He walked slowly along Norra Grängesbergsgatan with unsteady steps. It had been a long time since he had been outside and walked down a city street. He had spent most of the past year mooching on the sofa in his little studio flat, and on the few occasions he had ventured outside he had been in a wheelchair. He hated being seen that way, like some fucking cripple, and it sure as hell wasn’t easy finding someone willing to push him. Who would want to? One of the four social workers assigned to him? Fat chance. They only saw him sporadically, when the National Insurance Office made an appointment. Would his mother go out with him, proudly showing her disabled son off to half of Malmö? Fat chance.
His legs were weak from lack of use, but that wasn’t the only reason they trembled; nerves were a factor. In his inside pocket he carried an envelope. It contained all the money he had managed to scrape together. Forty thousand crowns. There was borrowed money, begged from his mother’s modest pension after years as a lunch lady, money from selling his iPhone, cash from beer can returns, the sum total of the one-crown coins collected in the jar in his kitchen, and the meagre savings in his bank account. He had no idea whether it would be enough, but it was all he could get. He didn’t have any more, and he couldn’t take any more. He had to try to become a healthy man again.
The building where the office was located needed painting. Grout peeked out from under the dirty yellow paint. There was a crack in the display window to Reko Car Wash that had been sealed with silver duct tape. It looked slapdash. On the right-hand side of the building a staircase lead down to the office entrance. There was no ramp, no disabled access. His nerves intensified with every step. He had to lean on his knees as he walked down. He noticed how dry his mouth was and wondered how he was going to pull off sounding strong and assertive during the negotiation.
At the bottom of the stairs he knocked gingerly on the bare metal door. He waited. No one answered. In the gap between the door and its frame he could see that it was locked. He knocked a little harder, then a little harder still. It hurt his knuckles. Suddenly the door opened with a jerk. It was Mergim. He was standing in his joggers and a white vest. Just as fit as ever, with well-developed arms and shoulders. The tattoos on his upper arms must have been done when he was less muscular. They were faded and stretched. Mergim’s expression quickly changed from curious to annoyed when he saw who was at the door.
“You bastard, what the fuck? Where’s your wheelchair? Don’t you know you can’t go running around out there?” Mergim said, yanking him indoors.
Then Mergim pushed him along the ten steps to the little room opposite the boss’s office. Once inside, Mergim shoved him down into the chair facing the desk and with a firm grip on his neck. His neck hair coiled around Mergim’s index finger. When Mergim let go he took a tuft of hair with him. It hurt like hell.
“What are you doing here? What do you want, you little shit?” Mergim asked, his ice-cold, pale blue eyes boring into his terrified underling.
Mergim had sat down on the edge of the desk, just half a metre from him.
“Well… I’ve come to tell you that I want to quit the wheelchair job. I can’t bear sitting in that thing every time I go out. I can’t bear sitting at home all day every day. A guy like me has to work, go out with friends. Meet women. I haven’t got laid in over a year,” he said in the most decisive voice he could muster. “I’ve got money. Here…” He handed over the envelope.
Mergim snatched the envelope, opened it and peered at the contents with an unchanging expression.
“Where the hell is your wheelchair, you fucking idiot? Has Jesus healed you and now you can walk again?”
Ilie had entered the room, also dressed in workout clothes. He wore fat chains around his neck and right wrist, and a gold watch on his left.
“We fucking told you…”
“The cripple wants to start a new life. Pay his way. Work. Fuck. Live like a healthy man.”
They looked at each other and laughed.
“Forty thousand, huh? Was that all you could get? We get over a hundred thousand a month from you. And you think you can buy your freedom with this pissy sum. Are you really that fucking stupid?”
Mergim paused and looked at Ilie. He started speaking again.
“What an insult. We thought you were in a wheelchair, not retarded.”
Mergim spat in his face with scorn. The fat, rubbery wad of phlegm landed on his left cheek. Then came the first blow. Ilie’s sledgehammer, a clenched fist smashing into his right temple. He wasn’t prepared for it; everything happened so fast. His vision went dark. The iron-pumped Romanian followed up the first blow by grabbing him by the shoulders, pulling him forward, and striking a raised knee hard into his stomach. He was winded and started to panic at not being able to breathe, then fell from the chair and ended up on the floor. It hurt, hurt like hell. For a moment he couldn’t decide what hurt more, his face from the punch or his shoulder from the fall to the floor.
“You wanted to get laid, huh?” Ilie said cruelly. “No one wants to fuck cripples, you know.”
Then a kick in the groin. It was so excruciating that it was all he could do to scream. Ilie and Mergim’s next move was to stamp on his face to stop him from crying out. Another stamp was delivered, and then a kick to the stomach. Right in the solar plexus. It knocked all the wind out of him. He gasped for breath. Everything was a blur.
He felt them grab hold of his legs and drag him out of the room. It hurt his lower back as he passed over the threshold. The hard wooden edge was sharp against his vertebrae. They headed out towards the courtyard. Another threshold abused his sore back. He sensed Mergim picking something up off the ground. It turned out to be a brick. Mergim held it steady in his right hand.
“Fucking little Turk. Didn’t want your wheelchair, huh? Don’t wanna sit when you can walk. So what the fuck are we supposed to do? Make sure you really need that wheelchair.”
Smack, smack. First went the left kneecap, then the right. After a few more kicks he lost consciousness.
When he woke up again he was cold. He was lying in an awkward position directly on the ground and everything hurt. He saw rubbish bins around him and guessed he had been dumped in the little inner courtyard behind the office among the sponges and cotton swabs and other crap. Plenty of people passed, but no one bothered themselves with him. It felt shameful lying there showing off his beating from the boss’s men. He felt as though he would never be able to get up again. He missed his mother, but calling her was out of the question. He couldn’t let her see him like this, it would break her heart. Besides, he had no phone to call her with. He had sold it on Facebook Marketplace.There wasn’t much to do other than walk. Up the road and down again. To the sea. To the park. Into town. Her legs were tired and shoes were starting to wear.
Alex had never been much of a walker before, she had never had time to spare. Her life had been filled with work, protests, plays and concerts. She had worked hard at her studies or job, and when the working day was finally over she would hurry straight from the desk or the mop to something else. In Chile she had protested against poverty and corruption, always with a sense of being needed in those contexts. That she was making a difference by leading the unfocussed and confused in the good fight for justice. The people she led were tolerant of her somewhat dry and reserved manner, because she was utterly indispensable in the planning and implementation of political actions. They respected her for who she was, they saw her strength. They invited her over to their houses and out to cultural events. Gave her social opportunities that were definitely out of her comfort zone, but that she appreciated anyway and was glad to be a part of. And later, in Gothenburg, she had a foundation. She had made friends through her studies, who obviously didn’t hang out with her because she was fun, attractive or cool, because she wasn’t. Rather, they hung out with her because she was so knowledgeable and always made crucial contributions to their frequent group projects and study sessions. She raised up the other participants, made them all feel genius. And besides, in Gothenburg she had fallen in love. A brief, intense period. She had been in love and, for a limited period of time, opened the floodgates. Surrendered her need for control. Just let it all come and flow. Love and sexuality.
Her work at the National Insurance Office was what it was. A bit dry and dull, but at least she was doing something beyond merely getting by. She and Maud, a journalist and friend, had worked together on a project that had allowed her to rediscover the fire she used to have back home in Chile.
Malmö was nothing like home or Gothenburg. Here she was anonymous, inconsequential. No one saw her greatness as she sat behind her desk at the Job Centre. There she was just one of many small grey entities working in silence. Just a little immigrant with a weird accent and a job without prestige or noteworthy career prospects. Who wouldn’t be missed if she disappeared. She had no friends in Malmö, and had no idea how to make any if she never had the chance to impress anyone. She didn’t know how else to show people what she was made of. She had a hard time with her neighbours too. She got the feeling they wrinkled their noses at her name. ‘A Rojas Leon’ it said on her door. Not ‘Erhensvärd’, ‘Willman’, or ‘Liedholm’ like the other doors. Maybe it would help if she removed her middle name, Rojas, the part of her name that most clearly displayed her foreignness. She didn’t call herself by that name any more either. She just couldn’t bring herself to. Maybe it was pointless, it probably didn’t make any difference. Her neighbour, the single lady in the flat below, probably still wouldn’t have opened the door when she rang the bell with a flask of coffee and bag of pastries. Alex had tried. She could see that someone was there on the other side, watching her through the peep hole. A shadow moved and the light shifted through the lens after a couple of rings. And then another shift a few seconds later. The door remained shut. Alex went upstairs to her flat. Poured the coffee down the sink and sadly wolfed down the two Danish pastries.
It wasn’t like Alex to think so negatively. She was in fact a robust person who had got through difficult times and events that would have broken most people. She had pulled herself together, focussed on new goals, and pushed grief and despair aside. Her strategy was always the same: hard work. When she was working she didn’t have time for sad or depressive thoughts, and through work she had reaped successes that had earned her respect and self-respect. Respect nourished Alex, it was what she lived on. And right now she was hungry, ravenous.
She circled Kungsparken by walking along Kung Oscars Way towards the old cemetery. When she reached Slottsgatan she decided to cross the road and walk among the graves. The important-looking headstones stood there as reminders of rich and powerful people who had lived their lives in Malmö. They had been manufacturers or wholesalers. Some professors and fiscal officers. All men, with grand titles and neat headstones that bore witness to wealth and self-confidence. The women’s names and dates always came beneath the men’s, even if their deaths had come first. Their title was simply ‘wife’. Alex associated the word ‘wife’ with ownership and objects. She would never be someone’s wife, and she was glad. Or, well, she supposed there might be some sort of security in it. Someone always there to look at her with loving eyes, whether she achieved things or not. Respect that was always there as a foundation, with no need to earn it. But how many marriages were really like that?
On Stora Nygatan, near her favourite falafel stall, vehicles were tightly parked on both sides of the road. There was some tension among drivers trying to get a parking space. She saw four young men come walking towards her with falafel wraps in greaseproof paper tucked under their arms. They looked like they were having fun, laughing and sharing meaningful glances. Alex guessed they were around twenty years old. Grown-up children or childish grown-ups. Instead of getting on bikes or walking off with their food they went up to a swanky car. It was black and European. Alex noticed the white leather seats and shiny finish. She assumed it must be borrowed, probably from one of their parents. One of the young men pressed the key in his hand and the four of them quickly got into the car. Alex watched the driver take out a cigarette and light it in the car, without even opening the window a crack. With a jerk, the car swung out and drove away at high speed. A symbol painted on the parking spot was revealed. It showed a stick figure in a wheelchair.
What she had just witnessed filled her with questions. After all, she was the same age as those boys and didn’t have so much as a bicycle. Everything she owned fit inside two suitcases, which was everything she had brought with her on moving to Sweden. Buying fast food from a street stall wasn’t an option for her. But despite modest resources, she still gave what she could to people worse off than her, the truly impoverished. Just a spare coin here and there. She ran errands for pensioners and disabled people and prepared food for sick neighbours. Sometimes she looked after young children for single mothers who needed to work or get an abortion. She protested for the rights of the poor and disabled and had received kicks and blows from the police or military on many occasions. And here in Sweden everyone had it so good, and perfectly healthy-looking, strong youths took up disabled parking spots to get takeaway food. Going around in the type of car they should be dreaming of and striving for long before they got a chance to drive one. How did things get this way? What happens to people who have it too good? Or do they even have it good? Alex came to the conclusion that all societies have their problems. Things were significantly better for her in Sweden than they had been in Chile, but she wasn’t sure she was happier here.It was a sunny Monday, just gone midday. Olof was walking through Sankt Knuts Square after parking his car a fair distance from the office, as usual. He enjoyed the walk to work. He had left his trench coat in the car – it must be fifteen degrees, even though it was the first of October. He felt stylish in his dark suit and expensive sunglasses. He thought his curly blond hair gave off an impression of kindness, with a hint of mischief. Regular sessions in his home gym had won him an elegant silhouette. Behind his reflective lenses he could discreetly observe the admiring looks he got as he passed, from men and women alike.
He hadn’t had any lunch and he could feel his stomach purring as he neared the hot dog stand on the corner. He made a spontaneous decision to stop and order a chorizo in a bun. The man behind the counter in a white apron gave him a subtle nod of greeting and took the order with a plain-faced expression. Olof said yes to all the fixings. Mustard, ketchup, gherkin relish, mayonnaise and fried onions. The extra calories might not be ideal but he was in the mood for celebrating. He might even take a detour past a bakery and buy a Tea Ring cake for the coffee break. His colleagues loved a sugar kick in the afternoon after several tiring hours on the job.
The hot dog was delicious. It tasted fresh. Not fried, left over, frozen and re-fried. It was a good place, that Hot Dog Corner. When Olof got out his wallet to pay he heard the vendor say: “No need – it’s on the house.”
“Thank you,” Olof said shortly and turned to leave.
Now he was in an even better mood than before. Without hesitation he headed in the direction of Selma’s Bakery. He enjoyed the feeling of coming into work with a bunch of employment decisions in one hand and a bakery box in the other. Success was practically a given.
* * *
The office was busy. Crowds of unemployed people were hanging around client workstations or stood in rows along the walls. The room was warm and smelled a little stuffy and sweaty. People were sighing and groaning. Nobody spoke, they just stood or sat around looking despondent. There were a few people Olof recognised. He greeted them with a somewhat reserved nod and looked carefully over his sunglasses by lowering his chin to his chest.
Weary employment officers sat behind two counters, struggling with data entries in the cumbersome, overcomplicated computer system. They answered anxious questions about unemployment benefits and administrative routines and tried to keep the flag flying by saying a little bit about the job market and giving some job seeking tips. After a quick look at the long queue in the room, the employment officers’ focus quickly returned to their administrative routines. Once the formalities were out of the way, the jobseekers took all their papers and left with a sigh. Then it was time for the next person to step forward, and the process started all over again. The employment officer behind the counter tried to muster a vaguely welcoming smile.
The first of the month was always particularly intense at the Job Centre. Work placements tended to finish at the end of the month and people had to come in and register their first day without work to be eligible for benefits after the five expensive days of the qualifying period. If the first of the month fell on a Monday, there were even more people. Everybody finished their work placements on Fridays. October was also a month when outdoor work and seasonal employment came to an end.
* * *
Olof slipped quickly down the corridor to the post room. His colleague Per passed on the way to his office on the other corridor. Olof’s workmate smiled when he saw him with his briefcase and cake box. He thought work had been a lot more fun since Olof had started at the office in April. Things had really taken off and a bunch of old timers had found work in the private sector through Olof’s contacts. The office had been getting better results for three months in a row and it looked like Anders, the manager, was going to order a princess cake for Friday breaktime, a cake that was representative of targets met on all sides. They had Olof to thank for the cakes. There was a lot of curiosity about Olof’s company visit.
“Hello Olof. How did it go today?”
“I’ve had a successful morning, you might say. Do you know who Benny Ahlm is?”
“God, yes. You mean the guy who’s been in jail a couple of times and isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the box. How long has that old timer been unemployed? Must be seven, eight years, with the exception of a few brief periods when he was living in the woods, I think. What about him?”
“He’s got a job now.”
“A job? Him? I’ll be damned! Where? How did that happen?”
Olof laughed gently and answered after a few seconds of suspenseful silence.
“I’ve got him into the church. Sure, we threw in wage subsidies and had to exaggerate a little. But it was the right job for him.”
A hand was raised in the air for a high five and Olof’s response was lightning quick.
“Fucking hell. You have contacts in the church as well? You are something else.”
“I’m not exactly the most pious churchgoer in Sweden, but I know this one minister that’s a very nice lady…”
* * *
A few colleagues started gathering around Olof and Per in the corridor. The employment officers who worked with the Phase 3 clients were taking a well-earned break from a group activity they had started that morning. They had great respect for Olof’s work. He had found jobs for several of their jobseekers and was contributing to good results with the Phase 3 work in the office. They were second in the country for number of people out in work. The Phase 3 administrators were very kind to the participants, but going out and promoting their reserve workforce to employers was a difficult task. They felt a bit like vacuum cleaner salespeople. They had to be very quick about sticking their foot in the door as soon as they could, and keeping it there, even if the employer wanted to close the door again. With aching toes, they had to struggle to sell their ‘wares’, which didn’t exactly feature all the latest mod-cons. The level of education wasn’t high. A lot of them had trouble getting up in the morning. More than one had a criminal record. Some might display threatening behaviour. On occasion the administrators had to turn a blind eye when it came to writing their reports for unemployment benefit. They didn’t dare fulfil their monitoring duties for fear of retaliation.
After a bit of banter in the corridor it was Alexandra, who had been quiet up until now, who broke the mood.
“There have been so many people here today, it would have been great if you were at reception like you were scheduled to be. Now the rest of us have…”
Olof was prepared for the attack.
“Yes Alex, I agree. I should have been there plugging people into the computer system instead of finding work for the long-term unemployed. That really would have been the best use of my time.”
Not satisfied with this, he felt the need to tease.
“Alex, hedgehogs are very spiky creatures, but you know how many spikes they have?”
Alex wasn’t the jokey type, and just stared at Olof. His eyes wavered a little, but he continued.
“Over five thousand. Pretty spiky, huh?”
By Kerstin & Johan Höfler
Translated by Annie Prime
by Kerstin & Johan Höfler
English sample translation © Annie Prime 2020 firstname.lastname@example.org
Kerstin Höfler is an author and a chief physician in the field of child psychiatry. Kerstin has a PhD in medicine, and a bachelor’s degree in economics. She has been employed as an executive manager at one of Sweden’s largest authorities before retraining to be a doctor.
Johan Höfler is an author and criminal police officer. He has a master’s degree in social work. In the police force, he is specially trained to interrogate children. He has worked as an executive manager in the Swedish state authorities and in healthcare.
Annie Prime is an award-winning translator of Swedish and Finland-Swedish literary fiction and non-fiction. Since receiving her MA in translation from University College London in 2013, she has worked continuously as a full-time literary translator.