Translated by Laurie Thompson
The book is reviewed by Sarah Death in the Bookshelf section of the 2015:1 issue.
This article appeared in the 2015:1 issue.
This extract is the opening of an unsettling story from Aino Trosell’s new collection of Krimineller (‘Criminelles’, or crime-fiction short stories). ‘Confused’ describes the fate of an undocumented migrant to Sweden, one of those characters on the social periphery in whom the author specialises. The language she employs is part of the process of getting under his skin, a fact picked up on by translator Laurie Thompson, who has taken account of the need to recreate in English the language used by an immigrant trying to speak ‘normal Swedish’ and in the process reproducing language used by sceptical Swedes negative towards all immigrants. Like many of the other stories in the collection, ‘Confused’ moves in a circle; everything seems to be working out for the protagonist but then it all falls apart. Since her crime fiction debut Ytspänning (Surface Tension) in 1999, Aino Trosell has been rated among the highest fliers of the genre in Sweden. She is a stylistically assured writer whose hallmark is a socially critical perspective with a clear awareness of class and gender issues. When Lotta Olsson, seasoned critic of the crime genre, made her choices for the 2014 Gothenburg Book Fair of the best titles she had read so far that year, this volume of short stories was among them – and this was not just a list of Swedish crime writers but included such eminent names as Val McDermid and Gillian Flynn. It is high time the English-language reading public had access to Trosell’s work.
He had been living in Sweden for three years, illegally. When his residence permit was refused again on that occasion, he made himself scarce. He had planned ahead for that contingency, and disappeared before they had time to lock him up.
The subsequent years were a bit of a shock to his system. A journey into a new culture and a new language: it was a good job he was so young. He learnt quickly, and fell into line.
He didn’t regret having left his home country, nor did he regret having stayed in Sweden despite his application for asylum having been rejected.
He had obtained work in the black economy, lodged with his fellow-countrymen
and managed to get along with the assistance of kind people and benevolent relief organisations. He rarely went hungry. He had often felt freezing cold, but experience had toughened him up, and nowadays he knew what clothes he should wear, what he should do and shouldn’t do, how to avoid starving, and where he could find somewhere warm to stay and get a temporary roof over his head.
He had also become adept at behaving in such a way that he didn’t draw attention to himself.
There was always work to be found – it was cheap to employ somebody without official documentation like him.
He was able to keep all his belongings in a sports bag, which he left in the care of various people. A mattress in a cramped room rented by a fellow countryman could sometimes be expensive, but could also be gratis at times.
Even this kind of life became routine and humdrum. He tried not to think too much about what life had been like before, or might be like in the future. He lived for the present; but always at the back of his mind was the hope that eventually there might be a general amnesty. Something of the sort had happened before. Then he could stand up straight, get himself a proper job, find somewhere to live, embark upon a career and perhaps start a family. He would also look closer into a rumour about the chances of being allowed to stay in Sweden. The suggestion was that the odds were better if you were still in the country four years after having applied for asylum, and tried again. But perhaps that was mere talk, Utopian dreams for people like him.
His latest job had been helping out in a car repair shop where most of the workers lacked official documentation. But the owner was careless, became greedy, started making mistakes, handled too many stolen cars, and eventually the whole business collapsed.
His intuition had saved him on many occasions, and that very morning he suspected something awful was going to happen. He could almost smell it in the air. Squealers? Was there a traitor among his workmates? What was creeping up on them? The atmosphere grew more and more dodgy.
He glanced furtively around for emergency exits.
All of a sudden the whole place was surrounded by police! They seemed to come from nowhere.
His workmates’ movements became awkward and resigned. They could see that there was no point in trying to run away. The boss came racing into the office, hysterical about all the compromising material in there! Panic was increasing rapidly. Somebody started shrieking. Most of the illegal workers stood there motionless, like sheep awaiting the slaughter.
He became ice-cold.
Ice-cold and calm. In the twinkling of an eye he slipped out of his working clothes, rinsed away all the filth and donned his street attire. He always made a point of being neat and tidy – clean-shaven, hair combed, well dressed. On his way to the entrance door he picked up a file of documents he saw lying on a desk, then walked calmly into the street. Striding out confidently, looking as if he were going somewhere on business, documents in hand, immaculate and without a care in the world. He gave the impression of being together with a customer – an ordinary, quite young Swedish woman who was leaving the workshop after dropping off her car for a service. He walked alongside her, thumbing through the documents in his file. She glanced casually at him, he gave her a friendly smile, they looked like a couple.
Nobody stopped him. Even a ring of steel has a weak link when confronted with such exceptional audacity.
He strolled out into the street just like any local resident, and left behind his innocent and temporary friend as soon as they turned a corner and came to a bus stop, where she joined the queue.
He started running!
He was young and strong, and now he was
running. He threw the documents into a skip, raced straight through an industrial estate and into a hypermarket car park, through the shopping mall, up and down staircases, back out into the fresh air, through a park, along a public footpath and then over several busy streets. Cars hooted at him. He eventually came to a new district, turned into a side-street, branched off, and again, turned first one corner then another,
and then paused.
Looked round at last.
Nobody chasing him, no flashing blue lights, no police.
He set off walking again, quite fast. Keep calm, he told himself; I’m normal, for Christ’s sake, I’m a gormless young berk but a gormless young Swedish berk – come on now, this seems to be going well. He was dressed like everybody else, his face was clean, his hands tucked nonchalantly into his trouser pockets. There was nothing especially odd about him, he simply looked like a man in the street. Nobody gave him a second thought.
He was walking more slowly now, telling himself he was on his way to meet somebody, being careful to move naturally and not to keep looking guiltily over his shoulder.
He passed a few shops and came to some blocks of high-rise flats: locked entrance doors, obviously. Skyscrapers, lots of tenants in each one of them. He walked up to the entrance of one of the buildings.
He was pretending to key in a code when the door suddenly opened, and he found himself looking straight into the face of an elderly lady. He could see how she hesitated for a microsecond, then decided that everything was in order.
‘After you,’ she said, holding the door open for him. The look on her face confirmed her conclusion that there was nothing to be afraid of.
He rewarded her with a broad smile, and said thank you. Once in the entrance hall he headed straight for the lifts, that seemed the natural thing to do. When he turned round to look he could see through the glass panels in the door that the elderly lady had already headed off somewhere, and there was nobody watching him now. He took the lift up to the top floor. The building wasn’t exactly new, it must have been at least fifty years old and had a sort of faded beauty in its design details. He felt at home.
He got out on the fourteenth floor and paused to listen.
Not a sound.
Slowly but surely he started working his way downwards, floor by floor.
He kept stopping outside doors, listening. It was generally completely silent. In that case he would try the door handle, but the door was locked of course. He peered cautiously in through the letter-flaps, but there was only occasionally something to see because most of the occupiers had closed the inside door and it was dark in the narrow space between that and the outside door. In one of the flats on the tenth floor the inside door was open, and he could see a large pile of mail on the hall floor. It must have been much more than today’s harvest, perhaps even more than a week’s. The occupier was evidently away, and perhaps that was why the inside door was not closed – so that there would be plenty of room for the mail without it filling up the space between the doors.
He was not a criminal. He had never been a criminal, and like most people was in favour of law and order. He had a conscience and despised people who stole and destroyed things: that was simply not the thing to do. Besides, he was keen not to draw attention to himself.
Nevertheless the flat with the large pile of mail aroused his hunting instincts. Let’s face it, people were insured. On the other hand, he had no insurance policies at all, and he was in an emergency situation. Perhaps his boss at the garage hadn’t managed to hide away all traces of his background: there were empty cells at the Swedish Migration Board that needed filling,
and perhaps there was one reserved for him while he waited to be deported. Maybe somebody could grass on him as well, in exchange for being allowed to stay on himself. He didn’t believe anyone in those circumstances was likely to maintain high moral principles: it was every man for himself when it came to something as important as asylum.
He was scared. He was in a critical position. He didn’t even dare to go home to his temporary lodgings in a cramped two-roomed flat in a suburb, to collect his bag.
Speculating about criminal solutions as he was doing now was exceptional, he thought wearily: he was at a crisis point after all. He would never be able to rest, never be able to sit down and feel safe in his own home. He was an outlaw. It was beginning to get on his nerves, it was going to turn him into a criminal, that was the bottom line. He was prepared to perform criminal acts right now.
Those who had turned to crime led much more dangerous lives than he did. The risk of being arrested and deported without more ado was much greater than if he behaved himself sensibly and lay low.
But then again... He had been trying to live a blameless life for so long now. He was weary. He had made the effort and strained himself to the limit, but instead of seeing positive results he found that his life had unravelled and he now had less than nothing. How much did he have in his wallet? One hundred and twenty kronor – huh, he was rolling in money! Three hours’ wages, and what would that get him? Not even a bed for the night in a youth hostel, and he would need official papers for that anyway. A few snacks at McDonald’s, that was all. And he was skint. He was somebody from the third world in the middle of the Swedish welfare state.
No, he must stop feeling sorry for himself – that would only make him miserable and depressed. He must fight!
To his surprise he noted that on some of the floors there were yellow cloth sacks outside the doors of one or two of the flats. It eventually dawned on him that they contained dirty washing that would be collected and transported to some central laundry. Behind those doors lived old people who were benefitting from the welfare state. Even the old and the poverty-stricken
were better off than he was, even dogs and cats were better looked after in the Kingdom of Sweden than he was. He had heard endless tales about that.
He really was incredibly tired. His mind refused to do as it was told, his thoughts had melted away and turned into a messy sludge. He had no plans left. He no longer knew what to do next. Life was just going to be more of the same – one long struggle, full of insecurity and fear. He might just as well plonk himself down on a landing here and spend his time trying people’s doors. That would pass the time away after all. If he went out into the street he was frightened of bumping into the police and was no longer confident that he could keep his nerves under control.
Sometimes he heard a door opening, and stopped dead on the stairs so that he wouldn’t come down onto that floor until everything was quiet again.
Once a door opened right next to him, one he had just been listening outside and heard voices from inside. He dropped down on one knee and pretended to be adjusting the gasket on the flow-pipe of a radiator. The elderly man who emerged from the flat barely glanced at him, waited for the lift to arrive and disappeared inside it.
It was the middle of the day, and he could only see old people wandering about when he looked out of the staircase window.
Then he had a stroke of luck on the seventh floor. There was no sound at all outside the entrance door of the flat. He peered cautiously in through the letter flap and caught a glimpse of a carpet with an oriental pattern.
As usual he tried the door handle.
The door opened!
He thanked his God that the hinge didn’t squeak. He paused for a second but heard nothing from inside the unknown flat, then he slunk over the threshold and quietly closed the door behind him, without touching the latch: the door was unlocked and ready for a hasty retreat if necessary.
Deathly silence reigned. There was a smell of dust and chemicals. The hall was dark, the only light came from the half-open bathroom door and the living room located straight ahead.
He took a few cautious steps into the hall. Behind a half-closed door was a long, narrow kitchen with a table and chairs in front of the only window. The sink was bright and shiny, with no dirty crockery or cutlery lying around.
He stole inside, and established that the kitchen was neat and cosy with plates on shelves lining the walls – but somewhat impersonal, as if it wasn’t being used. Leading off from it was a small room with a sofa and bookcases – a guest room, perhaps?
He stepped back into the hall and continued towards the living room. It was light and spacious, with a splendid view over the town. It was stupendous and liberating, full of life out there. He was just one of countless beings. The furniture seemed to be anything but new: carpets, dining table, three-piece suite, sideboards, linen cupboards, a stereo system with an old-fashioned record player and a dumpy television set on wheels – it all looked about fifty
years old at least, including the pictures with their various nature motifs. The style was drab but nevertheless pleasant if, like him, you were used to much simpler dwellings.
Through an open door he could see that there was another room beyond the living room, and linked with that by a balcony.
He was now certain the flat was empty, but nevertheless felt the urge to nosey-parker at that one final room which was apparently a bedroom: he could see the foot end of a bed that occupied most of the floor space.
But in it...?! He felt an urge to run. But stand still, for Christ’s sake! Don’t move! Say nothing! No sound at all!!! Don’t breathe!
There was somebody lying on the bed.
Asleep. Thank the Good Lord for that!
It was an old lady, lying on top of the covers, fully dressed, with a blanket over her. Her white hair tumbling over the equally white pillow made her look as if she were dead.
He stood there in the doorway, petrified in mid-stride: one of his legs was hurting already, but he didn’t dare breathe.
The lady suddenly opened her eyes, and her bright blue eyes met his.
‘Hello!’ Her face broke into a smile.
So as not to frighten her he tried to smile back.
‘I’m sorry, I’ve come to the wrong flat, I’m sorry, I’ll be off now.’
He hoped his foreign accent wasn’t excessively obvious, and without waiting for her response he retired as quickly as he could without it looking suspicious.
He stopped dead on the threshold between the living room and the hall. Somebody was coming in! Without thinking he leapt into a wardrobe which, thank God, turned out to have a row of coat-hangers on a rail, most with clothes adorning them. Quickly and quietly he closed the door behind him. If he could worm his way further inside he would be hidden by all the clothes, but he daren’t move: the coat-hangers would make a clanking noise and give him away.
Outside in the hall he could hear the jingling of keys and a woman’s voice shouting:
‘Hello there, Ann-Britt – it’s me at last! But do you know what? The outside door wasn’t locked! No harm done, but I shall report whoever it was before me. That’s something that simply must not happen. I shan’t be reporting on incompetence, but it’s a security issue. I expect it was one of the new care workers. Anyway, it’s time for your lunch.’
He heard her going into the old lady’s bedroom and expected uproar when the woman heard that somebody had just called in to see her. He prepared himself to make a run for the door.
But then he heard the woman coming back into the hall. Followed by clattering in the kitchen. Hadn’t the old lady said anything?
‘It’s goulash today. With potatoes. All cooked and ready, as usual!’
He heard the familiar buzzing sound from a microwave oven. No other sounds for a while. He didn’t dare to peep out through the wardrobe door. Then came a ping.
‘There we are! I’ll leave it there in the microwave while you and I take a little walk, Ann-Britt – you could do with a bit of exercise at this time of day, so come on! Let’s take a little trip through life together, hand in hand!’ The woman sounded as if she were singing merrily, but there wasn’t a sound to be heard from the old lady.
Then he heard some shuffling steps. The old lady was being ushered from the living room to the kitchen, but had apparently said nothing about his sudden appearance just a few minutes ago.
A vague smell of food entered his nostrils. The sound of chairs scraping as they sat down at the kitchen table. And the woman carried on prattling away, loudly and informatively, or however you might describe her tone of voice.
‘So, here we go! Open wide! There we are. You must be hungry, Ann-Britt. And let’s have a drop to drink, to help wash it down! So there! That was good, wasn’t it?’
He heard the old lady mumble something, but couldn’t make out what. She was evidently a cool customer, not the type to cause a kerfuffle simply because an unknown man had just turned up in her bedroom.