A MAN WHO WAS OVE AND A TRUCK IN THE FOREST
Before that day when the dour and slightly fumbling boy with the muscular body and the sad blue eyes sat down beside Sonja on the train, there were really only three things she loved unconditionally in her life: books, her father, and cats.
She’d obviously had quite a lot of attention, it wasn’t that. The suitors had come in all shapes and sizes. Tall and dark or short and blond and fun-loving and dull and elegant and boastful and handsome and greedy, and if they hadn’t been slightly dissuaded by the stories in the village of Sonja’s father keeping one or two firearms in the isolated wooden house out there in the woods, they would most likely have been a bit pushier. But none of them had looked at her the way that boy looked at her when he sat down beside her on the train. As if she were the only girl in the world.
Sometimes, especially in the first few years, some of her girlfriends questioned the choice she had made. Sonja was very beautiful, as the people around her seemed to find it so important to keep telling her. Furthermore she loved to laugh and, whatever life threw at her, she was the sort of person who took a positive view of it. But Ove was, well, Ove was Ove. Something the people around her also kept telling Sonja.
He’d been a grumpy old man since he started elementary school, they insisted. And she could have someone so much better.
But to Sonja, Ove was never dour and awkward and sharp-edged. To her, he was the slightly disheveled pink flowers at their first dinner. He was his father’s slightly too tight-fitting brown suit across his broad, sad shoulders. He believed so strongly in things: justice and fair play and hard work and a world where right just had to be right. Not so one could get a medal or a diploma or a slap on the back for it, but just because that was how it was supposed to be. Not many men of his kind were made anymore, Sonja had understood. So she was holding on to this one. Maybe he didn’t write her poems or serenade her with songs or come home with expensive gifts. But no other boy had gone the wrong way on the train for hours every day just because he liked sitting next to her while she spoke.
And when she took hold of his lower arm, thick as her thigh, and tickled him until that sulky boy’s face opened up in a smile, it was like a plaster cast cracking around a piece of jewelry, and when this happened it was as if something started singing inside Sonja. And they belonged only to her, those moments.
She didn’t get angry with him that first night they had dinner, when he told her he’d lied about his military service. Of course, she got angry with him on an immeasurable number of occasions after that, but not that night.
“They say the best men are born out of their faults and that they often improve later on, more than if they’d never done anything wrong,” she’d said gently.
“Who said that?” asked Ove and looked at the triple set of cutlery in front of him on the table, the way one might look at a box that had just been opened while someone said, “Choose your weapon.”
“Shakespeare,” said Sonja.
“Is that any good?” Ove wondered. “It’s fantastic.” Sonja nodded, smiling.
“I’ve never read anything with him,” mumbled Ove into the tablecloth.
“By him,” Sonja corrected, and lovingly put her hand on his.
In their almost four decades together Sonja taught hundreds of pupils with learning difficulties to read and write, and she got them to read Shakespeare’s collected works. In the same period she never managed to make Ove read a single Shakespeare play. But as soon as they moved into their row house he spent every evening for weeks on end in the toolshed. And when he was done, the most beautiful bookcases she had ever seen were in their living room.
“You have to keep them somewhere,” he muttered, and poked a little cut on his thumb with the tip of a screwdriver.
And she crept into his arms and said that she loved him. And he nodded.
She only asked once about the burns on his arms.
And she had to piece together the exact circumstances of how he lost his parental home, from the succinct fragments on offer when Ove reluctantly revealed what had happened. In the end she found out how he got the scars. And when one of her girlfriends asked why she loved him she answered that most men ran away from an inferno. But men like Ove ran into it.
Ove did not meet Sonja’s father more times than he could count on his fingers. The old man lived a long way north, a good way into the forest, almost as if he had consulted a map of all the population centers in the country before concluding that this was as far from other people as one could live.
Sonja’s mother had died in the maternity bed. Her father never remarried.
“I have a woman. She is just not home at the moment,” he spat out the few times anyone dared bring up the question.
Sonja moved to the local town when she started studying for her upper secondary examinations—all in humanities subjects—at a sixth-form college. Her father looked at her with boundless indignation when she suggested that he might like to come with her. “What can I do there?
Meet folk?” he growled. He always spoke the word “folk” as if it were a swear word. So Sonja let him be. Apart from her weekend visits and his monthly trip in the truck to the grocery store in the nearest village, he only had Ernest for company.
Ernest was the biggest farm cat in the world. When Sonja was small she actually thought he was a pony. He came and went in her father’s house as he pleased, but he didn’t live there. Where he lived, in fact, was not known to anyone. Sonja named him Ernest after Ernest Hemingway. Her father had never bothered with books, but when his daughter sat reading the newspaper at the age of five he wasn’t so stupid that he tried to avoid doing something about it. “A girl can’t read shit like that: she’ll lose her head,” he stated as he pushed her towards the library counter in the village. The old librarian didn’t quite know what he meant by that, but there was no doubt about the girl’s quite outstanding intellect.
The monthly trip to the grocery store simply had to be extended to a monthly trip to the library, the librarian and father decided together, without any particular need to discuss it further. By the time Sonja passed her twelfth birthday she had read all the books at least twice. The ones she liked, such as The Old Man and the Sea, she’d read so many times that she’d lost count.
So Ernest ended up being called Ernest. And no one owned him. He didn’t talk, but he liked to go fishing with her father, who appreciated his qualities. They would share the catch equally once they got home.
The first time Sonja brought Ove out to the old wooden house in the forest, Ove and her father sat in buttoned-up silence opposite each other, staring down at their food for almost an hour, while she tried to encourage some form of civilized conversation. Neither of the men could quite understand what they were doing there, apart from the fact that it was important to the only woman either of them cared about. They had both protested about the whole arrangement, insistently and vociferously, but without success.
Sonja’s father was negatively disposed from the very beginning. All he knew about this boy was that he came from town and that Sonja had mentioned that he did not like cats very much. These were two
characteristics, as far as he was concerned, that gave him reason enough to view Ove as unreliable.
As for Ove, he felt he was at a job interview, and he had never been very good at that sort of thing. So when Sonja wasn’t talking, which admittedly she did almost all of the time, there was a sort of silence in the room that can only arise between a man who does not want to lose his daughter and a man who has not yet completely understood that he has been chosen to take her away from there. Finally Sonja kicked Ove’s shinbone to make him say something. Ove looked up from his plate and noted the angry twitches around the edges of her eyes. He cleared his throat and looked around with a certain desperation to find something to ask this old man about. Because this was what Ove had learned: if one didn’t have anything to say, one had to find something to ask. If there was one thing that made people forget to dislike one, it was when they were given the opportunity to talk about themselves.
At long last Ove’s gaze fell on the truck, visible through the old man’s kitchen window.
“That’s an L10, isn’t it?” he said, pointing with his fork. “Yup,” said the old man, looking down at his plate. “Saab is making them now,” Ove stated with a short nod. “Scania!” the old man roared, glaring at Ove.
And the room was once again overwhelmed by that silence which can only arise between a woman’s beloved and her father.
Ove looked down grimly at his plate. Sonja kicked her father on his shin. Her father looked back at her grumpily. Until he saw those twitches around her eyes. He was not so stupid a man that he had not learned to avoid what tended to happen after them. So he cleared his throat irately and picked at his food.
“Just because some suit at Saab waved his wallet around and bought the factory it don’t stop being a Scania,” he grunted in a low voice, which was slightly less accusing, and then moved his shinbones a little farther from his daughter’s shoe.
Sonja’s father had always driven Scania trucks. He couldn’t understand why anyone would have anything else. Then, after years of
consumer loyalty, they merged with Saab. It was a treachery he never quite forgave them for.
Ove, who, in turn, had become very interested in Scania when they merged with Saab, looked thoughtfully out of the window while chewing his potato.
“Does it run well?” he asked.
“No,” muttered the old man irascibly and went back to his plate. “None of their models run well. None of ’em are built right. Mechanics want half a fortune to fix anything on it,” he added, as if he were actually explaining it to someone sitting under the table.
“I can have a look at it if you’ll let me,” said Ove and looked enthusiastic all of a sudden.
It was the first time Sonja could ever remember him actually sounding enthusiastic about anything.
The two men looked at each other for a moment. Then Sonja’s father nodded. And Ove nodded curtly back. And then they rose to their feet, objective and determined, in the way two men might behave if they had just agreed to go and kill a third man. A few minutes later Sonja’s father came back into the kitchen, leaning on his stick, and sank into his chair with his chronically dissatisfied mumbling. He sat there for a good while stuffing his pipe with care, then at last nodded at the saucepans and managed to say:
“Thanks, Dad.” She smiled. “You cooked it. Not me,” he said.
“The thanks was not for the food,” she answered and took away the plates, kissing her father tenderly on his forehead at the same time that she saw Ove diving in under the hood of the truck in the yard.
Her father said nothing, just stood up with a quiet snort and took the newspaper from the kitchen counter. Halfway to his armchair in the living room he stopped himself, however, and stood there slightly unresolved, leaning on his stick.
“Does he fish?” he finally grunted without looking at her. “I don’t think so,” Sonja answered.
Her father nodded gruffly. Stood silent for a long while.
“I see. He’ll have to learn, then,” he grumbled at long last, before putting his pipe in his mouth and disappearing into the living room.
Sonja had never heard him give anyone a higher compliment.