A MAN WHO WAS OVE AND ONE DAY HE HAD ENOUGH
People always said Ove and Ove’s wife were like night and day. Ove realized full well, of course, that he was the night. It didn’t matter to him. On the other hand it always amused his wife when someone said it, because she could then point out while giggling that people only thought Ove was the night because he was too mean to turn on the sun.
He never understood why she chose him. She loved only abstract things like music and books and strange words. Ove was a man entirely filled with tangible things. He liked screwdrivers and oil filters. He went through life with his hands firmly shoved into his pockets. She danced.
“You only need one ray of light to chase all the shadows away,” she said to him once, when he asked her why she had to be so upbeat the whole time.
Apparently some monk called Francis had written as much in one of her books.
“You don’t fool me, darling,” she said with a playful little smile and crept into his big arms. “You’re dancing on the inside, Ove, when no one’s watching. And I’ll always love you for that. Whether you like it or not.”
Ove never quite fathomed what she meant by that. He’d never been one for dancing. It seemed far too haphazard and giddy. He liked straight lines and clear decisions. That was why he had always liked mathematics. There were right or wrong answers there. Not like the other
hippie subjects they tried to trick you into doing at school, where you could “argue your case.” As if that was a way of concluding a discussion: checking who knew more long words. Ove wanted what was right to be right, and what was wrong to be wrong.
He knew very well that some people thought he was nothing but a grumpy old sod without any faith in people. But, to put it bluntly, that was because people had never given him reason to see it another way.
Because a time comes in every man’s life when he decides what sort of man he’s going to be: the kind who lets other people walk all over him, or not.
Ove slept in the Saab the nights after the fire. The first morning he tried to clear up among the ashes and destruction. The second morning he had to accept that this would never sort itself out. The house was lost, and all the work he had put into it.
On the third morning two men, wearing the same kind of white shirt as that chief fireman, turned up. They stood by his gate, apparently quite unmoved by the ruin in front of them. They didn’t present themselves by name, only mentioned the name of the authority they came from. As if they were robots sent out by the mother ship.
“We’ve been sending you letters,” said one of the white shirts, holding out a pile of documents for Ove.
“Many letters,” said the other white shirt and made a note in a pad. “You never answered,” said the first, as if he were reprimanding a
Ove just stood there, defiant.
“Very unfortunate, this,” said the other, with a curt nod at what used to be Ove’s house.
“The fire brigade says it was caused by a harmless electrical fault,” continued the first white shirt robotically, pointing at a paper in his hand.
Ove felt a spontaneous objection to his use of the word “harmless.” “We’ve sent you letters,” the second man repeated, waving his pad.
“The municipal boundaries are being redrawn.”
“The land where your house stands will be developed for a number of new constructions.”
“The land where your house stood,” corrected his partner.
“The council is willing to purchase your land at the market price,” said the first man.
“Well . . . a market price now that there’s no longer a house on the land,” clarified the other.
Ove took the papers. Started reading.
“You don’t have much of a choice,” said the first.
“This is not so much your choice as the council’s,” said the other.
The first man tapped his pen impatiently against the papers, pointing at a line at the bottom where it said “signature.”
Ove stood at his gate and read their document in silence. He became aware of an ache in his breast; it took a long, long time before he understood what it was.
He hated those men in white shirts. He couldn’t remember having hated anyone before, but now it was like a ball of fire inside. Ove’s parents had bought this house. Ove had grown up here. Learned to walk. His father had taught him everything there was to know about a Saab engine here. And after all that, someone at a municipal authority decided something else should be built here. And a man with a round face sold insurance that was not insurance. A man in a white shirt prevented Ove from putting out a fire and now two other white shirts stood here talking about a “market price.”
But Ove really did not have a choice. He could have stood there until the sun had completely risen, but he could not change the situation.
So he signed their document. While keeping his fist clenched in his pocket.
He left the plot where once his parental home had stood, and he never looked back. Rented a little room from an old lady in town. Sat and stared desolately at the wall all day. In the evening he went to work. Cleaned the train compartments. In the morning, he and the other workers were told not to go to their usual changing rooms; they had to go back to the head office to pick up new sets of work clothes.
As Ove was walking down the corridor he met Tom. It was the first time they had seen each other since Ove got blamed for the theft from the carriage. A more sensible man than Tom would probably have avoided eye contact. Or tried to pretend that the incident had never happened. But Tom was not a more sensible sort of man.
“Well, if it isn’t the little thief!” he exclaimed with a combative smile. Ove didn’t answer. Tried to get past but got a hard elbow from one of the younger colleagues Tom surrounded himself with. Ove looked up.
The younger colleague was smiling disdainfully at him.
“Hold on to your wallets, the thief’s here!” Tom called out so loudly that his voice echoed through the corridors.
With one hand, Ove took a firmer grip on the pile of clothes in his arm. But he clenched his fist in his pocket. Went into an empty changing room. Took off his dirty old work clothes, unclipped his father’s dented wristwatch and put it on the bench. When he turned around to go into the shower, Tom was standing in the doorway.
“We heard about the fire,” he said. Ove could see that Tom was hoping he’d answer.
“That father of yours would have been proud of you! Not even he was useless enough to burn down his own bloody house!” Tom called out to him as he was stepping into the shower.
Ove heard his younger colleagues all laughing together. He closed his eyes, leaned his forehead against the wall, and let the hot water flow over him. Stood there for more than twenty minutes. The longest shower he’d ever had.
When he came out, his father’s watch was gone. Ove rooted among the clothes on the bench, searched the floor, fine-combed all the lockers.
A time comes in every man’s life when he decides what sort of man he is are going to be. Whether he is the kind who lets other people tread on him, or not.
Maybe it was because Tom had put the blame on him for the theft in the carriage. Maybe it was the fire. Maybe it was the bogus insurance agent. Or the white shirts. Or maybe it was just enough now. There and then, it was as if someone had removed a fuse in Ove’s mind. Everything in his eyes grew a shade darker. He walked out of the changing room,
still naked and with water dripping from his flexing muscles. Walked to the end of the corridor to the foremen’s changing room, kicked the door open, and cleared a way through the astonished press of men inside. Tom was standing in front of a mirror at the far end, trimming his bushy beard. Ove gripped him by the shoulder and roared so loudly that the sheet-metal-covered walls echoed.
“Give me back my watch!”
Tom, with a superior expression, looked down at his face. His dark figure towered over Ove like a shadow.
“I don’t have your bloo—”
“GIVE IT HERE!” Ove bellowed before Tom had reached the end of the sentence, so fiercely that the other men in the room saw fit to move a little closer to their lockers.
A second later Tom’s jacket had been ripped away from him with such power that he didn’t even think of protesting. He just stood there like a punished child as Ove hauled out his wristwatch from the inside pocket.
And then Ove hit him. Just once. It was enough. Tom collapsed like a sack of wet flour. By the time the heavy body hit the floor, Ove had already turned and walked away.
A time like that comes for every man, when he chooses what sort of man he wants to be. And if you don’t know the story, you don’t know the man.
Tom was taken to the hospital. Again and again he was asked what had happened, but Tom’s eyes just flickered and he mumbled something about having slipped. And strangely enough, none of the other men who’d been in the changing rooms at the time had any recollection of what had happened.
That was the last time Ove saw Tom. And, he decided, the last time he’d let anyone trick him.
He kept his job as a night cleaner, but he gave up his job at the construction site. He no longer had a house to build, and anyway he’d
learned so much about construction by this point that the men in their hard hats no longer had anything to teach him.
They gave him a toolbox as a farewell present. This time with new-bought tools. “To the puppy. To help you build something that lasts,” they’d written on a piece of paper.
Ove had no immediate use for it, so he carried it about aimlessly for a few days. Finally the old lady renting him a room took pity on him and started looking for things around the house for him to mend. It was more peaceful that way for both of them.
Later that year he enlisted for military service. He scored the highest possible mark for every physical test. The recruitment officer liked this taciturn young man who seemed as strong as a bear, and he pressed him to consider a career as a professional soldier. Ove thought it sounded good. Military personnel wore uniforms and followed orders. All knew what they were doing. All had a function. Things had a place. Ove felt he could actually be good as a soldier. In fact, as he went down the stairs to have his obligatory medical examination, he felt lighter in his heart than he had for many years. As if he had been given a sudden purpose. A goal. Something to be.
His joy lasted no more than ten minutes.
The recruitment officer had said that the medical examination was a “mere formality.” But when the stethoscope was held against Ove’s chest, something was heard that should not have been heard. He was sent to a doctor in the city. A week later he was informed that he had a rare congenital heart condition. He was exempted from any further military service. Ove called and protested. He wrote letters. He went to three other doctors in the hope that a mistake had been made. It was no use.
“Rules are rules,” said a white-shirted man in the army’s administrative offices the last time Ove went there to try to overturn the decision. Ove was so disappointed that he did not even wait for the bus; instead he walked all the way back to the train station. He sat on the platform, more despondent than at any time since his father’s death.
A few months later he would walk down that platform with the woman he was destined to marry. But at that precise moment, of course, he had no idea of this.
He went back to his work as a night cleaner on the railways. Grew quieter than ever. The old lady whose room he rented eventually grew so tired of his gloomy face that she arranged for him to borrow a nearby garage. After all, the boy had that car he was always fiddling with, she said. Maybe he could keep himself entertained with all that?
Ove took his entire Saab to pieces in the garage the next morning. He cleaned all the parts, and then put them together again. To see if he could do it. And to have something to do.
When he was done with it, he sold the Saab at a profit and bought a newer but otherwise identical Saab 93. The first thing he did was to take it to pieces. To see if he could manage it. And he could.
His days passed like this, slow and methodical. And then one morning he saw her. She had brown hair and blue eyes and red shoes and a big yellow clasp in her hair.
And then there was no more peace and quiet for Ove.