A man called ove a novel, p.23
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       A Man Called Ove: A Novel, p.23

           Fredrik Backman
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  have taken place at geriatric residential care where you have been in charge of the placements. All the points where rules have not been followed and correct procedures have not been observed,” she states.

  She does so in a tone as if she were handing over the keys of a car he’d just won in the lottery. Then she adds, with a smile:

  “The great thing about scrutinizing bureaucracy when you’re a journalist, you see, is that the first people to break the laws of bureaucracy are always the bureaucrats themselves.”

  The man in the white shirt does not spare a single look at her. He keeps staring at Ove. Not a word comes from either of them. Slowly, the man in the white shirt clamps his jaws together.

  Patrick clears his throat behind Ove and jumps out of the house on his crutches, nodding at the pile of papers in the man’s arms.

  “We’ve also got your bank statements from the last seven years. And all the train and air tickets you’ve bought with your card and all the hotels you’ve stayed in. And all the Web history from your work computer. And all your e-mail correspondence, both work and personal . . .”

  The eyes of the man in the white shirt wander from one to the other. His jaws so tightly clamped together that the skin on his face is turning pale.

  “Not that there would be anything you want to keep secret,” says Lena with a smirk.

  “Not at all,” Patrick agrees.

  “But you know . . .”

  “. . . once you start really digging into someone’s past . . .”

  “. . . you usually find something they’d rather keep to themselves,” says Lena.

  “Something they’d rather . . . forget,” Patrick clarifies, with a nod towards the living room, where Rune’s head sticks out of one of the armchairs.

  The TV is on in there. A smell of fresh-brewed coffee comes through the door. Patrick points one of his crutches, giving a little poke at the pile of paper in the man’s arms, so that a sprinkling of snow settles over the man’s white shirt.

  “I’d especially take a look at that Internet history, if I were you,” he explains.

  And then they all stand there. Anita and Parvaneh and that journalist woman and Patrick and Ove and Jimmy and Anders and Adrian and Mirsad and the man in the white shirt and the three nurses, in the sort of silence that only exists in the seconds before all the players in a poker game who have bet everything they’ve got put their cards on the table.

  Finally, after an interval that, for all involved, feels like being held underwater with no possibility of breathing, the man in the white shirt starts slowly leafing through the papers in his arms.

  “Where did you get all this shit?” he hisses, his shoulders hoisted up around his neck.

  “On the InterNET!” rages Ove, abrupt and furious as he steps out of Anita and Rune’s row house with his fists clenched by his hips.

  The man in the white shirt looks up again. Lena clears her throat and pokes helpfully at the pile of paper.

  “Maybe there’s nothing illegal in all these old records, but my editor is pretty certain that with the right kind of media scrutiny it would take months for your section to go through all the legal processes. Years, maybe . . .” Gently she puts her hand on the man’s shoulder. “So I think it might be easiest for everyone concerned if you just leave now,” she whispers.

  And then, to Ove’s sincere surprise, the little man does just that. He turns around and leaves, followed by the three nurses. He goes around the corner and disappears the way shadows do when the sun reaches its apex in the sky. Or like villains at the ends of stories.

  Lena nods, self-satisfied, at Ove. “I told you no one has the stomach for a fight with journalists!”

  Ove shoves his hands into his pockets.

  “Don’t forget what you promised me.” She grins.

  Ove groans.

  “Did you read the letter I sent you, by the way?” she asks.

  He shakes his head.

  “Do it!” she insists.

  Ove answers with something that might either be a “yeah, yeah” or a fierce exhalation of air through the nostrils. Difficult to judge.

  When Ove leaves the house an hour later he’s been sitting in the living room, talking quietly and one-to-one with Rune for a long time. Because he and Rune needed to “talk without disruption,” Ove explained irritably before he drove Parvaneh, Anita, and Patrick into the kitchen.

  And if Anita hadn’t known better, she could have sworn that in the minutes that followed she heard Rune laughing out loud several times.

  36

  A MAN CALLED OVE AND A WHISKEY

  It is difficult to admit that one is wrong. Particularly when one has been wrong for a very long time.

  Sonja used to say that Ove had only admitted he was wrong on one occasion in all the years they had been married, and that was in the early 1980s after he’d agreed with her about something that later turned out to be incorrect. Ove himself maintained that this was a lie, a damned lie. By definition he had only admitted that she was wrong, not that he was.

  “Loving someone is like moving into a house,” Sonja used to say. “At first you fall in love with all the new things, amazed every morning that all this belongs to you, as if fearing that someone would suddenly come rushing in through the door to explain that a terrible mistake had been made, you weren’t actually supposed to live in a wonderful place like this. Then over the years the walls become weathered, the wood splinters here and there, and you start to love that house not so much because of all its perfection, but rather for its imperfections. You get to know all the nooks and crannies. How to avoid getting the key caught in the lock when it’s cold outside. Which of the floorboards flex slightly when one steps on them or exactly how to open the wardrobe doors without them creaking. These are the little secrets that make it your home.”

  Ove, of course, suspected that he represented the wardrobe door in the example. And from time to time he heard Sonja muttering that “sometimes I wonder if there’s anything to be done, when the whole foundations are wonky from the very start” when she was angry with him. He knew very well what she was driving at.

  “I’m just saying surely it depends on the cost of the diesel engine? And what its consumption is per mile?” says Parvaneh unconcernedly, slowing the Saab down at a red light and trying, with some grunts, to settle herself more comfortably in her seat.

  Ove looks at her with boundless disappointment, as if she really hasn’t listened to anything he’s said. He’s made an effort to educate this pregnant woman in the fundamentals of owning a car. He’s explained that one has to change one’s car every three years to avoid losing money. He has painstakingly run through what all people who know anything are well aware of, namely that one has to drive at least twelve thousand miles per year to save any money by opting for a diesel rather than a gas engine. And what does she do? She starts blabbering, disagreeing as usual, debating things like “surely you don’t save money by buying a car new” and it must depend on “how much the car costs.” And then she says, “Why?”

  “Because!” says Ove.

  “Right,” says Parvaneh, rolling her eyes in a way that makes Ove suspect she is not accepting his authority on the topic as one might reasonably expect her to.

  A few minutes later she’s stopped in the parking area on the other side of the street.

  “I’ll wait here,” she says.

  “Don’t touch my radio settings,” orders Ove.

  “As if I would,” she brays, with a sort of smile that Ove has begun to dislike in the last few weeks.

  “It was nice that you came over yesterday,” she adds.

  Ove replies with one of his sounds that isn’t words as such, more a sort of clearing of his air passages. She pats him on the knee.

  “The girls are happy when you come over. They like you!”

  Ove gets out of the car without answering. There wasn’t much wrong with the meal last night, he can stretch to admitting that. Although Ove do
esn’t feel there’s a need to make such a palaver about cooking, as Parvaneh does. Meat and potatoes and gravy are perfectly adequate. But if one has to complicate things like she does, Ove could possibly agree that her rice with saffron is reasonably edible. It is. So he had two portions of it. And the cat had one and a half.

  After dinner, while Patrick washed up, the three-year-old had demanded that Ove read her a bedtime story. Ove found it very difficult to reason with the little troll, because she didn’t seem to understand normal argumentation, so he followed her with dissatisfaction through the front hall towards her room and sat on her bedside, reading to her with his usual “Ove-excitement,” as Parvaneh once described it, although Ove didn’t know what the hell she meant by that. When the three-year-old fell asleep with her head partly on his arm and partly on the open book, Ove had put both her and the cat in the bed and turned out the light.

  On the way back along the hall he’d gone past the seven-year-old’s room. She was sitting in front of her computer, of course, tapping away. This seemed to be all kids did these days, as Ove understood it. Patrick had explained that he’d “tried to give her newer games but she only wanted to play that one,” which made Ove more favourably disposed both to the seven-year-old and to her computer game. Ove liked people who didn’t do what Patrick told them to do.

  There were drawings everywhere on the walls in her room. Black-and-white pencil sketches, mostly. Not at all bad, considering they had been created by the absence of deductive faculties and highly undeveloped motor function of a seven-year-old, Ove was willing to admit. None of them were of people. Only houses. Ove found this extremely engaging.

  He stepped into the room and stood beside her. She looked up from the computer with the dour expression this kid always seemed to lug about with her, and in fact she didn’t seem too pleased about his presence. But when Ove stayed where he was, she pointed at last to an upside-down storage crate, made of plastic, on the floor. Ove sat down on it. And she started quietly explaining to him that the game was about building houses and then making cities out of the houses.

  “I like houses,” she muttered quietly.

  Ove looked at her. She looked at him. Ove put his index finger on the screen, leaving a large fingerprint, pointing at an empty space of the town and asking her what happened if she clicked that spot. She moved her cursor there and clicked, and in a flash the computer had put up a house there. Ove looked fairly suspicious about it. Then he made himself comfortable on the plastic box and pointed at another empty space. Two and a half hours later Parvaneh stomped in angrily and threatened to pull out the plug if they didn’t call it a night at once.

  As Ove stood in the doorway getting ready to leave, the seven-year-old carefully tugged at his shirtsleeve and pointed at a drawing on the wall right next to him. “That’s your house,” she whispered, as if it was a secret between her and Ove.

  Ove nodded. Maybe they weren’t totally worthless after all, those two kids.

  He leaves Parvaneh in the parking area, crosses the street, opens the glass door, and steps in. The café is empty. The fan heater overhead coughs as if it’s full of cigar smoke. Amel stands behind the counter in a stained shirt, wiping glasses with a white towel.

  His stocky body has sunk into itself, as if at the end of a very long breath. His face bears that combination of deep sorrow and inconsolable anger which only men of his generation and from his part of the world seem capable of mastering. Ove stays where he is, in the center of the floor. The two men watch one another for a minute or so. One of them a man who can’t bring himself to kick out a homosexual youth from his house, and the other who couldn’t stop himself. Eventually Ove nods grimly and sits down on one of the bar stools.

  He folds his hands together on the counter and gives Amel a dry look.

  “I wouldn’t be averse to that whiskey now if it’s still on offer.”

  Amel’s chest rises and falls in a couple of jerky breaths under the stained shirt. At first he seems to be considering opening his mouth, but then he thinks again. In silence he finishes wiping his glasses. Folds up the towel and puts it next to the espresso machine. Disappears into the kitchen without a word. Comes back with two glasses and a bottle, the letters on the label illegible to Ove. Puts these down on the counter between them.

  It is difficult to admit that one is wrong. Particularly when one has been wrong for a very long time.

  37

  A MAN CALLED OVE AND A LOT OF BASTARDS STICKING THEIR NOSES IN

  I’m sorry about this,” Ove creaks. He brushes the snow off the gravestone. “But you know how it is. People have no respect at all for personal boundaries anymore. They charge into your house without knocking and cause a commotion, you can hardly even sit on the crapper in peace anymore,” he explains, while he digs the frozen flowers out of the ground and presses down the new ones through the snow.

  He looks at her as if he’s expecting her to nod her agreement. But she doesn’t, of course. The cat sits next to Ove in the snow and looks like it absolutely agrees. Especially with that bit about not being allowed to go to the toilet in peace.

  Lena had come by Ove’s house in the morning to drop off a copy of the newspaper. He was on the front page, looking like the archetypal grumpy old sod. He’d kept his word and let her interview him. But he wasn’t smiling like a donkey for the camera; he told them that in no uncertain terms.

  “It’s a fantastic interview!” she insisted proudly.

  Ove didn’t respond, but this did not seem to concern her. She looked impatient and sort of paced on the spot, while glancing at her watch as if in a hurry.

  “Don’t let me hold you up,” muttered Ove.

  She managed a teenager’s repressed titter by way of an answer.

  “Me and Anders are going skating on the lake!”

  Ove merely nodded at this point, taking this as confirmation that the conversation was over, and closed the door. He put the newspaper under the doormat; it would come in handy for absorbing the snow and slush brought in by the cat and Mirsad.

  Back in the kitchen, he began clearing up all the advertising and free newspapers that Adrian had left with the day’s mail (Sonja might have managed to teach the rascal to read Shakespeare, but apparently he could not understand a three-word sign that said “NO JUNK MAIL”).

  At the bottom of the pile he found the letter from Lena, the one Adrian had delivered that first time he rang Ove’s doorbell.

  Back then the youth rang the doorbell, at least—nowadays he ran in and out of the door as if he lived here, Ove grumbled as he held the letter up to the kitchen lamp like a bank note being checked. Then he got out a table knife from the kitchen drawer. Even though Sonja got mad every time he used a table knife to open an envelope rather than fetching the letter opener.

  Dear Ove,

  I hope you’ll excuse me contacting you like this. Lena at the newspaper has let me know that you don’t want to make a big thing out of this but she was kind enough to give me your address. Because for me it was a big thing, and I don’t want to be the sort of person who does not say that to you, Ove. I respect that you don’t want to let me thank you personally, but at least I want to introduce you to some people who will always be grateful to you for your courage and selflessness. People like you are not made anymore. Thanks is too small a word.

  It was signed by the man in the gray suit and black overcoat, the one Ove hoisted off the track after he passed out. Lena had told Ove that the swooning fit had been caused by some sort of complicated brain disease. If they hadn’t discovered it and started treating it when they did, it would have claimed his life within a few years. “So in a way you saved his life twice over,” she’d exclaimed in that excitable tone of voice that made Ove regret a little not having left her locked up inside the garage while he still had the chance.

  He folded up the letter and put it back in the envelope. Held up the photo. Three children, the oldest a teenager and the others more or less the same age as
Parvaneh’s oldest daughter, looked back at him. Or rather, they weren’t really looking, they were sort of lying about in a pile, each with a water pistol and apparently laughing until they were practically screaming. Behind them stood a blond woman of about forty-five, with a wide grin and her arms stretched out like a large bird of prey and an overflowing plastic bucket in each hand. At the bottom of the pile lay the man in the gray suit, but wearing a blue polo shirt, and trying in vain to shield himself from the downpour.

  Ove threw away the letter along with the advertising, tied up the bag, put it by the front door, went back into the kitchen, got out a magnet from the bottom drawer, and put up the photo on the fridge. Right next to the riotous color drawing the three-year-old had made of him on the way back from the hospital.

  Ove brushes his hand over the gravestone again, even though he’s already brushed off all the snow that can be brushed off.

  “Well, yes, I told them one might like a bit of peace and quiet like a normal human being. But they don’t listen, they don’t,” he moans, waving his arms tiredly towards the gravestone.

  “Hi, Sonja,” says Parvaneh behind him, with a cheerful wave so that her big mittens slip off her hands.

  “Hajj!” the three-year-old hollers happily.

  “‘Hi,’ you’re supposed to say ‘hi,’” the seven-year-old corrects.

  “Hi, Sonja,” say Patrick, Jimmy, Adrian, and Mirsad, all nodding in turn.

  Ove stamps the snow off his shoes and nods, with a grunt, at the cat beside him.

  “Yeah. And the cat you already know.”

  Parvaneh’s belly is now so big that she looks like a giant tortoise when she heaves herself down into a squatting position, one hand on the gravestone and the other hooked around Patrick’s arm. Not that Ove dares bring up the giant tortoise metaphor, of course. There are more pleasant ways of killing oneself, he feels. And that’s speaking as someone who’s already tried quite a few of them.

  “This flower is from Patrick and the children and me,” says Parvaneh with a friendly smile at the stone.

  Then she holds up another flower and adds:

  “And this one’s from Anita and Rune. They send loads of love.”

  The multifarious gathering turns around to go back to the parking area, but Parvaneh stays by the gravestone. When Ove wants to know why, she just says, “Never you bloody mind!” to him with the sort of smile that makes Ove want to throw things at her. Nothing hard, perhaps. But something symbolic.

  He replies with a snort in the lower octave range, then finds, after a certain amount of inner deliberation, that a discussion with both of those women at the same time would be redundant from the very start. He starts going back to the Saab.

  “Girl talk,” says Parvaneh succinctly when at last she comes back to the parking area and gets into the driver’s seat. Ove doesn’t know what she means by that, but he decides to leave it alone. Nasanin’s big sister helps her with her belt, in the backseat. In the meantime Jimmy, Mirsad, and Patrick have managed to squeeze into Adrian’s new car in front of them. A Toyota. Hardly an optimal choice of car for any kind of thinking person, Ove had pointed out to him many times while they stood there at the dealership. But at least it wasn’t French. And Ove managed to get the price reduced by almost eight thousand kronor and made sure that the kid got winter tires thrown in for the same price. So it seemed acceptable, in spite of it all.

  When Ove got to the dealership the bloody kid had been checking out a Hyundai. So it could have been worse.

  Once they make it back to their street, they go their separate ways. Ove, Mirsad, and the cat wave at Parvaneh, Patrick, Jimmy, and the children and turn off around the corner by Ove’s toolshed.

  It’s difficult to judge how long the stocky man has been waiting outside Ove’s house. Maybe all morning. He has the determined look of a straight-backed sentry posted somewhere in the field, in the wilderness. As if he’s been cut from a thick tree trunk and the below-freezing temperature is of no concern to him. But when Mirsad comes walking around the corner and the stocky man catches sight of him, he quickly comes to life.

  “Hello,” he says, stretching, shifting his body weight back to the first foot.

  “Hello, Dad,” mumbles Mirsad.

  That evening Ove has his dinner with Parvaneh and Patrick, while a father and son talk about disappointments and hopes and masculinity in two languages in Ove’s kitchen. Maybe most of all they speak of courage. Sonja would have liked it, Ove knows that much. But he tries not to smile so much that Parvaneh notices.

  Before the seven-year-old goes to bed she presses a paper into Ove’s hand, on which is written “Birthday Party Invitation.” Ove reads through it as if it were a legal transfer of rights for a leasehold agreement.

  “I see. And then you’ll be wanting presents, I expect?” he huffs at last.

  She looks down at the floor and shakes her head.

 
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Comments 2

admin 5 July 2018 23:55
0
love that one
Aiman
Aiman 28 July 2018 09:13
0
Such a beautiful piece of work. Makes my heart swell up two sizes, overwhelmed.
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