Chapter no 56

Anxious People

“Death, death, death,” Estelle thought in the closet. Many years ago she had read that her favorite author used to start telephone conversations with that. “Death, death, death.” Then, when that was out of the way, they could discuss other things. Otherwise, after a certain age, no phone call ever seemed to be about life, only the other. Estelle could understand that point of view these days. The same author once wrote that “you have to live your life in such a way that you become friends with death,” but Estelle found that harder. She remembered when she used to read bedtime stories to the children, and Peter Pan declaring: “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” Maybe for the person doing it, Estelle thought, but not for the one who was left behind. All that awaited her were a thousand sunrises where life is a beautiful prison. Her cheeks quivered, reminding her that she had grown old, her skin was so thin now that it moved the whole time in a breeze that nobody else could feel. She had nothing against old age, just loneliness. When she met Knut it wasn’t a love story, not the way she had read it could feel, theirs was always more like a story of a child 1nding the perfect playmate. When Knut touched Estelle, right up to the end, it made her feel like climbing trees and jumping from jetties. Most of all she missed making him laugh so hard he spat his breakfast out. That sort of thing only got more fun with age, especially after he got false teeth.

“Knut’s dead,” she said for the 1rst time, and swallowed hard.


Julia was looking down at the Aoor in irresolute silence. Anna-Lena sat and tried to think of something to say for a while, then leaned toward Estelle and tapped her on the shoulder with the wine bottle instead. Estelle took it and drank two

small sips, before handing it back and going on, half to herself: “But he was very good at parking, Knut. He could parallel park in tiny spaces. So sometimes, when it’s most painful, when I see something really funny and think ‘He’d have laughed so hard his breakfast would have covered the wallpaper’—that’s when I fantasize that he’s just outside, parking the car. He wasn’t perfect, no man is, God knows, but whenever we went anywhere and it was raining, he would always drop me oP just outside the door. So I could wait in the warm while he… parked the car.”

A silence forced its way between the three women, and gradually emptied their vocabularies until none of them knew what to say at all. Death, death, death, Estelle thought.

When Knut was lying in his sickbed those last nights, she asked him: “Are you scared?” He replied: “Yes.” Then his 1ngers ran through her hair and he added: “But it’ll be quite nice to get a bit of peace and quiet. You can put that on the headstone.” Estelle laughed hard at that. When he left her she wept so hard that she couldn’t breathe. Her body was never really the same after that, she curled up and never quite unfurled again.

“He was my echo. Everything I do is quieter now,” she said to the other women in the closet.

Anna-Lena sat for a while before she opened her mouth, because, although she was starting to get drunk, she understood that it wouldn’t be good form in the circumstances to appear greedy. They were wasted seconds, of course, because when she spoke the thought out loud, neither good intentions nor wild horses could hide the hopefulness in her voice.

“So… if your husband isn’t parking the car, can I ask if it was true that you’re looking at this apartment on behalf of your daughter, or was that…”

“No, no, my daughter lives in a nice row house with her husband and children,” Estelle replied sheepishly.

Just outside Stockholm, in fact, but Estelle didn’t say that, because she didn’t think this conversation needed to get any more complicated.

“So you’re just here… looking?” Anna-Lena asked.

“Seriously, Anna-Lena, she’s not competing with you and Roger to buy the apartment! Stop being so insensitive!” Julia snapped.

Anna-Lena stared down into the bottle and mumbled: “I was only asking.” Estelle patted them both gratefully on the arm, one at a time, and whispered:

“Now don’t fall out on my account, dears. I’m too old to be worth that.”

Julia nodded sullenly and put her hand around her stomach. Anna-Lena did the same with the wine bottle.

“How old are your grandchildren?” she asked. “They’re teenagers now,” Estelle said.

“Oh, sorry to hear that,” Anna-Lena said with feeling.

Estelle smiled feebly. If you’ve lived with teenagers, you know they only exist for themselves, and their parents have their hands full dealing with the various horrors of life. Both the teenagers’ and their own. There was no place for Estelle there, she was mostly something of a nuisance. They were pleased that she answered the phone when they called on her birthday, but the rest of the time they assumed time stood still for her. She was a nice ornament that they only took out at Christmas and Midsummer.

“No… I’m not here to buy the apartment. I just haven’t got anything to do. Sometimes I go to apartment viewings out of curiosity, to listen to people talking, hear what they’re dreaming about. People’s dreams are always at their grandest when they’re looking for somewhere to live. Knut died slowly, you know. He lay in a care home for years, I couldn’t start living as if he was dead, but he… he wasn’t alive. Not really. So my life was on pause, somehow. I took the bus to the care home each day and sat with him. Read books. Out loud at 1rst, then to myself at the end. That’s how it goes. But it was something to do. And a person needs that.”

Anna-Lena thought that yes, that was how it was, people needed to have a project.

“Life goes so fast. Working life, anyway,” she thought out loud, and looked very taken aback when she realized that Julia had heard her.

“What did you used to do?” the young woman asked.

Anna-Lena 1lled her lungs, simultaneously hesitant and proud.

“I was an analyst for an industrial company. Well, I suppose I was the senior analyst, really, but I did my best not to be.”

“Senior analyst?” Julia repeated, instantly ashamed of how that sounded.

Anna-Lena saw the surprise in her eyes, but she was used to it and didn’t take oPense. Ordinarily she would just have changed the subject, but perhaps the wine had the upper hand on this occasion, because instead she thought out loud, without any hesitation: “Yes, I was. Not that I wanted that. To be a boss, I mean. The president of the company said that was precisely why he wanted me to do it. He said you don’t have to lead by telling other people what to do, you can lead by just letting them do what they’re capable of instead. So I tried to be a teacher more than a boss. I know people 1nd it hard to believe of me, but I’m not a bad teacher. When I retired, two of my staP said they hadn’t realized I was actually their boss until they heard the speech thanking me for my work. A lot of people would probably have taken that as an insult, but I thought it was… nice. If you can do something for someone in such a way that they think they managed it all on their own, then you’ve done a good job.”

Julia smiled.

“You’re full of surprises, Anna-Lena.”

Anna-Lena looked like that was the nicest compliment anyone had ever given her. Then sorrow and grief swept through her eyes again, she closed them quickly and opened them slowly.

“Everyone thinks I’ve… well, when you meet us, people probably think I’ve always been in Roger’s shadow. That really isn’t the case. Roger should have had a chance to ful1ll his potential. He had great potential. But my job… things were going so well for me, better and better, so he turned down promotions so he could drop the kids oP at nursery and all that. I got to travel and have my career, always thinking that it would be his turn next year. But that never happened.”

She fell silent. For once, Julia wasn’t sure what to say. Estelle looked like she didn’t know what to do with her hands, which resulted in her opening the chest and sticking them in there again. They came back out with a box of matches and a packet of cigarettes.

“Goodness,” she exclaimed brightly.

“What sort of person liues here, really?” Julia wondered. “Would anyone like one?” Estelle oPered.

“I don’t smoke!” Anna-Lena declared immediately.

“Nor me. Or rather, I’ve given up. Most of the time. Do you smoke?” Estelle wondered, turning to Julia, then added quickly: “Well, I don’t suppose anyone does when they’re pregnant. In my day they used to. You used to cut back a bit, of course. But I’m assuming you don’t smoke at all?”

“No, not at all,” Julia said patiently.

“Young people today. You’re so aware of how you aPect your children. I heard a pediatric doctor say on television that a generation ago, parents used to come to him and say ‘Our child’s wetting the bed, what’s wrong with him?’ Now, a generation later, they come to him and say ‘Our child’s wetting the bed, what’s wrong with us?’ You take the blame for everything.”

Julia leaned back against the wall.

“We probably make all the same mistakes that your generation did. Just diPerent versions of them.”

Estelle rolled the packet between her hands.

“I used to smoke on our balcony, because Knut didn’t like the smell when I smoked indoors, and I liked the view. We could see all the way to the bridge. Just like from this apartment, really. I used to be very fond of that. But then… well… you might remember that a man jumped oP that bridge ten years ago? It was in all the papers. And I… well, I checked to see what time of day he jumped, and realized it was right after I’d been out on the balcony smoking. Knut called to say something was happening on television and I hurried back inside, leaving the cigarette to burn itself out in the ashtray, and in that time the man had climbed up onto the railing and jumped. I stopped smoking on the balcony after that.”

“Oh, Estelle, it wasn’t your fault that someone jumped oP a bridge,” Julia said, trying to console her.

“It wasn’t the bridge’s fault, either,” Anna-Lena added. “What?”

“It isn’t the bridge’s fault if someone jumps oP it. I remember it well, you know, because Roger found the whole thing very upsetting.”

“Did he know the man who jumped?” Estelle asked.

“Oh, no. But he knew a lot about the bridge. Roger was an engineer, you see, he built bridges. Not that particular bridge, but if you’re as interested in bridges as Roger is, then you end up being interested in all bridges. They talked about

that man on television as if it was the bridge’s fault. Roger was very upset about that. Bridges exist to bring people closer together, he said.”

Julia couldn’t help thinking that was simultaneously a remarkably odd and a rather romantic thing to say. That was probably why—unless it was the fact that she was hungry and exhausted—she suddenly said: “My 1ancée and I were in Australia a few years ago. She wanted to do a bungee jump oP a bridge.”

“Your 1ancée? You mean Ro?” Estelle nodded. “No, my previous 1ancée.”


It was a long story. All stories are, when it comes down to it, if you tell them from the start. This story, for instance, would have been considerably shorter if it had just been about three women in a closet. But of course it’s also about two police officers, and one of them was on his way up the stairs.

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