tara had just stepped out onto the balcony when Jack saw her. That was just after she had told the bank robber out in the hall not to do anything silly, and she needed fresh air, more than ever. If all you saw was the rear view of Zara heading toward the balcony, you’d probably think she was impatient. You needed to see her face to understand that she was feeling fragile. She had surprised herself back there, had lost control, felt things. For anyone else that might perhaps merely have been vaguely uncomfortable, like when you discover you’re starting to share the same taste in music as your parents, or biting into something you think is chocolate but turns out to be liver pâté, but for Zara it unleashed a feeling of complete panic. Was she starting to develop a sense of empathy?
She rubbed her hands carefully with sanitizer, counted the windows of the building on the other side of the street over and over again, tried to take deep breaths. She had been in the apartment too long, these people had shrunk her customary distance, and she wasn’t used to that. Out on the balcony she pressed herself up against the wall of the building so no one down in the street could see her over the railing. She clamped the headphones over her ears and turned the volume up until the shrieking noise of the music drowned out the shrieking noise inside her head. Until the bass was thudding harder than her heart.
And just there, perhaps she found it. A truce with herself.
She could see winter making itself comfortable across the town. She liked the silence of this time of year, but had never appreciated its smugness. When the snow arrives autumn has already done all the work, taking care of all the leaves
and carefully sweeping summer away from people’s memories. All winter had to do was roll in with a bit of freezing weather and take all the credit, like a man who’s spent twenty minutes next to a barbecue but has never served a full meal in his life.
She didn’t hear the balcony door open, but she felt a furry ear on her hair as Lennart stepped out and stood beside her. He tapped gently on one of the earphones.
“What?” she snapped.
“Do you smoke?” Lennart asked, because even though he hadn’t managed to remove the rabbit’s head, there was a small hole in the snout that he was fairly certain he’d be able to smoke through.
“Certainly not!” Zara said, putting the headphone back over her ear.
Lennart was surprised, even if that wasn’t visible through the unchanging ambivalence of the rabbit’s head. Zara looked like someone who smoked, not because she liked it so much as to make the air worse for other people. The rabbit tapped on the headphone again and she removed it with the utmost reluctance.
“What are you doing out on the balcony, then?” he wondered.
Zara took a long, hard look at him, starting from his white socks, via his bare legs and his nonelasticated underpants, to his bare torso, where the chest hair had started to go gray.
“Do you really think you’re in any position to question other people’s life choices?” she asked, but didn’t sound anywhere near as annoyed as she had hoped, which was annoying.
He scratched his big, lifeless rabbit’s ears and replied: “I don’t smoke, either, not really. Just at parties. And when I’m being held hostage!”
He laughed, she didn’t. He fell silent. She put the headphone back on her ear, but of course he tapped on it again immediately.
“Can I stand out here with you for a while? I’m worried Roger might hit me again if I go back in there.”
Zara didn’t answer, just put the headphone back in place, and the rabbit tapped on it at once.
“Are you here on safari, then?”
She glared at him in surprise. “What does that mean?”
“Just an observation. There’s always someone like you at every apartment viewing. Someone who doesn’t want the apartment, but is just curious. On safari. Test-driving a lifestyle. You get to recognize that sort of thing in my job.”
The look in Zara’s eyes was poisonous, but her mouth remained closed. Being seen through isn’t pleasant, you tend to pull your clothes a little tighter when it happens, especially if you’re usually the one who sees through other people. Her instinct was to say something cruel to put a bit of distance between them, but instead she found herself asking: “Aren’t you cold?”
He shook his head and she had to duck to avoid one of his ears. Then he patted his furry face and chuckled: “Nope. They say seventy percent of your body heat gets lost through your head, so seeing as I’m stuck in here, I suppose I’m only losing thirty percent right now.”
That isn’t the sort of thing a man dressed in tight underwear usually boasts about in freezing temperatures, Zara noted. She put the headphones back on again, hoping that would be enough to get rid of him, but even before he tapped on the headphone again she had already guessed that his next sentence was going to start with the word “I.”
“I’m really an actor. This business of disrupting apartment viewings is only a sideline.”
“How interesting,” Zara said in a tone that only the child of a telesales operative would interpret as an invitation to go on talking.
“Times are tough for people in the cultural sector,” the rabbit nodded.
Zara pulled the headphones down around her neck in resignation and snorted.
“So that’s your excuse for exploiting the fact that times are tough for people selling apartments, too? How come you people in the ‘cultural sector’ never think capitalism is any good except when you’ve the ones pro1ting from it?”
It just slipped out, she didn’t really know why. Between his ears she caught a glimpse of the bridge. The ears wavered thoughtfully in the December wind.
“Sorry, but you don’t strike me as the sort of person who feels sorry for people trying to sell apartments,” he said.
Zara snorted again, more angrily.
“I don’t care about sellers or buyers. But I do care about the fact that you don’t seem to appreciate that your ‘sideline’ is manipulating the economic system!”
The rabbit’s head was stuck in a rictus grin while Lennart was thinking hard inside it. Then he said what Zara considered to be the stupidest thing that could ever come out of anyone’s mouth, rabbit or human: “What have I got to do with the economic system?”
Zara massaged her hands. Counted the windows.
“The market is supposed to be self-regulating, but people like you spoil the balance between supply and demand,” she said wearily.
Of course the rabbit responded at once by saying the most predictable thing possible: “That’s not true. If I wasn’t doing this, someone else would. I’m not breaking the law. An apartment is the largest investment most people make, and they want the best price, so I’m just oPering a service that—”
“Apartments aren’t supposed to be investments,” Zara replied gloomily. “What are they supposed to be, then?”
“Are you some sort of communist?” the rabbit chuckled.
Zara felt like punching him on the nose for that, but instead she pointed between his ears and said: “When the 1nancial crisis hit ten years ago, a man jumped oP that bridge because of a property market crash on the other side of the world. Innocent people lost their jobs and the guilty were given bonuses. You know why?”
“Now you’re exaggerat—”
“Because people like you don’t care about the balance in the system.”
Lennart chuckled superciliously inside the rabbit’s head. He still hadn’t realized who he’d embarked on a discussion with.
“You need to calm down, the 1nancial crisis was the banks’ fault, I don’t make the—”
“The rules? Is that what you were about to say? You don’t make the rules, you just play the game?” Zara interrupted wearily, seeing as she’d rather drink
nitroglycerin and go on a trampoline than have to listen to yet another man lecturing her about 1nancial responsibilities.
“Yes! Well, no! But…”
Zara had spent enough of her life in committee rooms with the target market for cuP links to be able to predict the rest of this guy’s monologue, so she decided to save her time and his larynx: “Let me guess where you’re going with this: you don’t care about the seller of this apartment, you don’t care about Roger and Anna-Lena, either, you only care about yourself. But you’re going to try to defend yourself by saying that it isn’t possible to cheat the housing market, because the mavbet doesn’t really exist, it’s a constvuct. Just numbers on a computer screen. So you don’t have any responsibility, do you?”
“No…,” Lennart began, but didn’t even manage to take a breath before Zara stormed on.
“Then you’ll dredge up some pop-psychological nonsense about money not having any value because that’s also a construct. And then we get to the history lesson, where clever old you gets to teach silly, ignorant me about economic theory and how the stock market came about. Maybe you feel like telling me about Hanoi 1902, when the city tried to 1ght a plague of rats by oPering the inhabitants a reward for every rat they killed and whose tail they handed over to the police. And what did that lead to? People started breeding rats! Do you have any idea how many men have told me that story to illustrate how sel1sh and untrustworthy ordinary people are? Do you know how many men like you every single woman on the planet meets every day, who think that every thought that pops into your tiny little male brains is a lovely present you can give us?”
Lennart had backed away three steps toward the railing by this point. But Zara had got into her stride now, so all he had time to say was: “I—,” before she snapped: “You what? You what? You’ve not the greedy one, euevyone else is? Is that what you were about to say?”
The rabbit shook its ears.
“No. No, I’m sorry. I didn’t know anyone had jumped oP that bridge. Did you know…?”
Zara’s cheeks were throbbing, her throat was bright red beneath the headphones. She was no longer talking to Lennart, but exactly who she was
talking to probably wasn’t clear even to her, but it felt like she’d been waiting ten years to yell at someone. Anyone at all. Herself most of all. So she roared: “People like you and me are the problem, don’t you get that? We always defend ourselves by saying we’re only oPering a service. That we’re just one tiny part of the market. That everything is people’s own fault. That they’re greedy, that they shouldn’t have given us their money. And then me have the nerve to wonder why stock markets crash and the city is full of rats…”
Her eyes were wild with rage, and little clouds of smoke kept puffing breathlessly out of her nostrils. The rabbit didn’t reply, those unblinking eyes just looked at her as she tried to get her pulse under control. Then there was a hacking sound from inside the head, and at 1rst Zara thought the old bastard was having a stroke, then realized that this was what Lennart sounded like when he was laughing, really properly, from deep in his stomach. He held his arms out. “I don’t know what you’re talking about anymore, to be honest. But I give
up, you win, you win!”
Zara’s eyes narrowed, from fear as much as anger. It was easier to talk to the rabbit than other people, because she didn’t have to look Lennart in the eye. She wasn’t prepared for what that was going to do to her. She leaned forward and stretched her 1ngers out on her thighs, bent and straightened them, over and over again. Then she said in a quieter voice: “I win, do I? Do Anna-Lena and Roger win? He’s trying to get rich and she’s trying to make him happy, and all they’re really doing is postponing an inevitable divorce. But that probably just makes you happy, because then they’ll have to buy tmo apartments.”
At that, something happened. Lennart raised his voice for the 1rst time. “No! That’s not enough! Because… because… I don’t believe that!”
“So what do you believe, then?” Zara snapped back, and—regardless of whatever it was that had led her to this point—her voice 1nally broke. She screwed her eyes shut and clenched her 1sts around the headphones. She had been waiting ten years for someone to ask her that question. So it almost Aoored her when he said:
Lennart picked up and dropped the word so carelessly, as if it weren’t a big deal at all. Zara wasn’t prepared for it, and that sort of thing can make a person
angry. Lennart’s voice became more muAed inside the rabbit’s head, hurt now: “You’re talking like I’d be happy if people got divorced. No one can go to two thousand apartment viewings and not realize that there’s more love in the world than the opposite.”
Not even Zara had an answer to that. And he still didn’t seem to be freezing, the idiot in the rabbit’s head, which just made her more annoyed. Stop talking about love and feel cold, for God’s sake, like any normal idiot, she thought, and prepared to 1re back with some devastating remark. But all she heard herself ask was: “What do you base that on?”
The rabbit’s ears quivered.
“All the apartments that aren’t for sale.”
Zara’s 1ngers fumbled around her neck. It wasn’t an entirely ridiculous answer, which obviously annoyed her. Why couldn’t Lennart have the decency to be a complete idiot? An idiot who is also a romantic is almost unbearable, and that “almost” can drive a woman with headphones mad.
So she remained silent, gazing oP toward the bridge. Then she let out a resigned sigh and pulled two cigarettes out from her bag. She stuck one in the rabbit’s snout and the other in her own mouth. The rabbit was smart enough not to start going on about her earlier claim that she didn’t smoke. She appreciated that. When she gave him the lighter he managed to singe the fur on his nose and had to pat the Aames out with his hands. She appreciated that as well.
They smoked without any sense of urgency. Then Lennart said, heavily but with no trace of accusation, as he looked out across the rooftops: “You can think what you like about me, but Anna-Lena is one of the few clients I’ve got who I… can’t help rooting for. She doesn’t want to make her husband rich, she just wants to make him feel needed. Everyone takes it for granted that she’s submissive and oppressed and that she’s always had to stand back and make sacri1ces for his career, but do you know what job she used to do?”
“No,” Zara confessed.
“She was a senior analyst for a big American industrial company. I didn’t believe it at 1rst, because she’s as scatty as a box of kittens… but you won’t 1nd a smarter, better-educated person in this apartment, I can assure you of that. When their kids were young his career started to take oP, but hers was going even better, so Roger turned down a promotion so he could spend more time at home with the children, and she could go on all her business trips. It was only going to be for a few years, but her career started to go even better while his was treading water, and the more diPerence there was between their salaries, the harder it was for them to swap places. When the kids had grown up and Anna-Lena had accomplished all her goals, she turned to Roger and said ‘Now it’s your turn.’ But he wasn’t oPered any more promotions. He’d got too old. They didn’t have any way of talking about that, because they’d never practiced the right words. So now she’s trying to make it up to him by moving all the time and renovating apartments, all so they have… a project in common. Roger has no kids to look after anymore, so he feels worthless. And Anna-Lena just wants a home. You can say a lot of things about me, but don’t you dare insinuate that I’m not rooting for those two.”
Zara lit another cigarette, mostly so she could keep her eyes busy staring at the glowing tip.
“Did Anna-Lena tell you all that?” “You’d be surprised what people tell me.” “No I wouldn’t,” Zara whispered.
She felt like telling him that she needs distance. That she can’t stop massaging her hands. That she counts everything in every room because it calms her down. That she likes spreadsheets and turnover forecasts because she likes order. But she also felt like telling him that the economic system she has devoted her life to working in is the world’s biggest problem right now, because we made the system too strong. We forgot how greedy we are, but above all we forgot how weak we are. And now it’s crushing us.
She felt like saying all this, but by this point in her life she had gotten used to the fact that people either didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand. So she stood there in silence. And, deep down, wished she’d stayed silent the whole time.
They each smoked another cigarette. Zara objected to his presence less than she would have expected, and that day had already oPered more new experiences than she felt ready to absorb, so her 1ngers immediately started to trace the edges of the headphones when the rabbit’s ears wavered in her direction again. She could tell that he was trying to think of something to ask her, to keep the conversation going. That was what annoyed Zara most about men. Because they could only ever come up with two questions: “What line of work are you in?” and “Are you married?”
But this peculiar Lennart plucked up the courage to ask instead: “What are you listening to?”
Bloody hell, Zara thought. Why can’t you just feel the cold and not be intevested in me? She opened her mouth, there was so much she wanted to say, but all that came out was: “The bank robber’s going to give up soon. The police will come storming in any time now. You should go and put a pair of pants on.”
The rabbit nodded disappointedly. He left her with her headphones on, music at top volume, counting the windows over and over again. It may not be the sort of love story anyone would write poetry about. But they Aoored each other there and then.