A man called ove a novel, p.17
A Man Called Ove: A Novel, p.17Fredrik Backman
old, Ove realizes, and it hits him with a force he hadn’t quite counted on. Rune’s gaze flickers for a moment. Then his mouth starts twitching.
“Ove?” he exclaims.
“Yeah, well . . . one thing’s for sure, I’m not the pope,” Ove replies.
The baggy skin on Rune’s face cracks into a sleepy smile. Both men, once as close as men of that sort could be, stare at each other. One of them a man who refuses to forget the past, and one who can’t remember it at all.
“You look old,” says Ove.
Then Anita’s anxious voice makes itself heard and in the next moment her small, drumming feet are bearing her at speed towards the door.
“Is there someone at the door, Rune? What are you doing there?” she calls out, terrified, as she appears in the doorway. Then she sees Ove.
“Oh . . . hello, Ove,” she says and stops abruptly.
Ove stands there with his hands in his pockets. The cat beside him looks as if it would do the same, if it had pockets. Or hands. Anita is small and colorless in her gray trousers, gray knitted cardigan, gray hair, and gray skin. But Ove notices that her face is slightly red-eyed and swollen. Quickly she wipes her eyes and blinks away the pain. As women of that generation do. As if they stood in the doorway every morning, determinedly driving sorrow out of the house with a broom. Tenderly she takes Rune by the shoulders and leads him to his wheelchair by the window in the living room.
“Hello, Ove,” she repeats in a friendly, also surprised, voice when she comes back to the door. “What can I do for you?”
“Do you have any corrugated iron?” he asks back.
She looks puzzled.
“Corrected iron?” she mumbles, as if the iron has somehow been wrong and now someone has to put it right.
Ove sighs deeply.
“Good God, corrugated iron.”
Anita doesn’t look the slightest bit less puzzled.
“Am I supposed to have some?”
“Rune will have some in his shed, definitely,” says Ove and holds out his hand.
Anita nods. Takes down the shed key from the wall and puts it in Ove’s hand.
“Corrugated. Iron?” she says again.
“Yes,” says Ove.
“But we don’t have a metal roof.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
Anita shakes her head.
“No . . . no, maybe it doesn’t, of course.”
“One always has a bit of sheet metal,” says Ove, as if this was absolutely beyond dispute.
Anita nods. As one does when faced with the undeniable fact that a bit of corrugated iron is the sort of thing that all normal, right-thinking people keep lying about in their sheds, just in case there’s call for it.
“But don’t you have any of that metal yourself, then?” she tries, mainly to have something to talk about.
“I’ve used mine up,” says Ove.
Anita nods understandingly. As one does when facing the indisputable fact that there’s nothing odd about a normal man without a metal roof getting through his corrugated iron at such a rate that it runs out.
A minute later, Ove turns up triumphantly in the doorway, dragging a gigantic piece of corrugated iron, as big as a living room rug. Anita honestly has no idea how such a large piece of metal has even fitted in there without her knowing about it.
“Told you,” Ove says with a nod, giving her back the key.
“Yes . . . yes, you did, didn’t you,” Anita feels obliged to admit.
Ove turns to the window. Rune looks back. And just as Anita turns around to go back into the house, Rune grins again, and lifts his hand in a brief wave. As if right there, just for a second, he knew exactly who Ove was and what he was doing there.
Anita stops hesitantly. Turns around.
“They’ve been here from Social Services again, they want to take Rune away from me,” she says without looking up.
Her voice cracks like dry newspaper when she speaks her husband’s name. Ove fingers the corrugated iron.
“They say I’m not capable of taking care of him. With his illness and everything. They say he has to go into a home,” she says.
Ove continues fingering the corrugated iron.
“He’ll die if I put him in a home, Ove. You know that. . . .” she whispers.
Ove nods and looks at the remains of a cigarette butt, frozen into the crack between two paving stones. Out of the corner of his eye he notices how Anita is sort of leaning slightly to one side. Sonja explained about a year ago that it was the hip replacement operation, he remembers. Her hands shake as well, these days. “The first stage of multiple sclerosis,” Sonja had also explained. And a few years ago Rune got Alzheimer’s as well.
“Your lad can come and give you a hand, then,” he mumbles in a low voice.
Anita looks up. Looks into his eyes and smiles indulgently.
“Johan? Ah . . . he lives in America, you know. He’s got enough on his own plate. You know how young people are!”
Ove doesn’t answer. Anita says “America” as if it were the kingdom of heaven where her egotistical son has moved. Not once has Ove seen that brat here on the street since Rune sickened. Grown man now, but no time for his parents.
Anita jumps to attention, as if she’s caught herself doing something disreputable. She smiles apologetically at Ove.
“Sorry, Ove, I shouldn’t stand here taking up your time with my nattering.”
She goes back into the house. Ove stays where he is with the sheet of corrugated iron in his hand and the cat at his side. He mutters something to himself just before the door is closed. Anita turns around in surprise, peers out of the crack, and looks at him.
Ove twists without meeting her eyes. Then he turns and starts to leave, while his words slip out of him involuntarily.
“I said if you have any more problems with those bloody radiators, you can come and ring my doorbell. The cat and me are at home.”
Anita’s furrowed face pulls itself into a surprised smile. She takes half a step out the door, as if she wants to say something more. Maybe something about Sonja, how deeply she misses her best friend. How she misses what they had, all four of them, when they first moved onto this street almost forty years ago. How she even misses the way Rune and Ove used to argue. But Ove has already disappeared around the corner.
Back in his toolshed, Ove fetches the spare battery for the Saab and two large metal clips. He lays out the sheet of corrugated iron across the paving stones between the shed and the house and carefully covers it with snow.
He stands next to the cat, evaluating his creation for a long time. A perfect dog trap, hidden under snow, bursting with electricity, ready to bite. It seems a wholly proportionate revenge. The next time Blond Weed passes by with that bloody mutt of hers and the latter gets the idea of peeing on Ove’s paving, it’ll do so onto an electrified, conductive metal plate. And then let’s see how amusing they find it, Ove thinks to himself.
The cat tilts its head and looks at the metal sheet.
“Like a bolt of lightning up your urethra,” says Ove.
The cat looks at him for a long time. As if to say: “You’re not serious, are you?” Eventually Ove sticks his hands in his pockets and shakes his head.
“No . . . no, I suppose not.” He sighs glumly.
And then he packs up the battery and clamps and corrugated iron and puts everything in the garage. Not because he doesn’t think those morons deserve a proper electric shock. Because they do. But because he knows it’s been a while since someone reminded him of the difference between being wicked because one has to be or because one can.
“It was a bloody good idea, though,” he concludes to the cat as they go back into the house.
The cat goes into the living room with the dismissive body language of someone mumbling: “Sure, sure it was. . . .”
And then they have lunch.
Many people find it difficult living with someone who likes to be alone. It grates on those who can’t handle it themselves. But Sonja didn’t whine more than she had to. “I took you as you were,” she used to say.
But Sonja was not so silly that she didn’t understand that even men like Ove like to have someone to talk to now and then. It had been quite a while since he’d had that.
“I won,” Ove says curtly when he hears the slamming of the mailbox.
The cat jumps off the windowsill in the living room and goes into the kitchen. Bad loser, thinks Ove and goes to the front door. It’s been years since he last made a bet with someone about what time the mail would come. He used to make bets with Rune when they were on vacation in the summers, which grew so intensive that they developed complex systems of marginal extensions and half minutes to determine who was most accurate. That was how it was back in those days. The mail arrived at twelve o’clock on the dot, so one needed precise demarcations to be able to say who had guessed right. Nowadays it isn’t like that. Nowadays the mail can be delivered halfway through the afternoon any old way it pleases. The post office takes care of it when it feels like it and you just have to be grateful and that’s it. Ove tried to make bets with Sonja after he and Rune stopped talking. But she didn’t understand the rules. So he gave up.
The youth barely manages to avoid being knocked off the steps when Ove throws the door open. Ove looks at him in surprise. He’s wearing a postman’s uniform.
“Yes?” demands Ove.
The youth looks like he can’t come up with an answer. He fiddles with a newspaper and a letter. And that’s when Ove notices that it’s the same youth who argued with him about that bicycle a few days ago, by the storage shed. The bicycle the youth said he was going to “fix.” Of course Ove knows what that means. “Fix” means “steal and sell on the Internet” to these rascals, that’s the long and short of it.
The youth looks, if possible, even less thrilled about recognizing Ove than vice versa. He looks a little like a waiter sometimes does, when he’s undecided about whether to serve you your food or take it into the kitchen and spit on it. The lad looks coolly at Ove before reluctantly handing the mail over with a grumpy “There y’go.” Ove accepts it without taking his eyes off him.
“Your mailbox is mashed, so I was gonna give you these,” says the youth.
He nods at the folded-double pile of junk that used to be Ove’s mailbox until the Lanky One who can’t back up with a trailer backed his trailer into it—then nods at the letter and newspaper in Ove’s hand. Ove looks down at them. The newspaper is one of those local rags they hand out for nothing even when one puts up a sign quite expressly telling them to do no such bloody thing. And the letter is most likely advertising, Ove imagines. Admittedly his name and address have been written in longhand on the front, but that’s a typical advertising trick. To make one think it’s a letter from a real person, and then one opens it and in a flash one has been subjected to marketing. That trick won’t work on Ove.
The youth stands there rocking on his heels and looking down at the ground. As if he’s struggling with something inside that wants to come out.
“Was there something else?” Ove wonders.
The youth pulls his hand through his greasy, late-pubescent shock of hair.
“Ah, what the hell. . . . I was just wondering if you have a wife called Sonja,” he manages to say.
Ove looks suspicious. The lad points at the envelope.
“I saw the surname. I had a teacher with that name. Was just wondering. . . .”
He seems to be cursing himself for having said anything. He spins around on the spot and starts walking away. Ove clears his throat and kicks the threshold.
“Wait . . . that could be right. What about Sonja?”
The lad stops a yard farther away.
“Ah, shit. . . . I just liked her, that’s all I wanted to say. I’m . . . you know . . . I’m not so good at reading and writing and all that.”
Ove almost says, “I’d never have guessed,” but he leaves it. The youth twists awkwardly. Runs his hand through his hair, somewhat disoriented, as if he’s hoping to find the appropriate words up there somewhere.
“She’s the only teacher I ever had who didn’t think I was thick as a plank,” he mumbles, almost choking on his emotion. “She got me reading that . . . Shakespeare, you know. I didn’t know I could even read, sort of thing. She got me reading the most hard-core thick book an’ all. It felt really shit when I heard she died, you know.”
Ove doesn’t answer. The youth looks down at the ground. Shrugs.
“That’s it. . . .”
He’s silent. And then they both stand there, the fifty-nine-year-old and the teenager, a few yards apart, kicking at the snow. As if they were kicking a memory back and forth, a memory of a woman who insisted on seeing more potential in certain men than they saw in themselves. Neither of them knows what to do with their shared experience.
“What are you doing with that bike?” says Ove at last.
“I promised to fix it up for my girlfriend. She lives there,” the youth answers, nodding at the house at the far end of their row, opposite Anita and Rune’s place. The one where those recycling types live when they’re not in Thailand or wherever they go.
“Or, you know. She’s not my girlfriend yet. But I’m thinking I’m wanting her to be. Sort of thing.”
Ove scrutinizes the youth as middle-aged men often scrutinize younger men who seem to invent their own grammar as they go along.
“So have you got any tools, then?” he asks.
The youth shakes his head.
“How are you going to repair a bike without tools?” Ove marvels, more with genuine surprise than agitation.
The youth shrugs.
“Why did you promise to repair it, then?”
The youth kicks the snow. Scratches his face with his entire hand, embarrassed.
“Because I love her.”
Ove can’t quite decide what to say to that one. So he rolls up the local newspaper and envelope and slaps it into his palm, like a baton.
“I have to get going,” the youth mumbles almost inaudibly and makes a movement to turn around again.
“Come over after work, then, and I’ll get the bike out for you.”
Ove’s words seem to pop up out of nowhere. “But you have to bring your own tools,” he adds.
The youth brightens up.
“You serious, man?”
Ove continues slapping the paper baton into his hand. The youth swallows.
“Awesome! Wait . . . ah, shit . . . I can’t pick it up today! I have to go to my other job! But tomorrow, man, I can come tomorrow. Is it cool if I pick it up tomorrow, like, instead?”
Ove tilts his head and looks as if everything that’s just been said came from the mouth of a character in an animated film. The youth takes a deep breath and pulls himself together.
“What other job?” asks Ove, as if he’s had an incomplete answer in the final of Jeopardy!
“I sort of work in a café in the evenings and at the weekends,” says the youth, with that new-won hope in his eyes about perhaps being able to rescue his fantasy relationship with a girlfriend who doesn’t even know that she’s his girlfriend—the sort of relationship that only a boy in late puberty with greasy hair can have. “I need both jobs because I’m saving money,” he explains.
Ove can’t avoid noticing how he straightens up slightly when he says “car.” Ove looks dubious for a moment. Then he slowly but watchfully slaps the baton into his palm again.
“What sort of car?”
“I had a look at a Renault,” the youth says brightly, stretching a little more.
The air around the two men stops for a hundredth of a breath or so. An eerie silence suddenly envelops them.
“Renault? Renault? That’s bloody FRENCH! You can’t bloody well go and buy a FRENCH car!!!”
The youth seems just about to say something but he doesn’t get the chance before Ove shakes his whole upper body as if trying to get rid of a persistent wasp.
“Christ, you puppy! Don’t you know anything about cars?”
The youth shakes his head. Ove sighs deeply and puts his hand on his forehead as if he’s been struck by a sudden migraine.
“And how are you going to get the bicycle to the café if you don’t have a car?” he says at long last, visibly struggling to regain his composure.
“I hadn’t . . . thought about that,” says the youth.
Ove shakes his head.
“Renault? Christ almighty. . . .”
The youth nods. Ove rubs his eyes in frustration.
“Where’s this sodding café you work at, then?” he mutters.
Twenty minutes later, Parvaneh opens her front door in surprise. Ove is standing outside, thoughtfully striking his hand with a paper baton.
“Have you got one of those green signs?”
“You have to have one of those green signs when you’re a student driver. Do you have one or not?”
“Yeah . . . yes, I have, but wh—”
“I’ll come and pick you up in two hours. We’ll take my car.”
Ove turns around and tramps back across the little road without waiting for an answer.
A MAN CALLED OVE AND A DRIVING LESSON
It happened now and then in the almost forty years they lived in the row of row houses that some thoughtless and recently moved-in neighbor was bold enough to ask Sonja what the real cause was for the deep animosity between Ove and Rune. Why had two men who had once been friends suddenly started hating one another with such overpowering intensity?
Sonja usually answered that it was quite straightforward. It was simply about how when the two men and their wives moved into their houses, Ove drove a Saab 96 and Rune a Volvo 244. A year or so later Ove bought a Saab 95 and Rune bought a Volvo 245. Three years later Ove bought a Saab 900 and Rune bought a Volvo 265. In the decades that followed, Ove bought another two Saab 900s and then a Saab 9000. Rune bought another Volvo 265 and then a Volvo 745, but a few years later he went back to a sedan model and acquired a Volvo 740. Whereupon Ove bought yet
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