By Anders Roslund, Börge Hellström
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2008 Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström
All rights reserved.
MONDAY 3 JUNE
The flat was silent.
She hadn't thought of him for a long time, or indeed of anything that belonged to that time back then. And now she was sitting there thinking about it. She thought about that last hug in the Lukuskele prison ward when she was ten years old and he had looked so small and coughed so his whole body rattled and Mum had given him a tissue, which filled with blood clots before he scrunched it up and put it in one of the big bins in the corridor.
It was the last time, but she hadn't realised it then. Perhaps she still hadn't taken it in.
Lydia took a deep breath.
She shook off the feeling of sadness, smiled at the large mirror in the hall. It was still early in the morning.
A knock on the door. She still had the hairbrush in her hand. How long had she been standing there? She glanced in the mirror again, her head a little to the side. Another smile, she wanted to look good. She was wearing the black dress; the dark material contrasted with her pale skin. She looked at her body. It was still a young woman's. She hadn't changed much since she came here, not on the outside.
Another knock, harder this time. She should answer it. She put the hairbrush on the shelf by the mirror and took a few steps towards the door.
Her name was Lydia Grajauskas and she used to sing her name; she sang it now to the tune of a children's song she remembered from school in Klaipeda. The chorus had three repeated lines and she sang Lydia Grajauskas for each line. She had always done this when she felt nervous.
She stopped singing when she reached the door. He was there on the other side. If she put her ear to the door, she could quickly pick up the sound of his breathing. She knew its rhythm so well. It was him. They had met often, was it eight or maybe nine times? His smell was special. She could sense it already, the smell of him, like one of her dad's workmates from that filthy room with the big sofa where she had hidden when she was a girl. Almost like them, a mixture of tobacco and aftershave and sweat that seeped through the closely woven material of his jacket.
He knocked for the third time.
She let the door swing open. There he was. Dark suit, light blue shirt, gold tiepin. His fair hair was short and he was suntanned. It had been raining steadily since the middle of May, but he still had a late-summer glow, as he always did. She smiled at him, the same smile as at the mirror a moment earlier; she knew he liked her to smile.
They didn't touch each other.
He came in from the stairs, into the flat. She looked quickly at the hallstand and nodded at one of the coat hangers, as if to say let me take your jacket and hang it up for you. He shook his head. She guessed he was about ten years older than herself, maybe thirty-something, but it was only a guess.
She felt like singing again.
Lydia Grajauskas. Lydia Grajauskas. Lydia Grajauskas.
He raised his hand, as he always did, touched her black dress lightly, slowly sliding his fingers along the shoulder straps, across her breasts, always on top of the material.
She kept very still.
His hand traced a wide circle over one breast, then towards the other. She hardly breathed. Her chest had to be still, she must smile, must stay still and smile.
She kept smiling when he spat.
They were standing close together then; it was more like he let it go rather than spat. He didn't usually spit in her face, instead the spittle landed in front of her feet in their high-heeled black shoes.
He thought that she was too slow.
One straight finger, pointing down.
Lydia knelt, still smiling – she knew he liked that. Sometimes he smiled as well. Her knees clicked a little as she pressed her legs together and went down on all fours, her face looking ahead. She asked him to forgive her. That was what he wanted. He had learnt how to say it in Russian and insisted on her getting it right, making sure she used the right words. She lowered herself in stages by bending her arms until she was almost folded double and her nose touched the floor. It was cold against her tongue as she licked the gob into her mouth, swallowed it.
Then she got up, like he wanted her to, closed her eyes and, as usual, tried to guess which cheek.
Right, probably the right one this time.
He hit her with the flat of his hand, which covered her whole cheek. It didn't hurt that much. His arm came right round and the slap left a pink mark, but mostly it just burned. It stung only if you wanted it to sting.
He pointed again.
Lydia knew what she had to do, so the pointing wasn't necessary, but he did it anyway, just waved his finger in her direction, wanted her to walk into the bedroom, to stand in front of the red bedspread. She went in front of him. Her movements had to be slow, and as she walked she had to absently stroke her bottom and breathe heavily. That was what he wanted. She could feel his eyes on her back, burning, his eyes already abusing her body.
She stopped by the bed.
She undid the dress, three buttons at the back, rolled it down over her hips and let it fall to the floor.
Her bra and panties were black lace, just as he wanted and he had brought them personally, making her promise to use them only for him. Only him.
The moment he lay down on top of her, she no longer had a body.
That was what she did. It was what she always did.
She thought of home, about the past and all the things she missed and had missed every single day since she came here.
She was not there, she had absented herself. Here she was just a face with no body. She had no neck, no breasts, no crotch, no legs.
So when he was rough, when he forced himself into her from behind, when her anus was bleeding, it wasn't happening to her. She was elsewhere, having left only her head there, singing Lydia Grajauskas to a tune she had learnt long ago.
It was raining as he drove into the empty car park.
It was the kind of summer when people held their breath when they woke up and crept over to the bedroom window, hoping that today, today the sun would be beating against the slats of the venetian blinds. It was the kind of summer when instead the rain played freely outside. Every morning weary eyes would give up hope as they scanned the greyness, while the mind registered the tapping on the window pane.
Ewert Grens sighed. He parked the car, turned the engine off, but stayed in the driver's seat until it was impossible to see out and the raindrops were a steady flow that obscured everything. He couldn't be bothered to move. He didn't want to. Unease crawled all over him; reluctance tugged at whatever there was to catch. Another week had passed and he had almost forgotten about her.
He was breathing heavily.
He would never truly forget.
He lived with her still, every day, practically every hour, twenty-five years on. Nothing helped, no fucking hope.
The rain eased off, allowing him a glimpse of the large red-brick villa from the seventies. The garden was lovely, almost too carefully tended. He liked the apple trees best, six of them, which had just shed their white flowers.
He hated that house.
He relaxed his grip on the wheel, opened the car door and climbed out. Large puddles had formed on the uneven tarmac and he zigzagged between them, but the wet still soaked through the soles of his shoes before he was halfway there. As he walked, he tried to shake off the feeling that life ended a little with every step he took towards the entrance.
The whole place smelt of old people. He came here every Monday morning, but had never got used to the smell. The people who lived here in their wheelchairs or behind their Zimmer frames were not all old. He had no idea what caused the smell.
'She's sitting in her room.'
'She knows you're coming.'
She didn't have the faintest idea that he was coming.
He nodded at the young care assistant, who had come to recognise him and was just trying to be friendly, but would never know how much it hurt.
He walked past the Smiler, a man of about his own age who usually sat in the lobby, waving cheerily as people came and went; then there was Margareta, who screamed if you didn't pay attention to her and stop to ask how she was. Every Monday morning, there they were, part of a photograph that didn't need to be taken. He wondered whether, if they were not lined up and waiting one morning, he would miss them, or whether he would be relieved at not having to deal with the predictability of it all.
He paused. A quiet moment outside her room.
Some nights he would wake, shaken and covered in sweat, because he had clearly heard her say Welcome when he came, she had taken his hand in hers, happy to hold on to someone who loved her. He thought about it, about his recurring dream and it gave him the courage to open the door, as he always did, and enter her space, a small room with a window overlooking the car park.
She was sitting in the middle of the room, the wheelchair facing the door. She looked at him, her eyes showing nothing remotely like recognition or even a response. He went to her, put his hand against her cold cheek, talked to her.
'Hi, Anni. It's me. Ewert.'
She laughed. Inappropriate and too loud as always, a child's laughter.
'Do you know who I am today?'
Another laugh, a sudden loud noise. He pulled over the chair that was standing by the desk she never used, and sat down next to her. He took her hand, held it.
They had made her look nice.
Her fair hair was combed, held back with a slide on each side. A blue dress that he hadn't seen for a while, that smelt newly washed.
It always struck him how bafflingly unchanged she really was, how the twenty-five years, wheelchair-bound years in the land of the unaware, had left so few traces. He had gained twenty kilos, lost a lot of hair, knew how furrowed his face had become. She was unmarked, as if you were allowed a more carefree spirit that kept you young to make up for not being able to participate in real life.
She tried to say something as she looked at him, making her usual gurgling baby noises, which always made him feel that she was trying to reach him. He squeezed her hand and swallowed whatever it was that was hurting his throat.
'He's being released tomorrow,' he told her.
She mumbled and drooled and he pulled out his hankie to wipe away the saliva dribbling down her chin.
'Anni, do you understand? From tomorrow, he'll be out. He'll be free, littering the streets again.'
Her room looked just the same as when she had moved in. He had picked out which pieces of furniture she should have from home and positioned them; he was the only one who knew why it was important for her to sleep with her head to the window.
Already on the first night she had looked at peace.
He had carried her in, put her in the bed and tucked the covers round her slender body. Her sleep had been deep and he had left her in the morning when she woke up. Leaving the car there he had walked all the way to police headquarters in Kungsholmen. It was afternoon by the time he had arrived.
'I'll get him this time.'
Her eyes rested on him, as if she were listening. He knew this was an illusion, but because it looked right, he sometimes pretended they were having a talk the way they used to.
Her eyes, were they expectant or just empty?
If only I had managed to stop.
If only that bastard hadn't pulled you out. And if only your head hadn't been softer than the wheel.
Ewert Grens bent over her, his forehead touching hers. He kissed her cheek.
'I miss you.'
The man in the dark suit with the gold tiepin, who usually spat on the floor in front of her feet, had just left. It hadn't helped this time to think of Klaipeda and have no body, only a head. She had felt him inside her; it happened sometimes that she couldn't shut out the pain when someone thrust themselves into her and ordered her to move at the same time.
Lydia wondered if it was his smell.
The smell she recognised reminded her of the men who sat with her dad in that dirty room full of weapons. She wondered if it was a good thing that she recognised it, if that meant that she was still somehow connected to what had been back then and which she longed for so much, or if it was just breaking down even more, that everything she could have had, and that was now so far away, was being forced deeper into her.
He didn't speak afterwards. He had looked at her, pointed, one last time – that was all. He didn't even turn round when he left.
If there had been anything between her legs, she would have been aggrieved that his bodily fluids had filled it and she would have felt him inside her even more. But she hadn't. She was just a face.
She laughed as she lathered one part of her body after another with the white bar of soap until her skin was red; she rubbed hard, pressing the soap against her neck, shoulders, over her breasts, her vagina, her thighs, feet.
The suffocating shame.
She washed it away. His hands, his breath, his smell. The water was almost painfully hot, but the shame was like some horrible membrane that would not come off.
She sat down on the floor of the shower cubicle and began to sing the chorus of the children's song from Klaipeda.
She loved that song. It had been theirs, hers and Vladi's. They had sung it together loudly every morning as they walked to school through the blocks of flats in the housing estate, a syllable for each step. They sang their names loudly, over and over again.
Dimitri shouted at her from the hall, his mouth close to the bathroom door. She carried on. He banged the wall, shouted again for her to get out of there fucking pronto. She stayed where she was, sitting on the wet floor, but stopped singing, her voice barely carrying through the door.
'Who is coming next?'
'You owe me money, you bloody whore!'
'I want to know who's coming.'
'Clean up your cunt! New customer.'
Lydia heard real anger in his voice now. She got up, dried her wet body and stood in front of the mirror that hung above the sink, put on her red lipstick, put on the nearly cream underwear in a velvet-like material that Dimitri had handed to her that morning, sent to her in advance by the customer.
Four Rohypnol and one Valium. She swallowed, smiled at her reflection and washed the tablets down with half a glass of vodka.
She opened the bathroom door and stepped into the hall. The next customer, the second of the day – a new one, someone she'd never seen before – was already waiting on the landing. Dimitri was glaring at her from the kitchen, watching as she passed him, the last few steps before opening the front door.
Before opening it she made him knock once more.
Hilding Oldéus gave the wound on his nose a good hard scratch.
The sore on his nostril wouldn't heal. It was the heroin: whenever he shot up, it itched and scratched. He'd had a sore there for years now. It was like it was burning; he had to rub, rub, his finger digging deeper, pulling at the skin.
He looked around.
A crap room at the welfare office. He hated it, but he always came back, as soon as he got out there he was, ready to smile for a handout. It had taken him one week this time. He'd been brown-nosing the screws at Aspsås prison. Said 'Cheerio' to Jochum. He'd been kissing the big boy's arse these last few months; he needed someone to hide behind, and Jochum was built like a brick shithouse. None of the lads even thought of messing with him as long as he hung out with Lang. And Jochum had said 'see you' back. He only had one bleeding week left. (Hilding suddenly realised he'd be out tomorrow. A week had passed: fuck, it was tomorrow.) They'd probably never meet up again outside. Jochum had protected him for a while, but he didn't do drugs and people who didn't just sort of disappeared, went somewhere else.
Not many people waiting here.
A couple of gyppo birds and a fucking Finn and two bloody pensioners. What the fuck did they want?
Hilding scratched the sore on his nose again. They were just taking up time, a crowd of losers getting in his way.
It was one of those days, a day when he was all sensitive. He didn't want to feel anything, mustn't, and then one of the days from hell hit him, when he knew, felt, felt, felt. He needed a hit badly, had to get rid of this crappy feeling. Had to get some fucking kit. But all these bloody awful people were sitting there, in this crappy room, holding him back. It was his turn now, fuck's sake, it was his turn. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Box 21 by Anders Roslund, Börge Hellström. Copyright © 2008 Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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