn't drunk all that much, his head was spinning, and it felt three times as heavy as it usually did.
They ought to open the door.
He opened his mouth to say so, but just didn't have the strength. He looked down at the table where the others were sitting. Joel was the one who had lost most, but Henrik, Björn and Elin weren't far behind. Henrik and Björn were down to their underpants, and even though Elin's lower half was concealed by the shadows under the table, Anders could see that she had sacrificed her pants before her bra.
He could hear from Cecilia's breathing that she was asleep. He placed a hand on her hip and tore his gaze away from the short strands of hair poking out from between Elin's crossed legs, trying to be faithful even in his thoughts.
The spirit was willing but the eyes were weak. He tried to focus on a couple of half-ripe pimples on Henrik's back, but his eyes refused to co-operate, sliding to the right and moving from the shadow between Elin's thighs to the sheen of sweat on the top of her breasts. The base of his penis was beginning to get hot, and he rolled over on to his back, staring up at the ceiling which was only half a metre from the tip of his nose.
I have to get out of here. Get some air.
The cards clicked as they were dealt out, the voices were slurred. He hoped Joel would lose so that it would be over, so that they could all go out into the fresh air and become human beings again.
It was Henrik who lost. Anders heard the sound of fabric against skin, and a rustle as the pile of clothes grew a little higher. Nobody seemed all that bothered. Henrik's nakedness was not something anyone wished to see, it was just a blip along the way. The cards were dealt again. Karolina sighed on the bottom bunk. This wasn't quite how she'd imagined the evening.
The sweat prickled in Anders' eyes, and he felt unpleasantly itchy beneath his clothes. He wished it had just been him and Cecilia here. He would have woken her and asked her if she wanted to go for a swim in the moonlight. In the current situation all he could do was lie there staring up at the ceiling, which was increasingly beginning to resemble the lid of a coffin. Which, judging by the warmth, had just been slid into the oven.
'What the fuck!' he heard Elin shout from down below. 'But I've got three pairs as well!'
'Yes, but look…' said Martin, who seemed to be finding it difficult to express himself. 'Look…you can see Frida's got…her top card is higher than yours. So that means hers is higher. It's higher.'
A murmur of agreement was heard; Elin tried a couple of lame protests, but then a reverent silence fell. There was a faint metallic click, and a piece of clothing landed on the pile. A chair was pushed back and Joel said, 'Where are you going, you're supposed to sit here now and…'
'Fuck that,' said Elin. 'I can do the same as you.'
There was the sound of naked feet crossing the wooden floor, several of the boys whistled and Anders carried on staring up at the ceiling. Then his eyes took control again and he glanced at the door just in time to see Elin disappearing outside.
Someone turned up the music and A-Ha's 'Take On Me' blasted through the room, dispelling the darkness a little and lightening the air. Or perhaps it was just that the door opening had let in a little oxygen.
Everyone at the table sang along with the chorus. Cecilia woke up and turned sleepily towards Anders. He stroked her cheek and skin stuck to skin. Cecilia blinked and rubbed her eyes. 'God, it's hot in here.'
Anders put his arms around her. 'Shall we go outside?'
She pressed herself against him and said, 'In a minute.' Over her shoulder Anders saw Henrik get up from the table and walk over to the door. Then Cecilia's lips found his and he sank down into the soft, sticky warmth.
They kissed until 'Take On Me' faded away in a shimmer of harmonies and drum machines. There was a moment's silence, then they heard a scream. It came from outside, and it was Elin who was screaming. Like an adrenaline shock to a heart that has stopped, a jolt ran through the room. Skin stuck to skin was torn apart, chairs scraped as they were pushed back or fell over to the opening bars of 'I Should Be So Lucky'.
Joel and Martin were first out through the door, and the others who had been sitting around the table followed, with Björn bringing up the rear. Cecilia climbed down from the top bunk and Anders followed her, but almost fell over Karolina, who was getting up with a groan, like an old woman.
Kylie Minogue was singing about the lack of complication in her imagination, but was drowned out by Elin's hysterical screams outside the boathouse.
'You disgusting bastard…fucking disgusting…'
Anders got outside just in time to see Joel place a hand on Elin's shoulder. She had tied a fishing net around herself and was hitting out at Henrik, who was trying to protect his face. The full moon over the water gave their bodies a white glow.
'What's the matter, what's the matter?' asked Joel.
Elin was still hitting out at Henrik, who was moving backwards towards the shoreline as she yelled, 'This disgusting bastard tried to rape me, he came at me with his disgusting fucking cock and tried… tried to rape me!'
Henrik held up his hands as if to show that he was unarmed and said, 'I didn't, I just…' but even if the crime could not be proved, the weapon was clearly visible. It was sticking out from Henrik's body, angled upwards, and it refused to go down even though Henrik's eyes were bright with fear.
Joel took a couple of steps towards Henrik and punched him in the stomach. The air went out of Henrik with a puff and he bent double. Joel grabbed the back of his neck and dragged him towards the glowing embers of the fire, yelling, 'You just don't do that, get it? I'm going to make sure you get it, I'm going to make sure you understand…'
It's hard to imagine a more serious test of Henrik and Björn's friendship, but Björn passed with flying colours. As Joel dragged Henrik, coughing and waving helplessly, towards the embers, Björn ran forward and grabbed him, slowing him down.
'Pack it in, you mad bastard, let him go!'
With his free hand Joel hit out at Björn, who had grabbed hold of his shoulders. When he couldn't manage to shake him off, he shouted to Martin, 'For fuck's sake, come and give me a hand!'
Martin rushed forward and used his considerably greater weight to pull Björn away and force him down on to the ground on his stomach. Henrik was still coughing after the vicious blow to his stomach, gasping for breath between coughs. Joel hit him on the head and shook him as he hissed, 'You want to fuck, do you? In that case I think you ought to fuck somebody who wants to be fucked, you bastard.'
He hurled Henrik down on top of Björn. Martin stood on Björn's hands so that he couldn't move.
'There you go, now you can fuck,' screamed Joel; he stood astride Henrik's body, grabbed his hips and pulled backwards, then pushed down again. Henrik tried to wriggle free, but Joel got hold of a stone the size of an egg, and using its extra weight he slammed his fist into the back of Henrik's head.
'Enjoying yourself, are you? Maybe you haven't got it all the way in yet…'
Henrik lay helpless on top of Björn, who was now weeping, and Joel groped around his pale backside to direct him the right way.
'Pack it in Joel, pack it in for fuck's sake!'
Anders let go of Cecilia and went over to the naked bodies, twisted around each other. He said it again. £Joel, pack it in! That's enough!'
When he was a step away, Joel turned his face to him. Saliva was dribbling from the corners of his mouth. His eyes were inhuman and expressed only one simple emotion: Touch me and I'll kill you. Joel raised the hand holding the stone ready to strike, and Anders backed down. The nausea rose from his stomach he stepped back. And turned away.
The others stood as if paralysed, following the drama with eyes wide open. Only Elin's face betrayed anything other than incredulous horror. She was smiling. A stiff smile curled her lips, and her eyes were…avid. Behind him Anders could hear Joel struggling with Henrik, unable to achieve the result he desired. Perhaps the humiliation had finally forced the guilty erection to subside.
Björn was weeping in despair, howling like a whipped animal. Joel panted and swore, but finally gave up. He turned away from the bodies on the ground and spat. As he walked past the remains of the fire he kicked a few glowing embers over Henrik's back with his bare foot.
Henrik jerked and rolled off Björn. Joel went into the boathouse, and after a few seconds he was back with a bottle of Bacardi. His eyes were still hazy, flickering with excitement, and Anders noticed that the fight and the punishment had given him a hard-on. The scrap of fishing net was draped over his cock as if it had been hung out to dry.
He walked up to Elin, grabbed her hand and said, 'You and I are going to have a little chat.'
Elin went with him. The half-finished fishing net sarong trailed after her like a bridal veil as they went around the corner of the boat- house and disappeared into the forest.
There was silence now. Martin had stepped off Björn's hands a long time ago, and now looked guilty as he stood there gazing down at the huddled, weeping boy. He glanced around as if he hoped someone might tell him why he had done it. Everyone was avoiding each other's eyes.
Cecilia went into the boathouse and dug out Henrik and Björn's clothes. By that stage they could hear noises from the forest, where Joel was either taking or being given his reward. From the sounds Elin was making, it sounded as though it was more a case of the latter. Samuel went inside and turned up the music.
The tape had gone back to the beginning, and Henrik and Björn were slowly pulling on their clothes to the sound of the fanfare from 'The Final Countdown'. Anders would never be able to hear that song again without a flush of guilt.
He saw Björn's face, wet with tears, his slender, trembling hands pulling on the ugly underpants, he remembered the snow fortresses they had built together and the chocolate Björn's mother had given them, the children's programs they had watched and the things they had laughed at. He wished he had picked up a bigger stone and thrown it at Joel's head.
But he hadn't, and now Björn was weeping even more violently as he discovered that his Morrissey-glasses were snapped in the middle.
Anders went over to him, crouched down and said, 'Are you OK?'
Björn's hand shot out and hit him on the forehead. Not hard, but enough to make the point. He didn't want anyone to look at him or speak to him. After a couple of minutes Henrik and Björn were dressed and set off along the shoreline, past the boats.
Later on Anders found out they had swum across to Kattudden.
The final week of that summer passed in a state not unlike a hangover. Once the real hangover after the party in the boathouse had gone, everyone still talked more quietly than usual, laughed less often, and went around with a gnawing little pain. Except for Joel and Elin.
They had finally found each other seriously, and wanted to show off that fact. They crashed about paying no heed to anyone else, and gathered people together mainly so that they could have an audience as they groped each other. This might possibly have been their way of dealing with their feelings of guilt, but nobody took it that way. It was hard work, mostly. A couple of times Joel gave Elin a slap as a kind of joke, and it is possible that his later career as an abuser of women started that very summer.
Nothing was heard of Henrik and Björn, nor did anyone seek them out. Their exclusion from the gang was something that had been coming for several years, and now it was a fact. It hadn't really been a banishment as such, it was more that the gang had spat them out. It was a shame, but there was nothing to be done about it.
The day before Anders was due to go back to the city, he went over to Henrik's cottage anyway. As he approached the door he could hear the music from inside, 'There Is a Light That Never Goes Out'. He knocked.
The music was turned off and Henrik opened the door. He looked just the same as always, except that he had more pimples than before. Anders could see a pile of chocolate biscuit wrappers on the floor inside. Henrik made no move to let him in.
'Hi,' said Anders. 'I just…I'm going home tomorrow, so I…1 just thought I'd say goodbye.'
A bitter smile distorted Henrik's mouth. When Anders didn't say or do anything else, the smile disappeared, and for a couple of seconds Henrik's face was naked.
'I didn't do it,' he said. 'Just so you know. I didn't do it. I just… it was nothing. I brushed against her. And she started screaming.' Henrik fixed his naked gaze on Anders' eyes. 'Do you believe me?'
Anders nodded. 'Yes.'
'Good.' Henrik's face closed down again, that smile came back. He said, 'In the days when you were hopelessly poor, I just liked you more.'
Anders realised this was a quote, but couldn't place it, so he simply said, 'Mm.'
'Bye then,' said Henrik, and closed the door.
The following summer the gang had begun to break up from the inside. Someone had gone on an InterRail trip, some had got summer jobs. Henrik and Björn could be seen riding around on the moped, and Anders was the only one who acknowledged them with a nod, but they never stopped to talk.
Strange things had begun to happen in the village. Things disappeared and turned up somewhere else. The notice board outside the shop was pulled down, and one morning a summer visitor who was going for a swim made a horrible discovery. From the lower branch of the pine tree next to the changing room a swan was dangling, hanged by the neck with a steel wire.
Another summer visitor who had three rabbits in a large hutch came out one morning and found them all dead. The only living thing inside the hutch was a neighbour's famously bad-tempered bulldog. There was nothing to indicate that the dog had dug its way in. It had been taken off its leash and placed inside the hutch.
Suspicion soon fell on Henrik and Björn. They rode around the village generally behaving oddly and negatively. Viciously, you could even say. They were taken to task here and there, but simply denied everything. Since nothing could be proved, nothing could be done. But people started to lock up their possessions and their animals.
The winter came, and The Smiths split up. When Anders was out on Domarö in the week between Christmas and New Year, he saw that Henrik and Björn were going around dressed in mourning, but he didn't meet them or speak to them.
The following summer he and Cecilia went interrailing for a month, and for the rest of the time Anders worked in a supermarket warehouse. During his winter week that year he didn't see Henrik and Björn. However, he learned via his father that they had made themselves completely impossible. They didn't talk to anyone and although they had had a few sessions with the youth psychology team, the vandalism and the nasty little events continued, if on a smaller scale.
When Anders rang his father in February, he heard that Henrik and Björn had drowned. They had set off across the ice on the moped and had fallen through. Neither of them had been wearing a lifejacket, and it had probably happened very quickly.
The village could breathe a sigh of relief. The final expulsion of Hubba and Bubba had taken place. Their parents left the island soon after, and disappeared from the general consciousness. It's always very sad when young people die, but… It was finally over.
Nobody loves us
If you exist
In the light of the lamp above the kitchen table, it was easier to see what had happened to Elin, what she had done to herself now. The stitches were still there, and parts of her face were swollen with healing scar tissue, but it was still possible to see what the latest operation aimed to achieve.
Two deep grooves lined with livid scars ran from the outer edge of her nostrils down to the corners of her mouth. Beneath her eyes, which were now deep-set, were angry red patches criss-crossed by a number of thin lines that continued out towards her temples. She had had her wrinkles emphasised. The operations she underwent had the opposite aim of normal plastic surgery. She was making herself older, cruder, uglier.
She had declined the offer of coffee, as she had some difficulty using her mouth, and had wine in a tumbler instead. Anders couldn't find a straw, so he cut off a piece of thin rubber tubing and gave her that. She sucked down half the glass in one go, and Anders looked at her. Pitiful.
The mention of Henrik and Björn had reminded him even more powerfully of what Elin had done, who she had been. Now she sat here eighteen years later with trembling hands, her face in bits, sucking wine through a rubber tube.
Perhaps there is a kind of justice in the world, after all.
Since it was difficult to look at her for any length of time, his gaze wandered across the table, and he noticed that the number of beads on the tile had increased considerably. Another patch of white beads had been added, and a good sixth of the surface was now covered in beads.
Elin sucked up the last of the wine with a loud slurping noise. It was impossible to read her emotions from her face. Anders was on the point of asking about Henrik and Björn, but Elin got there first. Since her lips weren't working properly, all the consonants were weak and her tone was monotonous.
'I have this dream,' she said. A recurring dream. I don't sleep very well, because I have this dream all the time. I haven't slept properly for several weeks.'
She poured herself more wine, and Anders fetched himself a glass to keep her company. Once again Elin sucked down half the glass, coughed, and went on:
'There's a man lying in a boat. A skiff, an old skiff. He's lying in the bottom of the boat with his head up by the side, and he's dead. His eyes are open. And around him…there's a net in the boat as well, with fish in it. And some of the fish are loose, jumping around. Floundering and jumping. And the fish in the net are moving too. There are lots of fish, and they're alive. But the man is lying there dead. Do you understand? The fish are alive, even though they're in the boat, but he's dead.'
Elin sucked up more wine and grimaced with pain. Perhaps one of her cuts was pulling.
'That image is there, all the time. And I think I ought to get used to it, but every time it comes…I'm just as frightened every time, in the dream. I approach the boat and I see that man lying there dead among the fish and then it's as if I fall apart, I'm so frightened.'
The last drop of wine was sucked into Elin's mouth. It went down the wrong way and she started coughing. She coughed and coughed, pausing only to whimper with pain, then coughed again until Anders was afraid she was going to throw up. But eventually the coughing subsided and Elin sat there panting for a while, gasping for air. Tears poured down the gashes in her cheeks.
Anders wasn't particularly interested in Elin's dreams. He took a swig of wine and closed his eyes, saw before him the unclear image of Henrik and Björn's bodies in the moonlight, the ugly smile that had played around Elin's full lips.
It doesn't go away. Nothing goes away.
He opened his eyes and looked at Elin, who was hunched over, staring at the floor.
'You said they disappeared. That they didn't drown, Henrik and Björn. What did you mean?'
'They didn't find them.'
'But they went through a hole in the ice.'
Elin shook her head. 'That's not what I heard.'
'So what did you hear?'
Elin now had the same expression in her eyes as when they arrived at the Shack twenty minutes earlier, when she caught sight of the GB-man wrapped in the plastic sack. She had wanted to run away, but Anders had stopped her. The same expression now. Like an animal surrounded on all sides, with nowhere to run. The only solution was to implode, to disappear into herself.
'It was them, Anders. They had that fucking plastic man on the platform and they were…no older, do you understand? They were just like they were when…when all that happened. They haven't got any older.'
Anders leaned back in his chair. 'What did actually happen? Back then?'
Elin clamped her lips together, blew out her cheeks and looked at him with a pleading expression that might once have worked, but now just looked revolting. She wound the rubber tube around her index finger, let her shoulders drop and said, 'Joel's in prison, did you know that?' Anders didn't reply, and she went on, 'It was some woman…he nearly beat her to death. I don't know why. I don't suppose she'd done anything.'
She snivelled and pulled the tube tighter around her finger. The top of the finger turned dark red like the skin on her face, and she said to the surface of the table, 'I don't know. I don't know anything. I suppose I was evil. Can a person be evil?'
Anders shrugged his shoulders, took a deep breath and exhaled. A fraction of the weight that had been lying in his stomach lifted. He got up and fetched a new carton of wine. 'Would you like some more?'
She nodded and unwound the tube. They drank, or sucked, respectively, in silence. After a while Anders asked, 'What did you hear? About them?'
A trickle of wine ran from the corner of Elin's mouth, and she carefully wiped it away, then said, 'Just that they rode out on to the ice on their moped. And then they were gone.'
'You mean they didn't fall through the ice?'
'No hole, no…it hadn't cracked, they…?'
'No. They just disappeared.'
Anders pressed his fist against his lips so hard that there was a taste of metal in his mouth, then he got up and staggered around the kitchen. Elin followed him with her eyes, sucked up some more wine and asked, 'What's the matter?'
Anders shook his head to indicate that he didn't want to talk, grabbed his cigarette packet and frantically smoked a cigarette as he paced back and forth, out into the hallway, into the living room.
What can I do? What shall I do?
There was no guarantee that the same thing that had happened to Henrik and Björn had happened to Maja. Perhaps they just…took off. Went somewhere else and started a new life.
And now they've come hack without having aged?
Anders stopped by the window in the living room and looked towards Gåvasten's flashing lighthouse far away in the distance. Tears welled up in his eyes.
Without having aged…
He saw Maja's little hands reaching for the baby's bottle with her juice in it, her thin fingers curling around the edges of a Bamse comic as she lay on her back in her bed, reading. Her feet sticking out from under the covers. Six years old.
Anders stared out into the vast darkness with its single, flashing point of light. The wine had gone to his head and the light was swaying, sliding across the sea, and he could see Maja in her red snow- suit. She was glowing in the darkness, and she was walking across the water. The little body, the soft skin, the muscles tucked into her warm suit. A patch of red that was moving closer, but which dissolved when he tried to focus his gaze on it.
He whispered, 'Where are you? Where are you?'
No reply. Just the lapping of the sea against the rocks and the single constantly repeated message from Gåvasten, the message of every lighthouse: Here I am, here I am. Be careful, he careful.
Anders stood by the window staring out into the darkness until the draught through the frame made him shiver, and he went back into the kitchen.
Elin was lying across the table, her head resting on her arms. He shook her shoulder and she looked up in confusion. 'You'd better go to bed.' He gestured towards the bedroom. 'Take the big bed.'
Elin disappeared into the bedroom and Anders stayed at the kitchen table, drank more wine and smoked several cigarettes. He stared at the words scratched into the surface of the table.
Anders nodded drunkenly and clasped his hands as if in prayer, whispering, 'I will. I will. But where will I find you? Where are you?'
Perhaps half an hour had passed when Elin came out of the bedroom with the quilt wrapped around her. Her fingers scrabbled nervously at the fabric of the cover. Anders closed one eye so that he could see her more clearly. She looked as wretched as it is physically possible to look.
'Can't you come to bed as well?' she asked. 'I'm so bloody scared.'
Anders went into the bedroom with her and lay down beside her on top of the quilt. One hand came creeping out and found his.
What does it matter? What does it fucking matter?
He took her hand and squeezed it as if to say that everything was OK, that there was nothing to worry about. When he tried to let go, her grip tightened and he didn't pull away. The beam of the lighthouse at North Point swept through the room, flashing across the wall opposite and making the profile of Elin's flattened nose stand out. He lay there looking at it, and when the beam had swept past perhaps ten times, he asked again, 'Why are you doing this? Having all this surgery?'
'I have to.'
Anders blinked and realised he was feeling sleepy. His thoughts were far from lucid, but the suspicion of a theory came into his head, and he asked, 'Is it…a punishment?'
Elin was silent for a long time, and he thought she wasn't going to answer. The lighthouse beam had swept past many times before she finally said, 'I suppose it is,' let go of his hand and rolled over on to her side.
Anders lay there thinking about crime and punishment, the balance that is perhaps built into the world and into the souls of men. He didn't come up with anything, and his reasoning had begun to dissolve into disjointed images when he came to his senses, and heard from Elin's breathing that she was asleep. He got up, undressed and climbed into Maja's bed.
Sleep refused to come. He had probably nodded off for a few minutes in the big bed, and now he was wide-awake. He counted the flashes of the lighthouse and had reached two hundred and twenty; he was just considering switching on the bedside light and reading a Bamse comic when he saw Elin getting out of bed.
He thought she was going to the toilet. But there was something wrong with her movements. She walked towards his bed without seeing him. In only her bra and pants her body was shapeless, swollen, and when the light illuminated her face he was suddenly scared, and cowered as if expecting a blow.
The monster is coming for me.
But she passed him, oblivious, and the fear died away. Elin opened the door with the movements of a sleepwalker and went out of the room. Anders hesitated for a few seconds, then got up, pulled on his shirt and followed her.
She went through the kitchen and into the hallway, but instead of turning off towards the toilet, she carried on towards the front door. When she started fiddling with the catch to open the door, he went up to her.
'Elin, what are you doing?' he said to her back, without getting any reaction. 'You can't go outside like that.'
The lock clicked and she pushed down the handle. He grabbed her shoulder. 'Where are you going?' She stiffened in his grip and answered without turning around, 'Home. I'm going home.'
When the door opened and cold air swept in over his bare feet, he gripped her shoulder more firmly and turned her to face him. 'You can't. You have no house to go to.' He grabbed her other shoulder too and shook her. Her expression was absent.
'Listen,' he said. 'You're not going anywhere.'
Elin looked vacantly at him. Her lips were moving jerkily, as if she were saying what, what, what, what, without being able to produce any sound. Then she shook her head slowly and repeated, 'I'm not going anywhere.'
'No. Come on.'
He drew her back into the hallway, closed and locked the door. She allowed herself to be led back to bed, where she fell asleep immediately. Anders had no key to the bedroom door, so he jammed a chair under the handle and hoped he would hear if she tried to get out again.
What if she does? It's not my responsibility.
He slid into Maja's bed again and noticed to his surprise that his body had now decided he could sleep, if he wanted to. He did want to. He closed his eyes and soon slipped down into rest on a gently sloping plane. His last thought before he fell asleep was: As if I didn't have enough.
After the fire
Only blackened beams and grey sludge remained after the fire service had done their work. Hundreds of cubic metres of sea water had been pumped over and around the burning house, and despite the fact that odd curls of smoke were still rising from the devastation, there was no risk that the fire would catch hold again; the whole area was too wet.
Many people had gone home, but Simon was still standing in the sour-smelling ashes, contemplating the ruins and meditating on the transience of all things.
You have a house. Then you don't have a house.
Just one little match or a spark in the wrong place. That's all it took for everything you had walked around in for so many years, everything you had made beautiful and kept secure, to go up in smoke. A careless word or a glimpse of something you shouldn't have seen, and the web of life you had taken for granted was ripped up and scattered in pieces before your eyes.
The rug is pulled from under your feet.
You really can see it: the oblong rag rug you are walking on, but what's that figure down there at the end? Is it a devil or an angel? Or just a little old man in a grey suit, a tiresome individual who has been waiting for his chance? At any rate, he's holding the end of the rug in his hands. And he is patient, very patient. He can wait.
But if you lose your balance, if for some reason you are found wanting, then he gives the rug a quick tug. It's pure magic as your feet leave the ground and for a brief moment you hover, horizontal, the tips of your toes in line with your nose. Then the ground comes up to meet you with a crash and it hurts.
Simon pushed his hands deep in his trouser pockets and walked over to the remains of the house. There was a squelching sound from underfoot, and the smell of ash was suffocating. He had no particular relationship with the house that had burnt down, had never even been inside it. And yet it was as if it meant something.
He had had a confusing day and perhaps he was feeling oversensitive, but he had definitely had enough of looking at things that happened on Domarö as isolated incidents with no internal connection, he'd been deceived-
– for long enough. The sooty sludge beneath his feet squelched and slurped around his feet as he waded through. The firemen had said that the way the fire had started definitely sounded suspicious, but it wasn't their job to investigate. The police would take over when it was daylight.
Despite the risk that he might be destroying important clues, Simon carried on ploughing through the mess until it thinned out and stopped a couple of metres before he reached the well. That was where he'd been heading, although he hadn't been aware of it.
It was an old well. A circular wall a metre high, made of stones cemented together, with the well itself covered by a wooden lid. The older construction with its winding mechanism, chain and bucket was still there for decoration. A thick plastic hose emerged from a hole in the lid, and presumably had been attached to a pump inside the house. Now the hose was burnt off a few metres from the well.
Simon moved the lid slightly and looked down into the darkness.
What am I doing?
He didn't know. Just as he didn't know why he'd come here at all. There was just something…drawing him. He closed one hand around the matchbox and waited.
Nothing. It's nothing.
He felt something, but he couldn't put his finger on what it was. It was just a feeling, a breath of something vanished, the ripples on the water after a fish has surfaced, but the fish itself is already far away.
But still he unhooked the bucket and used the chain to lower it into the well. After perhaps five metres it reached the surface down below. When he hauled it up it was half full of clear water. He cupped his hands and drank a mouthful, first cleaning the cut on his hand which had already begun to heal.
It wasn't unusual for a certain amount of salt to find its way into wells so close to the sea. If they'd asked him he wouldn't have advised them to dig just here, but there was nothing to be done about that now. He hung the bucket back in its place. The feeling grew neither stronger nor weaker, it was simply there like a faint aroma, and he didn't know what it was.
He took a step back and looked at the well.
What a pity.
What a pity that such a fine old well would no longer have a house to belong to. He turned to look at the devastation once again and caught sight of a person standing where he had been standing a little while ago. The starlight was not bright enough to see who it was, so he raised an arm in greeting. The greeting was returned.
When he got closer he could see that it was Anna-Greta, standing waiting for him. His body stiffened, he replaced his apologetic expression with one of rebuff, and squelched with the greatest possible dignity the last few metres through the ash porridge.
Anna-Greta looked amused. 'What are you doing?'
'Nothing. I was just thirsty, that's all.'
Anna-Greta pointed to the public tap at the crossroads a dozen metres away. 'Wouldn't it have been easier to…?'
'Never thought about it,' said Simon, walking past her. He carried on towards home as quickly as he could, but Anna-Greta's legs were considerably more sprightly and she had no difficulty in catching up with him. She appeared by his side and switched on her torch to light the way for them both.
'Are you angry?' she asked.
'No. Disappointed, mostly.'
'Why do you think?'
They reached the track between the fir trees and Simon was forced to slow down. His heart didn't want to run away from Anna-Greta. His physical heart, for heaven's sake. He didn't know where he was with the other one. But it was certainly an insight worth acquiring at death's door: he couldn't run away from Anna-Greta even if he wanted to. She was simply too fast.
A hundred metres inside the forest he stopped to catch his breath. Anna-Greta stood calmly beside him, shining her torch along the track. There was no one else around.
'Let me put it this way,' said Anna-Greta. 'It was for your own good that I didn't tell you anything.'
Simon snorted. 'How long have we been together? Almost fifty years? How could you…Are there more things you haven't told me?'
The admission should have surprised him, but Simon knew Anna- Greta. She told it like it was, even if it was inappropriate. That was precisely what made all this so difficult to swallow: the idea that perhaps he hadn't known her at all, not really.
'Well, let me tell you something,' said Simon. 'I was married once, and do you know what Marita said about the fact that she was on drugs? That she hadn't told me about it for my own good. So you could probably say I'm allergic to that particular argument.'
'It's not the same thing.'
'But I think it is, you see. And I find it incredibly difficult to accept it. I'm not sure I want to be with you anymore, Anna-Greta. I don't think I do.'
Simon had been bending over, his hands resting on his thighs. He pushed himself upright and set off into the darkness. Anna-Greta's torch was not following him. He had a lump in his stomach and wasn't looking where he was going, but at least it had been said. Now he must take the consequences, whatever that involved. He couldn't live with someone who lied like that.
The forest was pitch dark and he had to go carefully to avoid falling in the ditch again. The circle of light from the torch was still fixed on his retina, and he stopped and waited for it to disappear. He looked back along the track and saw that the real torch was lying on the ground, illuminating Anna-Greta's legs; she was lying next to it.
Simon opened his mouth to shout something, but nothing suitable emerged.
That's not fair. That's not a clean fight.
He clamped his jaws together. He had made the situation perfectly clear, explained how he felt. And then she did this. It was disgraceful, it was…Simon peered at the figure on the ground and wrung his hands.
Surely something hasn't really happened to her?
Anna-Greta was in good health, and was hardly likely to have a heart attack or a brain haemorrhage just because she'd been rejected. Or was she? Simon looked along the track in the direction of the old village. What if that moped came back? She couldn't just lie there like that.
Why is she lying there like that?
With the taste of lead in his mouth, Simon hurried back to Anna- Greta, guided by the glow of her torch. When he was a couple of metres away from her he could see that she was alive, because her body was shaking. She was weeping. Simon went and stood next to her.
'Anna-Greta, stop it. We're not teenagers. Don't do this.'
Anna-Greta sobbed and curled herself into a tighter ball. Simon could feel his own eyes burning, the tears welling up, and he angrily dashed them away.
He couldn't bear to see her like this, this obstinate, strong woman he had loved for so long, couldn't bear to see her lying on the forest track like a helpless, snivelling bundle. He had never imagined that something he said would provoke such a reaction. He had a lump in his throat, the tears were flowing, and he didn't bother wiping them away.
'Come on,' he said. 'Come on, Anna-Greta. Up you get.'
Between sobs Anna-Greta said, 'You're not. To say. That. You're not. To say. That you. Don't want. To be. With me.'
'No,' said Simon. 'I won't. Now come on.'
He reached out his hand to help her up, but she didn't see it. Simon didn't think he could manage to bend down and lift her up; there was a risk they'd both end up on the ground.
He had never been involved in anything like this. Not with Anna- Greta. She could be terrible if they had a quarrel, then cry for a while when it was over, but he had never seen her in utter despair like this. On the other hand he had never said, even hinted, that he wanted them to split up.
He waved his hand in front of her face. 'Come on. I'll help you.'
Anna-Greta snivelled up snot, her breathing slowed a little and she relaxed. Her breaths were slow but panting, and she lay quiet for a while. Then she asked, 'Do you want to be with me?'
Simon closed his eyes and rubbed them. This whole performance was just ridiculous. They were adults, more than adults. To think that everything could come full circle and end up with the simplest and most basic of questions, the one that should have been resolved decades ago.
But it hasn't been resolved, has it. Perhaps it never will be.
'Yes,' he said. 'Yes, I do. But now you need to get up. You're going to be ill if you lie there like that.'
She took his hand but didn't get up, she simply let her hand rest in his, caressing his palm with the tips of her fingers. 'Sure?'
Simon smiled and shook his head. For a couple of seconds he walked through the labyrinth of rooms in his heart, and was unable to find anywhere the feeling that had told him he wanted to leave her, never wanted to see her again. It was gone, as if it had never existed.
Nothing to be done. It's over.
'I'm sure,' he said, and helped her to her feet. Anna-Greta crept into his arms and they stood and held each other for so long that by the time they let go, the light of the torch had begun to fade from white to yellow. It was over.
For this time, thought Simon. They took each other's hands and found their way home by the fading glow of the torch. Both were exhausted by the unfamiliar storms of emotion, and their hearts were aching with the unaccustomed exercise. They held hands and that was conversation enough, but once they had emerged from the forest, Simon said, 'I want to know.'
Anna-Greta squeezed his hand.
'I'll tell you.'
When they were back in Anna-Greta's house they flopped on the sofa for a while, regaining their strength. It was as if they were shy, and found it difficult to look each other in the eye. Every time it happened they smiled hesitantly at one another.
Like teenagers, thought Simon. Teenagers on Mum and Dad's sofa.
Perhaps teenagers didn't behave like that nowadays, but to keep the analogy consistent Simon went into the kitchen and fetched a bottle of wine. To lighten the atmosphere. Loosen tongues and…make things happen.
Not like that, though, no thank you. That would just he…
He paused with the corkscrew halfway to the cork. Was it three days ago he and Anna-Greta last made love? It felt like much longer. But the fact they were behaving like teenagers didn't mean their bodies were singing from the same sheet.
The cork was stuck. Simon pulled as hard as he could, and realised that wasn't actually all that hard.
As I said…
He took the bottle in to Anna-Greta, who sat up, pushed the bottle firmly between her thighs and managed to extract the cork. As if to excuse Simon, she said, 'It was stuck pretty firmly.'
Simon sank down on to the sofa. 'Mm.'
Anna-Greta poured and they both took a sip, rolled the wine around their mouths and swallowed. The unaccustomed taste remained on his tongue, and Simon sighed with pleasure. He didn't often drink wine these days. He gave Anna-Greta a challenging look; she put down her glass and rested her hands on her knee.
'Where shall I start?'
'Start with the question I asked you. Why didn't people move away, why don't people move away? And what did you mean when you said you didn't tell me for my own good? Why has no one-'
Anna-Greta raised her hand to stop him. She picked up her glass again, took a tiny sip, then ran her finger round the rim.
'In a way it's the same question,' she said. 'If I tell you this, you won't be able to move away from here either.' She glanced out at the dark sea. Although it's probably already happened. You probably can't leave.'
Simon tilted his head on one side. 'Like I said. I have no intention of going anywhere. You don't need to scare me into staying.'
Anna-Greta gave a wan smile. 'It comes looking for us. If we try to leave this island, there is a considerable risk that it will come looking for us.'
'"It"', Simon interrupted. 'What do you mean by "it"?'
'The sea. It comes looking for us and it takes us. Wherever we are.'
Simon shook his head dubiously. 'But you go to Norrtälje, you go to Stockholm sometimes. We go over to Finland on the ferry, you and I. It's all been fine, up to now.'
'Mm. But you've suggested going further afield now and again. To Majorca, places like that. And I've said no, because…then it might think I'm trying to get away.'
Anna-Greta licked her index finger, ran it around the rim of the glass and produced a sound. A lonely, wailing sound rose from the glass and spread through the room like the voice of a ghost. A perfect note, so pure and clear that it seemed to strengthen itself by using the air as a sound-box. Simon placed his hand on Anna-Greta's finger to silence it.
'But this sounds crazy,' he said. 'You mean the sea goes ashore and finds you? That just doesn't happen.'
'It doesn't need to,' said Anna-Greta. 'It exists everywhere. It's connected to everything. The sea. The water. It doesn't need to go anywhere. It already exists everywhere.'
Simon took a bigger swig of wine. He thought back to the experience he had had the previous day. When he held Spiritus in his hand and saw how the water ran through everything, how everything basically consisted of water. Now he widened the perspective in his mind, and saw all the seas connected by rivers, creeks, streams. The veins of water running through the bedrock, the bogs and the pools. Water, water, everywhere.
It's right so far, hut…
'I'm just wondering what you mean by "take". How does it "take" you?'
'We drown. In the most unreasonable places. In a little creek. In a puddle. In a handbasin.' Simon frowned and was about to ask the logical follow-up question, but Anna-Greta pre-empted him, 'No. I have no idea how it happens. Nobody has. But those who…belong to Domarö and try to get away…they are found drowned, sooner or later. Usually. Those who stay, survive. Usually.'
Simon placed his hand on top of Anna-Greta's, which was still resting on the rim of her glass. 'But this just sounds completely-'
'It doesn't matter what it sounds like. That's the way it is. We know that. And now you know it too. To use a word that has fallen out of use, we are damned. And we live with it.'
Simon folded his arms over his chest and flopped back against the sofa. It was a lot to take in at once, to put it mildly. The answers he had been given led to even more questions, and he didn't feel as if he could cope with much more tonight. The small amount of wine he had drunk was enough to make him sleepy, since he wasn't used to it.
He closed his eyes and tried to see everything in front of him. The fishermen who had made their pact with the sea, how it had continued and propagated itself over the years, continued and spread like the sea itself, seeping into every crack.
He smacked his lips as he thought about the water he had drunk from the well at the burnt-down house. The faint taste of salt, the sea that had found its way in. The taste was gone now, replaced by the biting sweetness of the wine. Without opening his eyes, Simon asked, 'Do I belong to Domarö as well now? Am I also…damned?'
'Presumably. But only you can know that.'
'How do I know?'
'You just know.'
Simon nodded slowly and took a sounding in the very depths of himself, let the plumbline sink down through the darkness, the unspoken, the things he knew without being able to put them into words, and found that he reached the bottom sooner than expected. The knowledge was there, but he had not had the tools to find it. He belonged to the sea. He also belonged to the sea. Perhaps he had done so for a long time.
'Something has happened,' said Anna-Greta. 'That's what we met to talk about today. This business with Sigrid. As far as we know, no one has ever…come back.'
'But she was dead.'
'Yes, but even so. It's never happened before.'
'So what does it mean?'
Anna-Greta stroked his knee. 'Well, that's what we were discussing. When we were interrupted.'
Simon yawned. He tried to put into words one of the many questions writhing around in his head like indolent serpents, but before he managed it Anna-Greta said, 'There's something I want to ask you as well.'
Simon yawned again, he just couldn't help it. He waved his hand in front of his mouth to indicate that he would have taken away this yawn if he could, but it just wasn't possible.
Anna-Greta tucked her legs up on the sofa and wrapped her arms around them. Simon sat there blinking, amazed at her suppleness and agility as she built her own little fortress around her like this. It must be fifteen years since he'd been able to do that, if then.
She leaned her chin on her knees and looked intently at him. Then she asked, 'Will you marry me?'
Despite his best efforts Simon was overcome by yet another enormous yawn which broke his eye contact with Anna-Greta. He held up his hands as if to say No more, no more, and said, 'That. Is the limit when it comes to what I can cope with during the course of one day. We can talk about that tomorrow.'
What are you looking at?
Anders woke to an unfamiliar aroma, unfamiliar sounds. The aroma was coffee, the sounds were someone moving around in the kitchen, opening drawers and cupboards. He lay in bed for a while and pretended that everything was normal. That the person who had made the coffee and was busy in the kitchen was someone he loved and wanted to be with. That it was another beautiful morning in a good life.
He folded his hands over his stomach and looked out of the window. A cloudy sky with patches of blue, a lovely and probably quite cold day in the middle of October. The smell of coffee was tempting, and he heard the clink of china from the kitchen.
Cecilia is making breakfast. Maja is sitting at the kitchen table, busy with something. I am lying here, ready and rested in…Maja's bed…
The fantasy was fraying at the edges. The dirt in his body after yet another evening's drinking and smoking made its presence felt. He looked at his fingers. They were slightly yellow, black beneath the cuticles, and they stank of tobacco. His mouth felt sticky and he leaned over the edge of the bed, found a plastic bottle a third full of diluted wine. He picked it up and drank, hair of the dog.
OK. Back to reality.
The excitement of the previous evening had faded. What Elin had told him about Henrik and Björn's disappearance had seemed feverishly promising at the time, but in the cold light of morning he could see that this wasn't necessarily the case. The two events were separate. There wasn't necessarily any connection, and even if there was, what could he do? Nothing.
He heaved himself out of bed. The floor was cold beneath his bare feet, and he pulled on cold socks and a cold T-shirt. The headache began to pound at his temples. He dragged on his jeans and went into the kitchen.
Elin was just putting bread and cheese on the table. She looked up and said 'Good morning'. In the bright morning light from the kitchen window she looked fucking awful. He grunted in reply and got a new carton of wine out of the larder, opened it and took a couple of big gulps. Elin was watching him. He didn't care. The headache was getting worse and he screwed up his eyes, massaged his temples.
'You've got a pretty big problem with alcohol, haven't you?' she said simply.
Anders grinned as a quip he'd heard from a stand-up comic shot out of his mouth, 'I'm a drunk and you're ugly. I can stop drinking.'
Silence fell, and that was the way Anders wanted it. He poured himself a cup of coffee and looked at the clock. It was after eleven. He had slept longer than usual. Despite Elin's escape attempt during the night, perhaps her presence had given the room some kind of security that had enabled him to sleep.
He took a couple more swigs of coffee and glanced at her. The headache was easing slightly and his conscience pricked as he saw her sitting there breaking a cheese sandwich into tiny pieces so that she could get it into her mouth. He wanted to say something, but while there are plenty of nasty, smart-arse remarks, the kind that can put something right are harder to come by.
He finished off his coffee and was about to pour her a cup when it occurred to him that she probably wouldn't be able to drink something that hot. She'd made it for him. He put the cup on the draining board and said, 'Thanks for the coffee. That was kind of you.'
Elin nodded and took a cautious sip of juice from her glass. The wounds must have healed a little, since she didn't need to use a straw. What she had done to her face was incomprehensible. She was thirty- six, like him, but was starting to look like a sixty-year-old who'd had a difficult life.
'I'm going to check the post,' said Anders.
He hurried out of the kitchen and pulled on his Helly Hansen top, fleeing the agonising desolation that lay like a fog around Elin.
Down below the porch stood the GB-man, wrapped in the plastic sack. He couldn't understand why it had frightened him so much. He picked it up and carried it over to the woodpile, where he kicked it and made it fall over.
'Not so fucking tough now, are you?' he said to the prone figure, which had nothing to say in its defence.
The air was clear and cold, the demons of the night were dispersing. He looked with satisfaction at the well-filled wood store, pushed his hands into his pockets and set off towards the village. It was as if he had two different states. One which was comparatively clear and lucid and could chop wood, think sensible thoughts, and was on the way up. And then there was the other, the night side, which was in the process of getting lost in a labyrinthine darkness of fear and speculation, and was on the way down.
At least it's a fight, he thought. In the city there was nothing hut apathy.
That's how he chose to see it at the moment, at any rate, as he approached the shop with his work-worn hands in his pockets. When the rays of the sun broke through the cloud cover at irregular intervals and made the sea sparkle, when he was in the light of the new day. When the night came no doubt everything would look very different.
He opened the old mailbox he had been given by Simon, expecting to find nothing as usual, but today there was a yellow envelope in the box. The films. The pictures had been developed.
He weighed the envelope in his hand. It was thinner and lighter than usual, because he had only taken a few pictures before his photography stopped for good. But they were in there. The last pictures. He picked at the flap of the envelope and looked around. Not a soul in sight. He ripped it open.
He didn't want to go home because Elin was there, he wanted to be in peace with this moment. He sat down on the steps of the shop and pulled the smaller folder out of the envelope, weighing that in his hand as well. How many pictures were there? Ten? Eleven? He couldn't remember. He took a deep breath and carefully fished out the little bundle of photographs.
First of all a couple of bad pictures of the Shack, and then there they were, on the way up to the lighthouse. Maja in her red suit, ploughing ahead through the snow, Cecilia right behind her, straight- backed despite the difficult terrain underfoot. There they were in front of the lighthouse, side by side with rosy cheeks. Cecilia's hand on Maja's shoulder, Maja pulling away, off somewhere else as usual.
More photographs of the two of them in front of the lighthouse, the two people he had cared about most in all the world, both gone. Different degrees of zoom, the hands in different positions. Pictures from a distance, head and shoulders, close-ups. Maja up by the reflector.
A lump formed in Anders' throat, and he found it difficult to breathe. How could they be gone? How could they have ceased to exist for him, when he was sitting here holding them in his hands? How could that be?
The tears began to fall; a screw was boring its way through his chest. He lowered the pictures and let it happen. He wrapped his arms around himself and thought: If there was a way…
If there was a way, a machine, a method of releasing people from photographs. Of capturing those frozen moments and thawing them out, making them real and bringing them back into the world. He nodded to himself as the tears continued to flow and the screw was twisted around and around.
'It ought to be possible,' he mumbled. 'It ought to be possible…'
He sat like that until the pain began to subside and the tears had dried. Then he looked at the photographs one by one, running his finger over the two-dimensional faces that would never be his again.
He flicked back and forth through the pile. Maja wasn't looking into the camera in one single picture. Cecilia was gazing obediently into the lens every time, in one she had even managed a beaming smile. But Maja…
Her eyes were looking away, and in a couple of pictures it wasn't only her eyes. Her whole face was turned to the left. To the east.
Anders studied the pictures more closely and could see that in every picture her eyes seemed to be fixed on a particular point. Even when she was directly facing the camera, in the close-up for example, her pupils were drawn to the left.
He lowered the bundle of photographs and stared straight ahead, open-mouthed. He remembered. Up in the lighthouse. How she had pointed and…
Daddy, what's that?
What do you mean?
There. On the ice.
Far away in the distance Gåvasten was no more than a diffuse elevation in the grey-blue sea. With his index fingers and thumbs Anders made a small diamond-shaped hole, and looked through it to sharpen his focus. The contours of Gåvasten became slightly clearer, but he couldn't see anything in particular.
What was it she saw?
He got up from the steps, pushed the photographs in his pocket, and strode purposefully home. He had a job to do.
Anders walked around the upturned boat, looking at it from a more pragmatic point of view. Yes, it looked scruffy, but could it serve its purpose: to stay afloat, and to carry an engine that would get him to Gåvasten?
The weakest element from a practical point of view was the mounting for the engine. The metal plate in the stern had virtually fallen to bits with rust, and if you tried to attach an engine to it, it would probably fall into the sea. Anders studied the construction. With a couple of bolts through the whole thing, the metal plate could be reinforced with a piece of wood. It wasn't a complicated job, but the boat would have to be turned over so that he could get at it.
He went up to the house and asked Elin to help. It was hard work, but eventually they managed to tip the boat up so that it was balanced, and Anders was able to go round to the other side to take the weight and break the fall as it landed the right way up.
Elin looked at the cracked seat, the splits around the rowlocks and the fringes of fibreglass along the broken gunwale. Are you intending to go out in this?'
'If the engine works, yes. What are you going to do?'
'About everything. Your life. What are you going to do?'
Elin tore off a couple of wormwood leaves and crushed them between her fingers, sniffed at them and pulled a face. Anders glimpsed a movement behind her, and saw that Simon was heading towards them. When Elin caught sight of him she whispered, 'Don't tell him it's me. If he asks. I can't…'
She had no time to say any more before Simon reached them. 'So,' he said, nodding towards the boat. 'Are you off to sea?'
Simon turned to Elin and gave a start. He stood there frowning for a couple of seconds, staring at her face. Then he held out his hand.
He continued to stare at Elin's face as if he were trying to remember something. Anders couldn't understand his reaction. OK, Elin looked ghastly, but Simon's behaviour was downright rude, and not like him at all. If you bumped into a person whose face was scarred from severe burns, for example, you didn't stand there gawping at them like that.
Simon seemed to realise this himself; he let go of Elin's hand, smoothed away his stunned expression and asked, 'So, are you…'
Elin didn't stop to listen to the question, but excused herself and went back up to the house. Simon watched her go. Then he turned to Anders. 'Is she a friend of yours?'
'Yes. Or…it's a long story.'
Simon nodded and waited for Anders to continue. When he didn't oblige, Simon contemplated the boat instead and said, 'This doesn't look too good.'
'No, but I think she'll float.'
'And what about the engine?'
'Don't know. I haven't tried it.'
'You're welcome to borrow my boat if you need it, you know that.'
'I want something of my own. But thanks.'
Simon clasped his hands together and walked around the boat, saying 'Hmm' to himself at regular intervals. He stopped beside Anders and rubbed his hands over his cheeks. It was obvious he had something to say. He cleared his throat, but it wouldn't come out. He tried again, and this time things went better.
'There was something I wanted to ask you.'
Simon took a deep breath. 'If Anna-Greta and I were to…if we were to get married. What would you think about that?'
Simon looked deeply worried. Something burst out of Anders' chest and for a fraction of a second he didn't know what it was, he was so unused to the feeling, but it was a laugh. 'You're going to get married'? Now?'
'Well, we're thinking about it, yes.'
'What about all that business of not knowing another person?'
'I think we'd better regard that as…somewhat exaggerated.'
Anders looked up at Anna-Greta's house as if he expected to see her standing up there, anxiously eavesdropping. He didn't get it. 'Why are you asking me about this? What do you want?'
Simon scratched his head and looked embarrassed. 'Well, I want to, of course, but I mean it's also a question of…I mean, I'd inherit everything, if she were to die before me. Which doesn't seem particularly likely, but…'
Anders placed his hand on Simon's shoulder. 'I'm sure we can get something in writing. Something that says I can keep the Shack. If it comes to that. I'm not bothered about anything else.'
'That's OK with you? Are you sure?'
'Simon, it's more than OK. It's the first piece of good news I've heard in a long, long time, and…' Anders took a step forward and gave Simon a hug. 'Congratulations. It's about time, to say the least.'
When Simon had gone, Anders stood with his hands in his pockets for a long time, staring at the boat without thinking about the boat. For once his internal organs felt warm and easy to carry. He wanted to hang on to that feeling.
When he went up to the timber store after a while, he discovered that he could take the feeling with him. It stayed with him while he cut a piece of treated wood, lingered as he drilled holes in it and fixed it to the stern.
Will there be a wedding?
He hadn't asked Simon if they were planning a proper wedding in the church at Nåten, or if they were planning to have it at home, or just a civil ceremony. They probably hadn't thought about it themselves either, since nothing was decided yet.
Who proposed to whom?
He just couldn't picture it, how it had happened or what had led to it. But it was fun to think about it. The feeling remained with him.
It was only when he had nailed a plank between two trees, hauled the engine on to it and connected a pressure tank that the usual gloom began to take over once again. The engine wasn't co-operating. He pumped up the petrol, pulled out the choke and yanked at the starter until his arm started to go numb. Nothing.
Why does everything have to fucking play up? Why can't anything work?
He lifted off the cover and saw that he'd flooded the engine, the petrol had run out of the carburettor and gathered in a puddle underneath the fuel filter. He did all the things he could think of, checked all the connections and cleaned the spark plug. It was starting to get dark by the time he put the cover back on and yanked at the starter until he was sweaty, with no success.
He resisted a powerful urge to lift the engine off the plank, carry it down to the jetty and throw it in the sea. Instead he took the cover off once again, sprayed the whole engine with WD-40 with an air of resignation, put the cover back on and left it.
Major and minor questions
As Simon approached Anna-Greta's house with the evening drawing in, he saw that she had lit candles in the kitchen. His stomach contracted, and he suddenly felt nervous. He felt he was on her wavelength to a certain extent, having put his best pullover on under his jacket, but he perceived a ceremonial air that he wasn't quite sure he could rise to.
When he looked back at his life it seemed to him that he had lived it without making any actual decisions. Things had turned out the way they had turned out, and he had just gone along with it all. His alliance with Spiritus was perhaps an exception, but that had been dictated by necessity. He couldn't have done anything else.
Or could he?
Perhaps it was just that he had never been faced with such a clear question before, such a definite choice as this proposal. He had probably made decisions and choices, but it had happened quietly, so to speak. No bells and whistles, no candles, no sinking feeling in his stomach.
The business of children, for example. He and Anna-Greta had been unable to have children, and presumably he was the weak link. They had never consciously tried to have children. If their love had resulted in a child they would no doubt have accepted it with joy, but when it didn't happen, they left the matter alone. They didn't have any tests and they never discussed adoption.
It just didn't turn out that way.
That expression contained the essence of an attitude to life that was embraced by many people on Domarö, and that Simon also shared. A kind of fatalism. The meeting in the mission house had shown him where the roots of this fatalism lay. Things happened, and that was just the way it all turned out. Or they didn't happen, and things just didn't turn out. Nothing to be done about it.
But now he was on his way to the prettily illuminated house to answer a question that wasn't just going to turn out one way or the other by itself. It was Yes or No that mattered here, and his best pullover was chafing slightly at the neck. He wished he had brought a present, a flower, or something to hold in his hands at least.
With his customary combination of city behaviour and village behaviour he knocked on the door first and then opened it. He hung his jacket in the hallway, ran a finger inside the neckline of his pullover and went into the kitchen.
He stopped by the stove. The ceremonial air he had sensed was definitely there. The candelabra had been brought out, there was a clean white cloth on the table, and a bottle of wine was waiting. Anna- Greta was wearing her blue dress with the high neck and the Chinese embroidery. Simon hadn't seen it for ten years, at least, which was why he stopped dead.
There she was, the woman he…
the woman he…
Her. The other one. You. And wasn't she beautiful, wasn't she elegant. She certainly was. The candles made the silk of the dress shimmer, and the glow spread to her face, which seemed to lose its age altogether rather than looking twenty years younger. It was just her, Anna-Greta, through all the years and all the different ways she had looked. Just Anna-Greta.
Simon swallowed and didn't know what to do with his hands. There should have been something in them, something to hand over, some kind of gesture to be made. Instead he waved vaguely in the direction of the table, the room, Anna-Greta, and said, 'This is…lovely.'
Anna-Greta shrugged, said, 'Sometimes you just have to make a bit of an effort,' and a little of the communion-like atmosphere eased. Simon sat down on the opposite side of the table and reached out his empty hand, palm upwards. Anna-Greta took it.
'Yes,' he said. 'Of course.'
Anna-Greta leaned forward. 'Of course what?'
'Of course I want to marry you. Of course I do.'
Anna-Greta smiled and shut her eyes. With her eyelids closed she nodded silently. Simon swallowed around the lump in his throat and squeezed her hand.
This is how it is, he thought. This is how it's going to be.
With his free hand he dug in his trouser pocket and took out the matchbox, placing it on the table between them.
'Anna-Greta?' he said. 'There's something I have to tell you.'
Bloody tourists go home
Anders and Elin dedicated the evening to a lot of wine and a little chat. Elin lit a fire in the living room and stayed in there, Anders sat in the kitchen staring at the bead tile, trying to find a pattern. Nothing occurred to him. The silence that had been acceptable when he was alone in the house was suffocating with Elin there.
From one of the kitchen cupboards he dug out his father's old cassette player and a plastic bag of tapes. They were well used and grubby, and had been played many times. They were mostly compilations from a program of top twenty hits, Alf Robertsson and Lasse Lonndahl. He had come to terms with the idea of listening to Alf Robertsson's growling voice for a while when he found a tape that was so worn that the label was almost illegible. It didn't matter, he recognised it and knew what it said, 'Kalle Sandare Makes a Call'.
The cassette player had no lead. He searched through the drawers frantically, with growing anticipation. He had listened to this particular tape with his father many times. As a child he had thought Kalle s mischievous phone calls were very funny, and he was looking forward to finding out what he thought of them now.
He found the lead and pushed it in, inserted the cassette and pressed Play. He heard the faint beep indicating that the conversation was starting, and turned up the volume; the tape was so old and worn that the sound itself seemed to have been eroded.
'Ah, good afternoon, my name is Mastersson and I'm an engineer…'
Anders sat with his ear pressed close to the machine, listening as Kalle pretended to be interested in buying some Svea brand beehives, asking detailed questions about his prospective purchase. The innocent victim on the other end willingly answered his questions, which became more and more insane.
Anders laughed out loud when Kalle asked if the beehives had reflector aggregates like those in boat tanks, and laughed even more when he started talking about the buried beehives he'd seen in Germany. Towards the end, when he told a completely pointless story about a little dinghy that had been stuck in the ice over the winter, 'and then, when the spring came…the boat just floated up!' Anders found himself so helpless with laughter that he missed a bit and had to rewind the tape.
When the conversation was over, Anders pressed the Stop button. He had a pain in his stomach and tears in his eyes. But it was a good pain, and they were good tears. He wiped them away and poured himself another glass of wine. Just as he was about to restart the tape to listen to the next call, Elin came into the kitchen.
'What are you listening to?'
'Kalle Sandare. Don't you think he's brilliant?'
Anders got annoyed, and had to restrain himself from making a nasty comment. Elin yawned and said, 'I'm going to bed.'
'You do that.' She lingered for a moment, and Anders added, 'I'm staying here for a while. You carry on.'
Elin went off to the bedroom and Anders was alone in the kitchen with Kalle Sandare. He drank a toast to the cassette player, lit a cigarette and kept listening. Kalle was looking for a job as a drummer in a dance band, investigated tree-felling opportunities and was interested in buying an electric guitar. There were no more belly laughs, but Anders giggled almost non-stop.
When the tape ended there was silence in the kitchen, and he felt more abandoned than ever. Kalle's gentle, friendly voice had kept him company. Anders took out the tape, twisting it over and over between his fingers. It was recorded in 1965.
This is culture.
The humour consisted almost exclusively of linguistic twists and turns, and was nice through and through. There was nothing harsh or cynical in Kalle's treatment of his unsuspecting victims, he was just a funny little old man, an eccentric part of Swedish life.
Anders thought about the comedy programs he had seen on television in recent years, and started to cry. Because Kalle Sandare wasn't around any more, and because everything was so terrible nowadays. After he had cried for a while he stood up, rinsed his face in cold water and tried to pull himself together.
Stop it. You can't carry on like this.
He dried his face on a tea towel and felt somehow purged inside. Laughter and tears had followed on from one another, and at last he was tired enough to be able to sleep. A good evening, in spite of everything. On his way to the bedroom he ran a finger over the tape.
Elin must have been able to hear Kalle Sandare as well; the bedroom door was ajar, and the tape had clearly acted as a lullaby. She was fast asleep, breathing deeply, and Anders was grateful he didn't have to talk. He undressed and got into Maja's bed, then lay for a while looking at the bundle in the big bed that was Elin.
What am I going to do with her?
There wasn't much he could do. She had to reach her own decision. He would tell her that she could stay on for a few days if necessary, but after that she would need to find a different solution. He didn't want anyone else living here, he wanted to be alone with his ghosts. And Kalle Sandare.
Anders smiled. There had been another tape, where had that gone? 'The Tales and Adventures of El Zou-Zou the Magician'. There was some story about a monkey who went in and out through the handles of a paper bag and fetched out different tools…
With the monkey by his side he tumbled into dreams.
He was woken by a cold draught and sat up blinking, trying to see the clock on the floor next to the bed. Half-past twelve. He had been asleep for maybe an hour.
One night. Can I please be allowed to sleep for one whole night?
The bedroom door was wide open, and the big bed was empty. Anders flopped back on his pillow and listened. There wasn't a sound inside the house, but the outdoor noises sounded much too clearly, as if the outside door was open. He had forgotten to barricade the bedroom door, and now he had to deal with the consequences.
Yawning, he pulled on his clothes and went into the kitchen. The outside door was indeed open to the night, and the house was bitterly cold. The thermometer outside the kitchen window was showing four degrees. Elin's clothes had been neatly folded on the bedroom chair, so she must have gone out in her bra and pants.
That was where she had been heading the previous night, and that was presumably where she had gone now. Right across the island, perhaps two kilometres to Kattudden.
Anders rubbed his face angrily with the palms of his hands.
Shit! Shit shit shit!
There was nothing else he could do. He found a warm sweater and a jacket, shoved Elin's clothes into a carrier bag, pulled on a woolly hat and set off. If he was lucky she hadn't been gone long, and he would catch up with her along the road.
His head was buzzing with the intoxication that had been on its way towards a hangover, but had been stopped in its tracks. The dancing beam of the torch moving along the track made him feel slightly unwell. When he got to the point where the track divided, he had a stroke of genius and turned off for Simon's house.
Simon's bike was propped up against the birch tree by the track. It wasn't locked. It was an old army bike and not really worth stealing, even for the most desperate thief. Besides which, Simon had said he couldn't use it any longer, and anyone who needed it was welcome to take it.
Anders took it. He noticed something unusual: Simon's house was in darkness, but there was a light on in Anna-Greta's. Then he remembered.
They're probably sitting up making plans.
The thought cheered him up, and the chilly night air had cleared his head. He hung the bag of clothes on the handlebars, got on the bike and pedalled off, using the torch to light his way, since the lamp on the front of the bike had been broken since time immemorial. There was a chance that someone else might have stopped Elin, but it wasn't great. It was only in summer that people on Domarö were moving about at night.
He passed the shop and the mission house without seeing any sign of the sleepwalker. By the time he got on to the track through the forest, he was puffing and sweating. There was a sour, smoky taste in his mouth, and as he swept the torch over the gloomy trees, despondency came over him once again and a line from 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' popped up in his head.
The Smiths. It was many years since a line from one of their songs had come unbidden into his mind, and it made him follow a chain of thought back through the years as he pedalled through the forest. He came out into the opening leading towards Kattudden, continued for fifty metres or so, then caught sight of something that made him brake so sharply that the tyres skidded through the gravel.
He tried to correct the bike, but couldn't keep it upright. It slid sideways and he went down with a clatter and a ping from the bell. His right knee scraped along the gravel then the speed took him and rolled him over a couple of times before he was eventually stopped by a fence. He pulled himself up into a sitting position and tried to make sense of what his eyes were seeing.
Henrik's platform moped was parked under a lamppost. In the garden next door, Elin was walking with two other people. The sound of Anders crashing his bike made them turn around. It was Henrik and Björn. They both looked roughly the same age as when Anders had last seen them, eighteen years earlier.
This isn't real. This isn't happening.
Henrik and Björn were contemplating him calmly as he sat there like a dazed animal, caught in the glow of the lamp. Elin carried on along the side of the house. It wasn't a house Anders was familiar with. Just one of many summer cottages. Elin was carrying something heavy. It was hard to see what it was, because the light didn't reach that far.
The taste of blood seeped into Anders' mouth and he looked around for the torch. It was by his feet, and it was still shining. He pointed it at Henrik, who gave a start as the bright light hit him. Then he smiled.
'Unfortunately it's not that simple, Anders.'
Something in Henrik's hand reflected the light and dazzled Anders before the reflection vanished. A knife. The blade was so long it almost reached the ground as Henrik held the handle between his index and middle finger, letting the sharp edge swing to and fro. If it hadn't been for the shape of the blade, it could have been a machete.
Anders got to his feet. His trousers were ripped over his right knee, which was throbbing with pain. There was no point in questioning the evidence of his own eyes. Henrik and Björn were standing there. They looked the same as they had done all those years ago, Henrik's voice was the same. Anders spat out a gob of saliva mixed with blood and asked, 'What are you doing?'
Henrik looked at Björn and Björn said, 'Burning down the discotheque.'
Henrik gave him the thumbs-up sign. Anders shone the torch towards the house. Elin really was wearing only her underclothes, and the narrow band of her bra glowed white against her back. She was carrying a can of petrol in her hands, and was just throwing the last of the petrol over the corner of the house.
The thoughts whirled around in Anders' head, tinged with red and with no sense of order. The only thing he could manage to get out was that one simple question, '…why?'
Henrik pursed his lips and frowned, as if Anders' lack of knowledge annoyed him. He said, 'I think you know.' 'No.'
'Oh, come on.'
'I don't understand what you mean.'
Henrik waved the knife around and said to Björn, 'Now I'm fucking disappointed. Aren't you disappointed?'
The corners of Björn's mouth turned down. 'Truly disappointed.'
They were playing some kind of game, and Anders didn't want to join in. The fact that they were standing there in front of him, alive and talking and playing their game, was just too much to take in, so Anders clung to the reason he had come here. 'What's Elin got to do with all this?'
Björn shook his head. 'You really don't understand anything, do you? Mind or body? Which rules the other? I dunno.'
Henrik waved the knife in Elin's direction and said, 'Come on, old woman.'
Elin went and stood between them. She was moving like a sleepwalker, just as she had done the previous night, and her eyes were empty. The cold had made her skin deathly pale, and it was difficult to tell where the skin ended and the fabric began. As Anders looked around for the bag containing Elin's clothes, Henrik ran his hands over her breasts and stomach and said, 'Have you earned it, baby? I don't think so. Not yet.'
The carrier bag was lying by the fence a couple of metres away from where Anders had landed after the crash. Whether Henrik and Björn were ghosts or crazy or both, this couldn't go on. Elin would freeze to death.
Anders pulled her sweater out of the bag and went over to the group. Despite the impossibility of Henrik and Björn's presence, and despite the knife in Henrik's hand, Anders was not afraid. In the same way as a school reunion tends to cast everyone in their former roles once again, he regarded Henrik and Björn as nothing more than the slightly ridiculous boys they had been in the old days; he had no respect for them. He held out the sweater to Elin. 'Here. Put this on.'
Elin didn't move, and her gaze was turned in on herself. When Anders rolled the sweater up to put it on her, Henrik took a step forward and placed himself in the way. He looked Anders in the eye and said, 'What's changed? Nothing, I just love you less. Slightly less than I did, anyway.'
As he uttered the last word he swept his hand in an arc over Anders' legs. It felt as if he had been lashed with a whip, and when he looked down he saw that his jeans had been slashed across both thighs; there were two cuts the width of a hand in the fabric. For a second he could also see the pink flesh in the cuts. Then came the blood. It filled the gashes and dark stains spread over the fabric.
Before Anders had time to think the thought: I've been cut, his chin was hit by the metal knob on the end of the knife's handle. Everything went black and he staggered backwards for a couple of steps before he fell over and hit his shoulder on the platform of the moped. The adrenaline was running riot in his body, and he started shaking.
Henrik pointed the knife at him and mused, 'What do you think the knife wants?' He grinned and made a slitting motion.
Björn laughed as though he had heard an unusually funny joke. Without taking his eyes off Anders, Henrik extended the palm of his hand. Björn gave him five and said, 'That was good.'
Anders had drawn up his knees and warm blood was pouring down his thighs, tickling its way over his groin and gathering under his bottom. His head was reverberating with a sound like the lingering echo of a church bell, and he was too weak to get to his feet. Henrik continued lecturing him.
'Elin here,' said Henrik, placing an arm around her shoulders, 'she was a great girl, wasn't she? Looked after herself. If anyone came too close, she started screaming. Times have certainly changed.'
Incapable of doing anything more than lifting one arm in an impotent attempt to put an end to all this, Anders leaned against the moped and watched as Henrik grabbed the blade of the knife and pushed the metal knob on the handle inside Elin's pants. He glanced at Anders, nodded, then pushed the whole of the handle inside Elin's vagina.
She didn't make a sound. The blade was sticking out of her pants like a metal penis. When Anders looked up at her face, he saw that she was smiling. A big, ugly smile. His stomach turned over and sour vomit spurted out between his lips, all over the gravel beside him.
He wiped his mouth and took a deep breath. Through his burning throat he managed just one harsh word, 'Elin!'
Elin's eyelids flickered and she looked at him. Her eyes came back to life, and when she looked down below her belly she screamed. Henrik snorted, grabbed the blade and pulled out the handle. Björn grabbed her from behind, locking her arms as Henrik caressed her skin with the blade. He turned to Anders.
'You still haven't answered the question,' he said.
A tiny amount of strength was beginning to return to Anders' body. Soon he would be able to stand up, and he thought: A weapon, where can I find a weapon? as he said, 'What question?'
'The one about the disco,' said Björn, adopting a pedagogical tone, as if he were addressing a particularly stupid pupil, 'Why are we burning down the disco?'
'I don't know.'
The fence post. The one that came loose.
Elin was screaming wordlessly and writhing in Björn's grip. Henrik put his arm around her neck with his hand over her mouth, then turned to Anders again, nodded briefly and slashed her stomach.
A muffled scream escaped from beneath Henrik's firmly clamped hand and Elin's legs kicked out as she tried to free herself, while a trickle of blood spread horizontally along a crease in her stomach. Anders staggered to his feet and Henrik pointed the knife at him.
'Calm down,' he said. 'Chill. That was worth a clue.'
Anders wasn't sure his body would obey him if he tried to rush over to the fence, so he stayed where he was and tried to gather his strength as Björn said, 'For the same reason as we're hanging the disc jockey.'
Henrik nodded and loosened his grip on Elin's mouth, dug his hand inside her bra and grabbed one nipple, pulled it out and rested the blade of the knife against it. Elin was now dangling helplessly in Björn's grasp, too frightened even to scream.
'Last chance,' said Henrik. 'Why are we going to hang the DJ and burn the disco?' He made a couple of sawing movements with the knife a centimetre above Elin's stretched, pink flesh, and said, 'Come on Anders, you know this.'
There was no possibility that he could reach the fence post before Henrik let the knife fall. Anders pressed his wrists against his temples. Hang the DJ, hum the discotheque.
Something clicked. He switched the words around and then blurted out the name of the song that was so relevant to his present condition.
'Panic!' he cried. 'Panic!'
Henrik stiffened. Then he let go of Elin's nipple and lowered the knife. He made a gesture not unlike applause. 'There you go! That wasn't so difficult, was it?'
Anders ignored the question. 'Why are you doing this?'
Henrik considered for a couple of seconds. Then he shook his head and turned to Björn, who was still holding on to Elin. Björn said, 'Mmm…because…we are human and we need love just like anyone?'
'No,' said Henrik. 'Try again.'
Björn frowned. Then he brightened up. 'We're clinging because we know it's over, but we don't know where else to go.'
Henrik nodded. 'Close enough,' he said. 'And so true.'
The cuts in Anders' thighs were not as deep as he had first thought. They had stopped bleeding, but his trousers were soaked and the cold was starting to get to his legs. 'Can we stop this game now?' he said. 'Let Elin go.'
Henrik looked surprised.
'That's not possible. We're going to drown her.'
Elin started screaming again as Henrik and Björn used their combined strength to drag her towards the water, her bare feet scoring a track in the gravel. Anders stumbled over to the fence and tugged at the loose post until it came out.
When he turned around Elin had been dragged twenty metres down towards the sea, forty metres to go. He let the adrenaline take over, desensitising him to his physical problems. He ran to catch up with them. When he was a couple of metres away, he yelled, 'Let her go!'
Henrik turned, and Anders hit out at his head with the metre-long post. Henrik's arm came up in defence, and the post struck his elbow. The sensation of two hard objects meeting should have carried on into Anders' hands, but that wasn't what happened. When the wooden post hit Henrik's body it felt more like hitting a big sponge full of water. Henrik's arm curved around the post and a shower of water hit Anders in the face.
Henrik tore the post out of his hands and hurled it to the ground. 'I don't think it's time for you to die. Yet. So pack it in.'
Anders stood there with his arms dangling by his sides as they continued to drag Elin towards the water. Then he turned and ran up towards their moped as he fumbled in his pocket. Let me have, let me have…
Yes. In his pocket he found both cigarettes and matches. He ran over to the moped, unscrewed the petrol cap and yelled to the group, who were now very close to the shore, 'Listen! Let her go, or else…' He lit a match and held it over the hole.
They stopped. Anders shook the box of matches and discovered it was half-full. He had no plan, couldn't work out what to do next. He had been forced to find a way to stop them, and so far it had succeeded. But what next? He could stand here striking matches until the box was empty, but then what?
In any case, they must be able to see through him. He had no desire to be blown up along with their moped for Elin's sake. He looked at the match, which had almost burned down.
Besides which it wouldn't work, he now remembered. He couldn't think who it was or in what context, but somebody had once dropped a lighted match into a petrol tank to impress the others. It had simply gone out. Petrol needs air in order to burn. It might even have been Henrik, that summer when they were kings with their new moped.
Maybe it had been, because they were unimpressed by his threat and were still dragging Elin, who was now screaming at the top of her voice, down towards the shore.
Anders grabbed the edge of the platform and tipped the moped over. It rolled and came to rest on the handlebars as the petrol gurgled out of the tank. He looked up and saw that they were now down by the shoreline with Elin. There was no more time for threats. He moved back a couple of metres, just as far as the petrol had trickled down through the gravel, struck a fresh match and threw it, jumping backwards at the same time.
The flames shot up from the ground like a blue and yellow wall, and Anders screamed, 'Listen!' as loud as he could. Through the fire, which was now licking at the wooden planks of the platform, he saw
Henrik and Björn let go of Elin and come racing up towards him.
He had done what he could and given Elin a chance to escape, now it was up to her. He ran to the bike and the denim was ripped agonisingly from his legs as he threw himself on to the saddle and pedalled towards the forest as hard and as fast as he possibly could. He didn't even turn around to see if they were following him.
The enemy of the water
Anders' legs pedalled as if they had been disconnected from his body and were being controlled by another will. The darkness around him was dense, but he didn't give a thought to the fact that he could end up in the ditch at any moment, and perhaps that was why it didn't happen. Instinct kept him on the right track, and he managed to drive himself on right through the forest without falling off.
For the last part of the journey he was guided by the faint lights from the village, and at that point he wobbled for the first time and almost went over. He managed to brake and get one foot on the ground before the bike tipped sideways. He looked back at the forest path. They didn't seem to be following him.
He set off again and pedalled through the village, feeling slightly protected by the pale street lamps. Only when he had passed the hostel did he allow his thoughts to come belching out. A cloud of horrible, incomprehensible pictures filled his head, and suddenly he felt as if he had a temperature of forty degrees. His body lost all stability and he just wanted to let himself fall. Down on to the track, down into the darkness. To rest.
However, he managed to whip himself on to the point where the track split in two, and headed off to the left. The slight slope down towards Anna-Greta's house meant that he could simply roll along, his legs dangling. As he wobbled on to the drive leading to the house, he saw that there was still a light in the kitchen window.
He dropped the bike on the grass and dragged himself to the door, his legs heavy. He was sweating and shivering, managed to miss the handle once before he grabbed it and pulled open the door.
Simon and Anna-Greta were sitting at the kitchen table, bent over a whole lot of photographs spread all over the surface. When Simon saw Anders his face lit up for a moment, then his expression changed to one of horror.
Anders, whatever have you done?'
Anders leaned against the stove and waved in the direction of Kattudden, but no sound emerged from his lips. Simon and Anna-Greta reached him and he let his body fall into their arms, let himself sink down on to the rag rug. When he was lying on his back and had taken a couple of breaths he said; 'Just need to…have a little rest.'
He stayed where he was while the kitchen lamp was lit, while Simon and Anna-Greta fetched water and placed a pillow under his head. By this stage the shivering had stopped and he might possibly have been able to get up, but he stayed where he was and let them take care of him, just because it was so utterly blissful to leave everything to someone else for a while.
They took off his trousers and washed the cuts on his legs, dressed them with compresses and gauze bandages. Simon gave him two painkillers and some more water. After a couple of minutes of drifting blissfully in the care of others, Anders hauled himself up on to a kitchen chair. He tried to gather his thoughts and looked at the photographs, spread out across the table.
They were old photographs, very old. They showed houses and farms, people working, close-ups. Many of them were yellow with age, and the people in them wore that expression of grim concentration that is so common in old pictures, as if the very act of being photographed demanded a special effort.
Directly in front of him lay a close-up that made him give a start. It was taken outdoors, and printed on something that looked like matt card. Across the picture ran a couple of flames of patchy yellow, as if someone had splashed urine over it. The picture showed a woman of about sixty, staring angrily into the camera.
'Yes,' said Simon. 'I thought I recognised her.'
On the table in front of him Anders found another picture of the same woman, this time taken from further away. She was standing in front of a scrubby little house on a headland.
'Who is she?' asked Anders.
Anna-Greta came to stand behind him, and pointed. 'Her name was Elsa Persson, and she was a cousin of Holger's father. She used to live in that house. On Kattudden. Until Holger's father sold the lot. She was evicted and the house was torn down. Then the summer visitors came.'
'It was your great-grandfather who took the pictures,' said Simon. 'Torgny. He took photographs of all the houses on the island, according to Anna-Greta. I like to sit and look at them from time to time. That's why I recognised her.'
The stubby chin, the flat nose, the deep-set eyes and the thin lips. The woman in the photograph was the image of Elin as she looked now. Or rather, Elin was a somewhat clumsily executed image of the woman in the photo. All the details weren't there yet, but just as it's obvious that a cheap plastic mask of George Bush is meant to represent him and no one else, it was obvious that…
…that this is the woman Elin is meant to look like.
Anders pointed to the house behind the woman. He recognised the location, the position of the island of Kattholmen in the background, but still he asked, 'This house. It was where her house, Elin's house is now, wasn't it?' He corrected himself. 'Where Elin's house was. Until the other night.'
Simon nodded. Anders sat with his mouth open, staring at the photographs. Then he said, 'Let me guess. She drowned herself?'
Anna-Greta picked up the photograph of Elin looking furious and sighed. 'This all happened before my time, but…Torgny said she threatened to drown herself if they took her cottage away from her. Then they took her cottage away from her. And then she disappeared.'
If you can imagine that all the impressions that have poured into Anders since he came back to Domarö have been collected in a kind of container, then this last drop of information was the one that made the container overflow.
The words just came flooding out of his mouth. He told them everything. From the first sense of Maja's presence to the growing conviction that she was in the house. The bead picture slowly growing, the photographs he had had developed and the letters scratched on the kitchen table. From the first blows on the door in the middle of the night and the feeling that he was being watched to tonight's encounter with Henrik and Björn. It all finally came pouring out.
Simon and Anna-Greta listened attentively, without any interruptions for questions. When Anders had finished, Anna-Greta pulled out a kitchen chair and climbed on it so that she could reach the top cupboard. She took out a bottle and placed it on the table. Simon didn't seem to know what it was either, as he was looking enquiringly at Anna-Greta.
Whatever was in the bottle looked like some kind of infusion. Twigs and leaves filled the entire space, surrounded by a liquid that half filled the bottle. Anna-Greta fetched a shot glass and filled it with the cloudy liquid.
'What's that?' asked Anders.
'Wormwood,' said Anna-Greta. 'It's supposed to protect you.'
'From things that come out of the sea.'
Anders looked from Simon to Anna-Greta. 'So does this mean that…you believe me?'
'I do now,' said Simon, pointing to the glass. 'Although I didn't know about this.'
Anders sniffed the contents. It was alcohol, which was fine up to a point. But the aroma carried on the alcoholic fumes was oily and bitter, with a hint of putrefaction. 'Isn't wormwood poisonous?'
'Well yes,' said Anna-Greta. 'But not in small quantities.'
Of course he didn't think his grandmother was trying to poison him, but he had never smelt anything closer to the essence of poison than the one that was rising from the glass in his hand.
A whole series of associations ran through his mind as he raised the glass to his lips.
The wormwood meadow by the shore…the plastic bottle in the woodshed that the bird was sitting on… and the name of the star was Wormwood… Chernobyl… and the rivers shall be poisoned…wormwood, enemy of the water…
What decided the matter was the fact that he was desperately in need of a drink. He knocked back the contents of the glass.
The taste was horribly bitter and his tongue curled up in protest. It felt as if the alcohol had gone straight to his brain, and everything was spinning around as he put down the empty glass. His tongue felt as if it were paralysed, and he managed to slur, 'Didn't taste very nice.'
The heat coursed through his veins and reached the very tips of his fingers, then turned around and raced through his body once again. With lips that were still curling from the vile taste, he asked, 'Can I have another?'
Anna-Greta refilled his glass, then put the top back on the bottle and replaced it in the cupboard. Anders emptied the glass, and since his palate was already numb from the first shock, it didn't taste half as bad this time. When he put down the glass and smacked his lips, he even got a hint of an aftertaste that was…good.
He got to his feet, using the table for support. 'Could I borrow a pair of trousers? I have to go down to the Shack to check if Elin's there, otherwise…1 don't know what we're going to do.'
Simon went to check in the 'hidey-hole', the little storeroom where clothes and belongings from past generations were kept. Anders was left alone in the kitchen with Anna-Greta. He looked longingly at the empty shot glass, but by putting the bottle away Anna-Greta had made her point.
'Protection from the sea,' said Anders. 'What does that mean?'
'We'll talk about it another time.'
Anna-Greta didn't answer. Anders examined the photograph of Elsa. She looked angry; angry and disappointed. If the people in the other pictures looked as if it were hard work being photographed, Elsa looked as if she regarded it as an insult. Her furious gaze reached him through seventy years, making him feel distinctly uncomfortable.
'Was she always alone?' asked Anders. 'Elsa?'
'No, she had a husband who was quite a bit older. Anton, I think his name was. He had heart problems, and…he had a heart attack and died.'
'When he was out fishing?'
'Yes. How did you know that?'
'And she was the one who found him in the boat. Some of the fish were still alive, but he was dead.'
'I don't know about that, but she was the one who found him, that's definitely true. Who told you all this?'
Simon came into the kitchen with a pair of flimsy trousers that looked as if they might have had something to do with the army. He gave them to Anders along with a belt, and said, 'I don't know if these will do, but they're all I could find.'
Anders pulled on the trousers, which were much too big, and fastened the belt around his waist. The wide legs felt good, because they weren't tight over his cuts. Simon stood looking at him, his arms folded.
Are you really going out again? Is that a good idea? Shall I come with you?'
Anders smiled. 'I don't think there's much you can do, and besides…' he nodded at the kitchen cupboard '…I'm protected now, aren't I?'
'I don't know about that, and I don't think Anna-Greta does either, not really.'
'That's true,' said Anna-Greta. 'It's only hearsay.'
'I'll go down and check,' said Anders. 'I'll call you. Whether she's there or not. Then we can decide what to do.'
He borrowed a torch, hoisted up the trousers and grimaced as his wounds pulled. On his way to the outside door he stopped and turned around. He had suddenly realised something. He had been carrying the knowledge with him for quite some time, but it wasn't until that moment it became obvious and possible to say out loud.
'Ghosts,' he said. 'There are ghosts.'
He nodded to Simon and Anna-Greta and went out into the darkn