Chapter no 20

Anxious People

Okay. A bank robber robs a bank. Think about that for a moment.


Obviously, it has nothing to do with you. Just as little as a man jumping oP a bridge. Because you’re a normal, decent person, so you would never have robbed a bank. There are simply some things that all normal people understand that you must never under any circumstances do. You mustn’t tell lies, you mustn’t steal, you mustn’t kill, and you mustn’t throw stones at birds. We all agree on that.

Except maybe swans, because swans can actually be passive-aggressive little bastards. But apart from swans, you mustn’t throw stones at birds. And you mustn’t tell lies. Unless… well, sometimes you have to, of course, like when your children ask: “Why does it smell like chocolate in here? ARE YOU EATING CHOCOLATE?” But you de1nitely mustn’t steal or kill, we can agree on that.

Well, you mustn’t kill people, anyway. And most of the time you mustn’t even kill swans, even if they are bastards, but you’re allowed to kill animals if they’ve got horns and are standing in the forest. Or if they’re bacon. But you must never kill people.

Well, unless they’re Hitler. You’re allowed to kill Hitler, if you’ve got a time machine and an opportunity to do it. Because you must be allowed to kill one person to save several million others and avoid a world war, anyone can understand that. But how many people do you have to save in order to be allowed to kill someone? One million? A hundred and 1fty? Two? Just one? None at all? Obviously, you won’t have an exact answer to that, because no one does.

Let’s take a much simpler example, then: Are you allowed to steal? No, you mustn’t steal. We agree on that. Except when you steal someone’s heart, because that’s romantic. Or if you steal harmonicas from guys who play the harmonica at parties, because that’s being public spirited. Or if you steal something small because you really have to. That’s probably okay. But does that mean it’s okay to steal something a bit bigger? And who decides how much bigger? If you really have to steal, how much do you haue to have to do it in order for it to be reasonable to steal something really serious? For instance, if you feel that you really have to and that no one will get hurt: Is it okay to rob a bank then?

No, it probably isn’t really okay, even then. You’re probably right about that. Because you’d never rob a bank, so you haven’t got anything in common with this bank robber.

Except fear, possibly. Because maybe you’ve been really frightened at some time, and so was the bank robber. Possibly because the bank robber had small children and had therefore had a lot of practice being afraid. Perhaps you, too, have children, in which case you’ll know that you’re frightened the whole time, frightened of not knowing everything and of not having the energy to do everything and of not coping with everything. In the end we actually get so used to the feeling of failure that every time we don’t disappoint our children it leaves us feeling secretly shocked. It’s possible that some children realize this. So every so often they do tiny, tiny things at the most peculiar times, to buoy us up a little. Just enough to stop us from drowning.

So the bank robber left home one morning with that drawing of the frog, the monkey, and the elk tucked away in a pocket without realizing it. The girl who had drawn it put it there. The little girl has an older sister, they ought to 1ght the way sisters are always said to do, but they hardly ever do that. The younger one is allowed to play in the older sister’s room without the older one yelling at her. The older one gets to keep the things she cares for most without the younger one breaking them on purpose. Their parents used to whisper, “We don’t deserve them,” when the girls were very small. They were right.

Now, after the divorce, during the weeks when the girls live with one of their parents, they listen to the news in the car in the morning. Their other parent is

in the news today, but they don’t know that yet, they don’t know that one of their parents has become a bank robber.

During the weeks when the girls live with their bank robber parent they go on the bus. They love that. All the way they invent little stories about the strangers in the seats at the front. That man there, he could be a 1reman, their parent whispers. And she might be an alien, the youngest daughter says. Then it’s the older daughter’s turn, and she says veally loudly: “That one could be a wanted man who’s killed someone and has their head in his backpack, who knows?” Then the women in the seats around them shuAe uncomfortably and the daughters giggle so hard that they almost can’t breathe, and their parent has to put on a serious face and pretend that it really isn’t funny at all.

They’re almost always late to the bus stop, and as they run across the bridge and the bus stops on the other side, the girls always shriek with laughter: “The elk’s coming! The elk’s coming!” Because their bank robber parent’s legs are very long, out of proportion, and that means you look funny when you run. No one noticed that before the girls appeared, but children notice people’s proportions in a diPerent way from adults, possibly because they always see us from below, and that’s our worst angle. That’s why they make such good bullies, the quick-witted little monsters. They have access to everything that’s most vulnerable in us. Even so, they forgive us, the whole time, for almost everything.

And that’s the weirdest thing about being someone’s parent. Not just a bank robber parent, but any parent: that you are loved in spite of everything that you are. Even astonishingly late in life, people seem incapable of considering that their parents might not be super-smart and really funny and immortal. Perhaps there’s a biological reason for that, that up to a certain age a child loves you unconditionally and hopelessly for one single reason: you’re theirs. Which is a pretty smart move on biology’s part, you have to give it that.

The bank robber parent never uses the girls’ real names. That’s the sort of thing you never really notice until you belong to someone else, the fact that those of us who give children their names are the least willing to use them. We give those we love nicknames, because love requires a word that belongs to us alone. So the bank robber parent always calls the girls what they used to feel like, kicking in their mother’s belly six and eight years ago. One of them always

seemed to be jumping about in there, and the other always seemed to be climbing. One frog. One monkey. And an elk that would do anything for them. Even when it’s completely stupid. Perhaps you have that in common after all. You probably have someone in your life whom you’d do something stupid for.


But obviously you would still never rob a bank. Of course not.


But perhaps, though, you’ve been in love? Almost everyone has, after all. And love can make you do quite a lot of ridiculous things. Getting married, for instance. Having children, playing happy families, and having a happy marriage. Or you might think that, anyway. Not happy, perhaps, but plausible. A plausible marriage. Because how happy can anyone really be, all the time? How could there be time for that? Mostly we’re just trying to get through the day. You’ve probably had days like that as well. But when you get through enough of them, one morning you look over your shoulder and realize that you’re on your own, the person you were married to turned oP somewhere along the way. Maybe you uncover a lie. That’s what happened to the bank robber. An in1delity comes to light, and even if no one’s actually been unfaithful to you, you can probably appreciate that it’s enough to knock a person oP balance.

Especially if it wasn’t just a Aing, but an aPair that had been going on for a long time. You haven’t only been cheated on, you’ve also been deceived. It’s possible for someone to be unfaithful to you without really thinking about you at all, but an aPair requires planning. Perhaps that’s what hurts most of all, the millions of tiny clues that you didn’t notice. Maybe you’d have been even more crushed if there wasn’t even a good explanation. For instance, maybe you could have understood if it was about loneliness or desire, “You’re always at work and we never have any time for each other.” But if the explanation is “Well, er, if you want me to be really honest, the person I’ve been unfaithful with is your boss,” then it can be harder to get back up again. Because that means that the reason you’ve been working so much overtime is also the same reason why you no

longer have a marriage. When you get to work on the Monday after the breakup, your boss says: “Well, er, obviously it’s going to be uncomfortable for everyone involved, so… perhaps it would be easiest if you no longer worked here.” On Friday you were married and had a job, and on Monday you’re homeless and unemployed. What do you do then? Talk to a solicitor? Sue someone?




Because the bank robber was told: “Don’t make a scene now. Don’t cause chaos. For the children’s sake!” So the bank robber didn’t. Didn’t want to be that sort of parent, so just moved out of the apartment, left work, eyes closed, jaw clenched. For the children’s sake. Perhaps you’d have done the same. Once the frog said she’d heard an adult on the bus say “love hurts,” and the monkey replied that maybe that’s why hearts end up jagged when you try to draw them. How do you explain a divorce to them after that? How do you explain about in1delity? How do you avoid turning them into little cynics? Falling in love is magical, after all, romantic, breathtaking… but falling in love and love are diPerent. Aren’t they? Don’t they have to be? Good grief, no one could cope with being newly infatuated, year after year. When you’re infatuated you can’t think about anything else, you forget about your friends, your work, your lunch. If we were infatuated all the time we’d starve to death. And being in love means being infatuated… from time to time. You have to be sensible. The problem is that everything is relative, happiness is based on expectations, and we have the Internet now. A whole world constantly asking us: “But is youv life as perfect as this? Well? How about now? Is it as perfect as this? If it isn’t, change it!”

The truth of course is that if people really were as happy as they look on the Internet, they wouldn’t spend so much damn time on the Internet, because no one who’s having a really good day spends half of it taking pictures of themselves. Anyone can nurture a myth about their life if they have enough manure, so if the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, that’s

probably because it’s full of shit. Not that that really makes much diPerence, because now we’ve learned that every day needs to be special. Zuevy day.

Suddenly you 1nd yourselves living alongside each other, not with each other. One of us can go around for a shocking length of time thinking our marriage is good. Or at least no worse than anyone else’s. Plausible, anyway. Then it turns out that one of us wants more, just getting through the day isn’t enough. One of us worked and went home, worked and went home, worked and went home, trying to be amenable in both places. And then it turns out that the person you were married to and the person you were working for have been extremely amenable to each other the whole time.


“Love one another until death do us part,” isn’t that what we said? Isn’t that what we promised each other? Or am I remembering wrong? “Or at least until one of us gets bored.” Maybe that was it?


Now the monkey and the frog and one parent and the boss live in the apartment, and the bank robber parent lives somewhere else. Because the apartment was only in the name of the other parent, and the bank robber parent didn’t want to make a fuss. Not cause chaos. But it isn’t exactly easy to get a home in this part of town, or any other part of any other town, really, if you haven’t got a job or any savings. You don’t put your name on the list for public housing when you’re married and have children and a life, because it never occurs to you that you might lose all of it in the course of an afternoon. The worst thing a divorce does to a person isn’t that it makes all the time you devoted to the relationship feel wasted, but that it steals all the plans you had for the future.

Buying an apartment is completely out of the question, the bank said, because who’d lend money to someone without money? You only lend money to people who don’t really need to borrow money. So where are you to live, you might ask. “You’ll have to rent,” the bank said. But in order to rent an apartment

in this town when you don’t have a job, you have to put down four months’ rent as a deposit. A deposit you get back when you move out, for all the good it’ll do you then.


Then a letter arrived from a lawyer. It said that the monkey and frog’s other parent had decided to apply for sole custody of the children because “the current situation, in which their other custodian has neither a home nor a job, is untenable. We really must think of the children.” As if there were anything else a parent with no home and no job ever thinks about.

The other parent also sent an email saying: “You need to pick up your things.” Which means of course that you have to pick up the things that the other parent and your old boss, after pinching all the good stuP, have decided are rubbish. They’re packed away in the storeroom in the basement, so what do you do? Maybe you go there late one evening, to avoid the shame of bumping into any of the neighbors, and maybe you realize you’ve got nowhere to take the things. You haven’t got anywhere to live, and it’s starting to get cold outside, so you stay in the storeroom in the basement.

In another storeroom, belonging to a neighbor who’s forgotten to lock up, is a box full of blankets. You borrow them to keep yourself warm. For some reason, beneath the blankets is a toy pistol, so you sleep with that in your hand, thinking that if some crazy burglar breaks in during the night, you can scare them away with it. Then you start to cry, because you realize that you’re the crazy burglar.

The next morning you put the blankets back but keep the toy pistol, because you don’t know where you’re going to sleep that night, and it might come in useful. This goes on for a week. You might not know exactly how it feels, but perhaps you’ve also had moments when you stare at yourself in the mirror and think: This masn’t hom life mas su99osed to tuvn out. That can terrify a person. So one morning you do something desperate. Well, not you, obviously, you’d have done something diPerent, of course. You’d have found out about the law and what your rights were, and you’d have gotten hold of a lawyer and gone to court. Unless perhaps you wouldn’t have done that. Because perhaps you didn’t want

to make a fuss in front of your daughters, you didn’t want to be one of those chaotic parents, so maybe you’d have thought: “Somehow, if I get the chance, I’ll 1nd a way to sort this out without upsetting them.”

So when a small apartment becomes available fairly close to the apartment where the monkey and the frog live, right by the bridge, a sublet from someone already subletting from someone else subletting, at a cost of six thousand 1ve hundred a month, you think: If I can just manage a month I’ll haue time to find a job, then they mon’t be able to tabe the childven amay fvom me, as long as I just haue somemheve to liue. So you empty your bank account and sell everything you own and scrape together enough money for a month, and you lie awake thirty nights in a row, wondering how you’re going to aPord another month. And then suddenly you can’t.

You’re supposed to go to the authorities in that situation, that’s what you’re supposed to do. But perhaps you stand outside the door and think about your mom and what the air in there was like when you sat on a wooden bench with a numbered ticket between your 1ngertips, you remember how much a child can lie for their parents’ sake. You can’t force your heart to cross the threshold. The stupidest thing people who have everything think about people who have nothing is that it’s pride that stops a person from asking for help. That’s very rarely the case.

Addicts are good at lying, but never as good as their children. It’s their sons and daughters who have to come up with excuses, never too outlandish or incredible, always mundane enough for no one to want to check them. An addict’s child’s homework never gets eaten by the dog, they just forgot their backpack at home. Their mom didn’t miss parents’ evening because she was kidnapped by ninjas, but because she had to work overtime. The child doesn’t remember the name of the place she’s working, it’s only a temporary job. She does her best, Mom does, to support us now that Dad’s gone, you know. You soon learn how to phrase things in such a way as to preclude any follow-up questions. You learn that the women in the welfare office can take you away from her if they 1nd out she managed to set 1re to your last apartment when she fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand, or if they 1nd out she stole the Christmas ham from the supermarket. So you lie when the security guard comes, you take

the ham oP her, and confess: “It was me who took it.” No one calls the police for a child, not when it’s Christmas. So they let you go home with your mom, hungry but not alone.

If you had been that sort of child, and then grown up and had children of your own, you would never have subjected them to that. Under no circumstances would they have to learn to become such good liars, you would promise yourself that. So you don’t go to the welfare office, because you’re scared they’ll take the girls away from you. You accept the divorce and don’t put up a 1ght for your apartment or your job, because you don’t want the girls to have parents who are at war with each other. You try to sort everything out yourself, and eventually you get a stroke of luck: you manage to 1nd a job, against the odds, not the sort you can live comfortably on, but one you can survive on for a while. That’s all you need, a chance. But they tell you your 1rst month’s wages are being withheld, meaning that they won’t pay you for the 1rst month until you’ve worked two months, as if the 1rst month weren’t the time when you can least aPord to go without money.

You go to the bank and ask for a loan so that you can aPord to work for no wages, but the bank tells you that isn’t possible, because it isn’t a permanent job. You could get 1red at any time. And then how would they get their money back? Because you haven’t got any, have you?! You try to explain that if you had money, you wouldn’t need a loan, but the bank can’t see the logic in that.


So what do you do? You struggle on. Hope that’ll be enough. Then you receive another threatening letter from the lawyer. You don’t know what to do, who to turn to, you just don’t want to start a 1ght. You run to the bus in the morning, imagine that the girls can’t see how you’re feeling, but they do. You can see in their eyes that they want to sell subscriptions to magazines and give you all the money. When you leave them at school you go into an alleyway and sit down on the edge of the sidewalk and cry because you can’t stop thinking: You shouldn’t haue loued me.

All your life you’ve promised yourself that you’ll cope with everything. Not be a chaotic person. Not have to beg for help. But Christmas Eve arrives, and you suPer your way through it in lonely despair, because the girls are going to spend New Year’s Day with you. The day before New Year’s Eve you put the latest letter from the lawyer who wants to take them away from you in your pocket, next to the letter from your landlord which says that if you don’t pay the rent today you’re going to be evicted. Right there, right then, it takes next to nothing to knock you oP balance. One really bad idea is enough. You 1nd the toy pistol that looks like a real pistol. You make holes in a black woolly hat and pull it down over your face, you go into the bank that wasn’t prepared to lend you any money because you didn’t have any money, you tell yourself that you’re only going to ask for six thousand 1ve hundred kronor for the rent, and that you’ll return it as soon as you get paid. Hom? a more ordered mind might be asking, but… well… perhaps you haven’t really thought that far ahead? Perhaps you just think you’ll go back, in the same ski mask and with the same pistol, and force them to take the money back? Because all you need is one month. All you need is one single chance to sort everything out.

Later it turns out that that damn toy pistol, the one that looked almost real, looked real because it mas real. And in a stairwell a drawing of an elk and a frog and a monkey Autters on the breeze, and in an apartment at the top of the building is a rug soaked in blood.


This wasn’t how life was supposed to turn out.

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