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translated from the Swedish by McKinley Burnett
‘When you hear the tone – ding-a-ling – it means it’s time
to turn the page. Now we’ll begin.’
The voice on the tape had changed. It almost sounded like a
man now, although he knew it was a lady. Once again he openedthe Bambi book to the first page and listened to the story on thetape player. He knew it by heart. He had known it for a long time,but today he’d listened so many times that the lady’s voice wasbeginning to turn dark.
It had begun to grow dark around him as well; not as many
mammas and pappas with kids and balloons were coming by anymore. He was hungry. The buns he’d been given were all eaten upand the juice had made him want to pee, but she had told himthat he should stay here, so he didn’t dare move. He was used towaiting. But he really had to pee now, and if she didn’t come andcollect him soon he might wet himself. He didn’t want Mamma toget that look. The one that made him hurt and sometimes madeher leave him alone in the dark. He put his hand on the sore spothe’d got yesterday when he didn’t want to go with her. Her eyeshad turned so angry and she’d told him he was being naughty. Andthen his back had hurt. She wanted to go to that house so often.
First take the bus and then the long walk. Sometimes she stayedwith him out there, but sometimes she was gone for a long time,and he wasn’t allowed to bother her. There was a strange house ofglass in the garden where it was rather fun to play, but not all thetime and never alone. There was a little shed with wood in it too,where he could carve things even though he wasn’t allowed to playwith knives. Sometimes she took such a long time it got dark. Then
the ghosts came creeping out, and the thieves. The knife in the wood-shed was his only protection. And the magic floorboard with thedark spot that looked like an eye. If he stood on it with the knifein his hand and sang ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ then they couldn’tget at him. Before, she used to say they were going to live in thathouse someday, not in the glass house or the one with the wood,but in the big one, and then he would have his own room. Every-thing would be all right then, she said.
He looked around. He was sitting at the top of a wide staircase,
and behind him there was a pond with birds in it. For a momenthe wondered whether he dared leave his spot and walk up to havea look, but he remembered what he’d been told and stayed rightwhere he was. The stone step began to feel cold. The voice on thetape player was speaking more slowly now. It almost sounded likeshe was falling asleep inside. Finally the button popped up and thevoice stopped altogether. He suddenly felt lonely. And soon hewouldn’t be able to hold it any longer. He didn’t know where therewas a toilet, and now he began to feel a little sad too. He didn’twant to sit here any more. He had waited so long and now he hadto go and pee and after that he wanted to leave.
‘Hi.’He jumped at the sound of the voice. In front of him stood a
man dressed in green. It looked like he was wearing a police uniformbut it was the wrong colour. There was writing on his chest just likea policeman’s shirt.
‘What’s your name then?’He didn’t answer. Mamma had told him never to talk to strangers,
and he lowered his eyes and stared hard at the stone step.
‘We’re closing now, so it’s time for everyone to go home. Where
The man’s voice didn’t sound angry. It sounded rather nice, but
he knew he wasn’t allowed to answer. At the same time he couldn’tbe rude, and suddenly he didn’t know what to do. Two big dropslanded at his feet, making dark spots on the stone. And then twomore.
‘Are you here with your mamma or pappa?’
He shook his head slowly. That way he wouldn’t have to talk.
‘So who are you here with?’He shrugged his shoulders.
‘Don’t be sad. My name is Sven and I’m the guard here at
Skansen amusement park. Anybody who needs help in here cancome to me. If you’ve lost your parents or can’t find your way orneed help.’
It was quiet for a moment.
‘How old are you?’Cautiously he held out the fingers of his left hand, and with his
other hand he folded down his little finger and thumb.
‘Are you three??’He shook his head a little.
‘No, four.’He clapped his hand to his mouth. Now he’d spoken to him.
What if the old man told his mamma?
He sat in silence, his eyes fixed on the ground. Then he glanced
at the man to see if he looked like somebody who would tell. Theman smiled at him.
‘If you want, you can come with me to the little house down
there where I work. We can wait there until they show up.’
He had to pee so badly. Soon he was going to wet himself, and
‘I need to pee.’The man nodded, still smiling.
‘The toilets are down there. You run along, and I’ll watch your
things. Do you see the door there?’
He hesitated a moment before doing as he was told.
Sven Johansson waited on the steps, concerned as he watched thelittle boy running off towards the toilets. He had noticed him earlierthat afternoon, and now he was worried. When the boy disappearedinto the toilet, he squatted down and had a look at his belongings.
A tape player, a Bambi book, a clear plastic bag with crumbs in it,and a small juice bottle with a yellow plastic top and a few dropsof juice left inside. He opened the book to see if the boy’s name
was written in it. A folded piece of paper fell to the ground. Witha sense of foreboding he unfolded it and his worst fears wereconfirmed. The brief message was written in a flowing script:
‘Take care of this child. Forgive me.’
The key to the flat had arrived in a padded envelope from
the police. A brown-veneered door in an old-fashioned
stairwell that had been gnawed by time. Gerda Persson had laindead for three days by the time the home help discoveredher body. After ninety-two years and a little more than threemonths she had filled her lungs one last time and turnedinto a memory. That was all Marianne knew. And since shewas the one now standing outside the door of the flat, it wasalso clear that neither the police nor the home help hadmanaged to find any relative who could take care of all thedetails required when a life came to an end. That was whythe task had landed on Marianne Folkesson’s desk. A stranger’skey to an unknown life whose past she’d been assigned toretrieve.
She had been in the neighbourhood before. The blocks
were full of small flats, and many of their residents were incontact with Social Services’ care for the elderly. Sometimes,when one of them died, there was no one to contact. Noone except the district commission’s estate administrator,Marianne Folkesson.
She opened her bag and took out the thin plastic gloves,
but left the mask. She never knew what awaited her behindthese strangers’ doors, but out of respect for the deceased shetried to go in with an open mind. Sometimes the home wasas neat as a doll’s house, left to posterity in spotless condi-tion, with meticulously cared-for possessions that no onewould ever want. But sometimes among the belongings that
filled the home of the deceased there was an inexplicablefeeling of presence
. In a way, her own arrival was an encroach-ment, and she didn’t like to make it worse by wearing anugly mask. She preferred to think of herself as an ally, cometo close up with respect and dignity the lives hidden behindthe unfamiliar names that landed on her desk. To gather theobjects she found, and if possible locate the people to whomthey would mean something. Death was no longer some-thing that scared her. After twenty years in this job she hadrealised that it was a natural part of life. She no longer soughtthe meaning of life, but that didn’t mean she thought shehad found it. Since the universe had taken the trouble toexist, there must be a reason for it. And with that she hadto be content, willing to trust in the mystery.
Life. A tiny moment between two eternities.
Far from all the cases she worked on spoke of lonely lives,
even though the circle of friends may have diminished withtime and the final years spent in loneliness. But some homeswere the opposite of the neat doll’s houses – where the chaosand filth were so pungent that her body recoiled fromstepping across the threshold. Ripped wallpaper and brokenfurniture that loudly proclaimed the desperation felt by thedeceased. In those cases her report was a portrait of a mentallyunstable person without a social network who got by as longas psychiatric support was available. Perhaps the person hadlived in a home, but eventually felt better and was thenconsidered too healthy to take up one of the few placesoffered by the state. Then he was expected to take care ofhimself and was provided with his own flat, where isolationquickly allowed the disease to regain lost ground. A lonelyperson who had been in need of care but, once rejected, hadnot had the strength to beg or plead. Then it was her dutyto provide some form of redress, to do everything in herpower to track down a relative who at least would come tothe funeral. Sometimes there was no one. Just her, the pastor,the funeral director and the cantor who followed the deceased
to his final resting place. In that case she had to try, with thehelp of photographs and mementos, to get some sense ofthe person, to give the funeral a personal touch if possible.
Whenever she was the only one placing a flower on thecoffin, she always prayed for forgiveness for society’s incom-petence – that it had allowed this person to endure his miserywithout any intervention.
She turned and gave her companion a pair of gloves. On
the first visit someone from the county council always hadto accompany her. There should never be any question thateverything had been done properly. Various colleagues tookturns coming with her, depending on who had time. Todayit was one of the aid workers from care for the elderly.
Marianne knew the woman’s first name, but right now shecouldn’t remember her surname.
Solveig pulled on the gloves, and Marianne put the key
in the door. The hall floor was covered with flyers and ahandful of copies of the free local newsletter. There was nostench, only a musty smell that needed to be aired. Sheglanced through the post as she gathered it into a stack andput it all on the hall table. As far as she could see, there wereno bills to be paid or magazine subscriptions that neededcancelling. Only one letter was personally addressed to Gerda.
An offer from a broadband provider.
The flat seemed to be in order, but a thin coating of dust
lay on all the clear surfaces. From the home help she hadlearned that someone came by to do the cleaning for Gerdaevery third week and to shop for food every Monday. Shehad declined other assistance, wanting to take care of herself.
The dust was certainly no sign of negligence but rather asign of poor eyesight. Marianne had witnessed this before:the flats of old people where everything was in order butthe dust was allowed to settle undisturbed.
In the kitchen a plate and a glass stood in the dish-rack.
Otherwise it was empty. A kitchen towel hung over theradiator, and the little table with two chairs was cleared,
except for a wicker basket sitting on an oilcloth with a patternof tiny flowers. She opened the refrigerator. The stench ofrotting food rushed out. Marianne found the plastic rubbishbag she’d brought along. Two weeks had passed since Gerdahad died, and after the ambulance took away the body, thehome help had been forbidden entry to the flat. An opencarton of low-fat milk, a tub of butter, caviar and a rottencucumber were all consigned to the plastic bag, which shequickly sealed and set by the front door.
‘Look at this. She has books in the freezer.’Solveig was still standing by the open refrigerator door
when Marianne came back to the kitchen. A thick layer ofice had formed around the books, which were sealed inclingfilm and neatly stacked at the back of the freezercompartment. In one of the kitchen drawers Marianne founda spatula, which she used to prise the books from theirprison. The plastic was frosted over, and she scraped herfingernail along the spine of one of the books. Let the StonesSpeak
by Axel Ragnerfeldt. One of the greatest. Not hismost famous one, but then all his works were consideredmodern classics.
‘There might be money hidden between the pages,’ her
colleague said. On several occasions Marianne had foundbanknotes hidden in the strangest places. But this book wasempty, as were the others. All of them were by Axel Ragnerfeldt, and with some astonishment she discovered thatthey all had handwritten dedications. To Gerda with affection
and To Gerda with the warmest thanks
. And then an ornatesignature above the printed name of the author. Mariannefelt a warmth in her chest. As always she was glad to discoversigns that this person who lived alone had at one time beenpart of some sort of community. That her life had not alwaysbeen so solitary. In this case Marianne felt doubly satisfied.
Generally, if no assets and nothing of value were found, therewas little chance of a nice funeral. But these books couldcertainly be sold for a good price because of Axel Ragnerfeldt’s
personal dedication, and she would see to it that as much aspossible went towards the decoration of the church and abeautiful headstone. A testament of respect for the personwhose life had now ended.
‘They don’t seem to have been damaged by being frozen.
Marianne nodded. The shy Nobel Prize-winner had
achieved fame that was without precedent in the cultural lifeof Sweden, but he had seldom given interviews. She couldn’tremember hearing a single detail of his private life.
‘Gerda Persson was ninety-two. They must have been almost
‘I didn’t realise he was that old. Do you really think so?’Marianne wasn’t sure. And the book jackets provided no
clue. They had been printed before the era of the cult ofpersonality, back in the days when an author’s words weremore interesting than his face.
The flat consisted of two rooms and a kitchen. They went
into the hall, past the living room, and into the bedroom. AZimmer frame lay on its side on the floor. The nightstandhad been knocked over and the sheet torn off the bed. Therug was in a heap and on top of it clothes and magazineswere jumbled together. A water glass lay on its side next toa tube of hand cream and a box of valerian. In the midst ofall this an alarm clock kept on ticking. Marianne straight-ened up the nightstand and replaced the bedside lamp. Inthe little drawer there were magazine clippings, throatlozenges, a Bible, a necklace, some envelopes, and a smallpocket diary. She turned to a page at random. Woke up at 6 a.m
.Potatoes and meatballs
. Hedda Gabler on TV
. Most of themagazine articles were about heart disease, and the datesshowed they’d been collected over a long period. Some werepoems from obituaries with the names cut off. The firstenvelope contained a fifteen-year-old gift voucher for podiatriccare, the second a card offering congratulations on herseventy-fifth birthday from her friends in the library
pensioners’ group. The third envelope was thicker and well-thumbed. Marianne looked inside. Solveig opened awardrobe but closed it again when she saw it contained onlyclothes.
‘How much is in there?’Marianne took out a bundle of banknotes and counted
‘Eleven thousand, five hundred and seventy kronor.’She closed the drawer but kept the envelope with the cash.
After she had finished her search of the flat she would haveto fill out an inventory form on which furniture and objectsof value had to be listed along with any other assets found,such as cash. Any property belonging to the deceased wouldgo firstly to pay for funeral expenses and a headstone, andsecondly to the settlement of the estate. Whatever remainedwould go to any creditors.
Solveig took a quick look through the other wardrobe,
then they both moved into the living room. This room wasmainly furnished with older pieces. A bureau, a bookshelfand a more modern sofa – nothing that would generate largesums for the estate. A bed had been set up in front of theTV, and on the table next to it lay a TV guide, two scraped-off lottery tickets with no win, and a considerable array ofmedicines. They stood lined up on a piece of paper, cross-ruled with handwritten dates: Imdur, aspirin, Bisoprolol,Plavix, Plendil, citalopram, Pravachol.
It was amazing what society would do to keep people
alive. Not to mention the enthusiasm of the pharmaceuticalindustry.
Like an exclamation mark amid the old-fashioned furnish-
ings, a red push-button telephone sat on a small table insidethe doorway. Marianne went over and leafed through a smallstack of papers. A handwritten list of postal giro accountnumbers for radio service, telephone company and insurance.
A notice from Söder Hospital. A supermarket flyer. A brochure from the chemist’s about the use of Bisoprolol. At
the bottom lay a dog-eared address book. Marianne lookedup the letter A. A handful of names and phone numbers werewritten with different pens, and all but two were crossedout. The sum total of a lifetime of acquaintances collectedin a little book. One by one the links to the outside worldhad vanished and were then deleted.
Address books were her best tool in the search for rela-
tives. She would ring all the numbers she found, in the hopeof persuading someone to come to the funeral. When olderpeople died, the numbers were often disconnected with noforwarding number. Occasionally so much time had passedthat new subscribers had taken them over.
A sudden thought made her turn to the letter R. At the
top of the column of names she found what she was lookingfor. Ragnerfeldt. The name was not crossed out.
‘Here are some photos.’ Solveig was kneeling in front of the
old bureau with a brown envelope in her hand. Marianneput the address book in her bag and went over to her colleague,casting a glance inside the open bureau doors. Piles of neatlyironed tablecloths, crystal glasses of various designs, a Chinese-inspired coffee service. A red cardboard binder labelledHousehold Accounts
on the spine. Marianne pulled it out andstuffed it into her bag.
‘I wonder if this is a picture of her? Looks like it’s from
a birthday.’ Solveig turned it over. ‘Nothing written on it.’
She handed Marianne the picture. A faded colour photo
of an elegantly dressed woman sitting in an easy chairsurrounded by vases of flowers. Her hair was brushed backand fastened in a bun. Her face wore a serious expression,as if she wasn’t comfortable being the centre of attention.
Solveig took out another photo.
‘Look, here he is. That’s him, isn’t it?’Marianne looked at the picture. Black-and-white this time.
Axel Ragnerfeldt was sitting at a wooden table staring intothe distance with a coffee cup in his hand. A woman ofabout the same age and two small children were also at the
table, looking into the camera. A girl and a boy. The boy wasa few years older.
Marianne nodded. ‘That’s definitely him. I didn’t even know
‘Maybe it’s not his.’‘It looks like a family photograph.’Marianne put the photo back in the envelope and stuffed
Solveig moved on to the bookshelf. ‘Here are some of his
Marianne followed her.
‘Signed?’Solveig opened a book. The florid signature flowed above
the printed name, but this time without a personal greeting.
Marianne pulled out another and flicked through the pageswith her thumb. She gasped when she saw that all thepages were crossed out with a thick red marker. In certainplaces the text seemed to have particularly incensed who -ever held the pen. Those pages had been obliterated with suchforce they were unreadable and the paper was almost torn.
‘Why the hell did she do that?’They checked one book after another, and they had all
been subjected to the same fate. The red lines shone blood-red on the pages, and here and there the pen had made smallpunctures. Marianne pulled out a book by a different authorbut found the pages untouched.
‘Hmm.’ She didn’t usually make comments, especially not
about things that had taken place in the person’s own homeand didn’t harm anyone else. But she found it odd, to saythe least, that someone would intentionally destroy a signedbook by Ragnerfeldt. Particularly in a home like this wherethe extra income from the sale of a valuable item might havebeen welcome. Perplexed, Marianne shoved the book backin place.
‘So, what do you think?’ said Solveig. ‘Do you have every-
Marianne opened her bag and took out the folder of inven-
‘We just have to fill out one of these now.’
When the form was completed and Solveig had left, Marianneremained standing at the living-room window. She took inGerda Persson’s view. A tree, a lawn, the dull green façadeof a block of flats in the background. Behind those windowsthe lives and secrets of other people.
Everything she needed for the time being was packed into
her bag. If no relatives contacted her after the death noticeappeared, she would have to resort to the provincial recordsoffice and the church birth registry. And the names in theaddress book. She would do everything she could to find asmany pieces of the puzzle as necessary to honour GerdaPersson at her funeral. Now her real work began. The huntfor Gerda Persson’s past.
She had already found one name.
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