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The Princess of Burundi
By Kjell Eriksson, Ebba Segerberg
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2006 Kjell Eriksson
All rights reserved.
The plate trembled, knocking over the glass. The milk flowed out over the waxed tablecloth like a white flower.
Typical — we have almost no milk left, she thought. She quickly righted the glass and wiped up the milk with a dishrag.
"When is Dad coming home?"
She twirled around. Justus was leaning up against the doorpost.
"I don't know," she said, throwing the dishrag into the sink.
"What's for dinner?"
He had a book in his hand, his index finger tucked in to mark the page he was reading. She wanted to ask him what it was, but then she thought of something and walked over to the window.
"Stew," she said absently. She looked out at the parking lot. It had started to snow again.
Maybe he was working. She knew he had talked to Micke. He always needed extra workers for his snow-removal crew, and it had been coming down for days now. John wasn't afraid of heights, either.
Berit smiled at the memory of how he had climbed the drainpipe to her balcony long ago. It was only on the second floor, but still. He could have broken his neck if he had fallen. Just like his father, she thought, and her smile faded.
She had been furious with him, but he had just laughed. Then he had scooped her up in a tight embrace, with a strength you would never have thought John's slender body was capable of.
Later — clearly flattered — she liked to tell the story of his climb and his persistence. It was their earliest and most important shared memory.
Snow removal. A small tractor drove across the parking lot and pushed even more snow up over the heavily laden bushes by the edge of the lot. Harry was the driver. She recognized him by his red cap.
Harry was the one who had set Justus to work, giving him a summer job when no one else was hiring. Lawn mowing, clearing out trash, weeding. Justus complained, but he had been bursting with pride at his first paycheck.
Berit's gaze followed the snowplow. Snow was falling thickly. The orange signal light revolved on the roof of the tractor. Darkness settled in over the buildings and the parking lot. The light was flung to the far corners of the grounds. Harry was certainly busy. How many hours had he had to work the past few days?
"This weather's going to send me to the Canary Islands," he had shouted to her the other day when they met outside the front door.
He had leaned on his shovel and asked her about Justus. He always did.
She turned and meant to say hello from Harry but Justus had already gone.
"What are you doing?" she cried out into the apartment.
"Nothing," Justus yelled back.
Berit assumed he was sitting in front of the computer. Ever since August, when John had dragged home the boxes, Justus had sat glued to the screen.
"The kid has to have a computer. He'll be left behind otherwise," John had said when she complained at the extravagance.
"How much did it cost?"
"I got it cheap," he had told her, and quickly showed her the receipt from the electronics store when he caught her look. That accusing look, the one he knew so well.
She looked around the kitchen but there was nothing else to be done. Dinner was ready. She went back to the window. He had said he would be back around four and it was close to six now. He usually called if he was delayed, but that had been mostly when he was doing a lot of overtime at the workshop. He had never liked to work late, but his boss, Sagge — Agne Sagander — had a way of asking that made it hard to say no. It always sounded as if the order in question were going to make or break the company.
He had grown more quiet after he was fired. John had never been one to talk much, of course — Berit was the one who supplied the conversation — but he became even less talkative after he was let go.
He had cheered up only this fall. Berit was convinced that it had to do with the fish, the new aquarium he had been talking about for years and that had become a reality at last.
He had needed all that work with the fish tank, had spent a couple of weeks in September on it. Harry had given him a hand with the final assembly. He and Gunilla had come to the grand opening. Berit had thought it silly to inaugurate a fish tank but the party had been a success.
Their closest neighbor, Stellan, had looked in, as had John's mom, and Lennart had been sober and cheerful. Stellan, who was normally quite reserved, had put an arm around Berit and said something about how cute she looked. John had just smiled, though he usually was sensitive about things like this, especially when he had had a drink or two. But there was no reason to be jealous of Stellan.
Harry had finished clearing the parking lot. The flashing orange signal flung new cascades of light across the path to the laundry facilities and communal rooms. Snow removal. Berit had only a vague idea of what this task involved. Did they still climb up on the roof like in the old days? She could remember the bundled-up men from her childhood with their big shovels and ropes slung in great loops over their shoulders. She could even recall the warning signs they posted in the courtyard and on the street.
Was he over at Lennart's? Brother Tuck, as John called him. She didn't like it. It reminded her of the bad old days. She never knew what to make of it: Lennart's loquacious self-assurance and John's pressed silence.
Berit was only sixteen when the three of them met. First she got to know John, then Lennart. The brothers appeared inseparable. Lennart, tossing his long black hair off his face, unpredictable in his movements, always on the go, picking nervously, chattering. John, blond, thin-lipped, and with a gentleness about him that had immediately appealed to her. A scar across his left eye created an unexpected contrast with the pale skin in his slightly androgynous face. The scar was from a motorcycle accident. Lennart had been driving.
Berit had been unable to understand how John and Lennart could be brothers. They were so different, both in appearance and in manner. Once she had gone so far as to ask Aina, their mother, about it. It had been toward the end of the crayfish party, but she had only smiled and joked about it.
It didn't take long for Berit to figure out that the brothers didn't always make their money in traditional ways. John worked at the workshop off and on, but it seemed to Berit that this was more to keep up appearances, especially with regard to Albin, his father.
John had a criminal bent. Not because he was evil or greedy, but simply because a conventional lifestyle didn't seem to be quite enough for him. It was something he had in common with many of the people around him, teenagers who appeared well adjusted on the surface but who drifted around the eastern parts of Uppsala most evenings and nights in anxious herds. They picked pockets, snatched purses, stole mopeds and cars, broke into basements, and smashed shopwindows as the spirit moved them.
A few, like John and Lennart, were permanent fixtures. Others came and went, most of them dropping out after six months or a year.
Some took classes at the Boland School in order to become painters, concrete workers, mechanics, or whatever other professions were open to working-class youths in the early seventies. Others took jobs straight out of middle school. None of them continued with more formal academic subjects at the high school level. They had neither the will nor the grades for that.
Most of them lived at home with their parents, who were not always the ideal people to prevent substance abuse, theft, and other illegal activities. They had enough of their own problems and often stood by, quite powerless to do anything to stop their offspring. They were awkward and embarrassed when dealing with the welfare workers, psychologists, and other social officials, confused by the bureaucratic language, their own inadequacies, and their intense sense of shame.
"If I hadn't had them, it would all have gone to hell," John had said once.
It was only when he was getting regular work at the factory that he started to move away from life on the streets and the gangs. Regular work, a new sense of being appreciated, decent wages, and then Berit.
Lennart delivered groceries by day and hung out at the pool hall in Sivia at night. John was there too. He was the better player of the two, though that hardly bothered Lennart, who spent most of his time on the flipper machines down below.
That was where Berit met them. She had come with a girl named Anna-Lena, who was in love with a boy who frequented the place.
She fell in love with John at first sight. He snuck around the pool table with the cue in his hand and played with intense concentration, something that appealed to Berit. He rarely said anything.
His hands were slender. She studied his fingers splayed on the green mat, his gaze focused along the stick, serious. It was the seriousness she noticed. And eyelashes. His gaze, the intense gaze.
She wasn't sure what made her start thinking about the pool hall. It had been years since she had been there. It was probably because she had been thinking about Brother Tuck, and about how John was probably with him. She didn't want to call. They were probably drinking. Sometimes John felt he had to have a real session with Lennart. It didn't happen very often nowadays, but when his mind was made up nothing could stop him. Not even Justus. The boy knew it, knew his father deep under the skin, and his protests were never particularly loud or long-lived.
Once, when Justus was about twelve, John let himself be talked out of it and came home. Justus had called his uncle himself and demanded to speak to his father. Berit was not allowed to listen; Justus had locked himself in the bathroom with the portable phone. John came home after half an hour. Staggering, but he came home.
It was as if these occasional evenings with his brother functioned as a temporary return to his former existence. These drinking sessions kept the brothers close. Berit had no idea what they talked about. Old times, their childhood in Almtuna, or something else?
They didn't have much common ground. They cleaved to each other because of their shared past. Berit sometimes felt something akin to jealousy when confronted with this world that was largely foreign to her. Their childhood, the early years, appeared to be the only source of joy when they were talking. Even Lennart's voice, normally void of emotion, grew warm.
And Berit stood outside all of this. Her life with John didn't count, or so it seemed to her. She entered his life when everything turned, when his childhood reached a definitive end. She wasn't there in the early, light-filled days, the happy years that would be remembered and retold.
"When is he coming?"
"Soon," she replied, shouting.
She was grateful that Justus was in his bedroom.
"He's probably clearing snow somewhere. I've never seen anything like it."
She expected him to say something else, but he didn't. She wanted to hear his voice, but he didn't say anything. What is he doing, thinking? Did she dare leave the kitchen and go to his room? But the half-darkness of the kitchen was all she could handle. No light, no quick flickering characters on a computer screen, no questioning looks from Justus.
"Maybe you can help Harry," she shouted. "Make a little extra."
"He'll probably need some help with the basement stairs."
"I don't give a shit about his snow."
Justus had suddenly reappeared in the doorway.
"It's not just his snow," Berit said gently.
Justus snorted and stretched out a hand to the light switch.
"No, don't turn it on!"
She regretted it the instant she said it.
"It's just that it's cozy with a little darkness. I'll light some candles instead."
She felt his gaze from the doorway.
"You should make a little money," she said.
"I don't need any. And Dad has money, anyway."
"Of course, but not a lot. You've been talking about buying a camera."
Justus gave her a dismissive look. Was it a look of triumph?
"No harm in asking him, though, is there?" she continued.
"Nag, nag, nag," he said and turned on his heel, in that way that only he could, and went back to his room.
She heard him slam his door and the creaking of the bed when he threw himself on it. She walked back over to the window. Harry and his tractor had disappeared. A number of lights were on in the building across the way. She could see families around the dinner table. A bluish TV light flickered in a few others.
A shadow moved next to the parking garages and she almost shouted with joy, but as she kept watching no John appeared. Had she only imagined it? If you walked down between the rows of garages you eventually came out by the garbage cans, but there was no one there. No John. Berit stared out into the darkness. Suddenly she glimpsed the figure again. She had seen someone for a moment, a man in green, but it wasn't John.
Who was it? Why had he waited before emerging by the garbage cans? It occurred to her that maybe it was Harry's brother, who used to help him with the snow removal. No John. The short moment of relief was replaced by loneliness.
The potatoes on the stove were still lukewarm. She turned the burner with the stew to its lowest setting. He'll be here soon, she told herself, and cupped her hands around the pot.
She called Lennart at half past seven. He answered on the fifth ring and sounded sober. He hadn't heard from John in several days.
"He'll turn up," he said lightly, but she could hear the concern in his voice.
Berit could imagine him restlessly shuffling back and forth in the hall.
"I'll make a couple of calls," he said. "He's probably just having a few beers with someone."
Berit hated him for those words. A few beers. She hung up.
She called John's mother, but did not mention that he was more than a few hours late. She had called in the hope that he had looked in on her and been detained. They chatted for a while as Berit walked around the apartment.
Lennart called at a quarter past eight.
"Why'd you hang up on me?" he started, and she could hear that he had a few drinks in him. That's when she knew.
"Where can he be?" Now her desperation broke out.
Justus came out of his room.
"I'm hungry," he said.
She gestured to him to calm down and finished talking to Lennart.
"Do you have any idea where Daddy can be?" she asked.
She knew she shouldn't be letting it get the upper hand, but the anxiety made her tremble. Justus made an awkward movement with his hand.
"I've no idea, but he'll be here soon," he said.
Berit started to cry.
"Mom, he'll be here!"
"Yes, he'll be back soon," she said and tried to smile, but it was mostly a grimace. "I just get so worked up when he doesn't call and let me know. The potatoes are ruined."
"Can't we eat in the meantime?"
She was suddenly furious. Because she interpreted Justus's words as somehow disloyal, or because of an intimation that something terrible had happened?
They sat down at the kitchen table. Harry and his tractor reappeared in the courtyard, and Berit was about to say something again about snow removal but stopped when she saw his face.
The potatoes were pasty and the meat tender but lukewarm. Justus cleared the table in silence. She watched his mechanical movements. The jeans, which were two sizes too big, hung from his thin thighs and nonexistent butt. His fashion and music tastes had been changing lately, from a penchant for soft English pop, which Berit had often been able to appreciate, to a noisy, jerky rap music that sounded only discordant and angry to her ears. His taste in clothing had changed accordingly.
She looked at the clock on the wall. Nine. Now she knew it would be late. Very late.CHAPTER 2
He was watching the bus driver. She was all over the place, first pulling too close to the car in front and driving much too fast, then slamming on the brakes.
"Women drivers," he mumbled.
The bus was half full. An immigrant was sitting directly in front of him, probably a Kurd or an Iranian. Sometimes it seemed to him as if half of all the people he saw were svartskallar, the derogatory term for dark-haired foreigners. Gunilla sat three seats away. He smiled to himself when he saw her neck. She had been one of the prettiest girls in the class with her long blond wavy hair and shining eyes. Those silky tendrils had given her a fairy-like appearance, especially when she laughed. Now her hair had lost all its former luster.
Excerpted from The Princess of Burundi by Kjell Eriksson, Ebba Segerberg. Copyright © 2006 Kjell Eriksson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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