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from The Woman I Never Was
Majgull Axelsson
Translated and introduced by Linda Schenck

This article appeared in the 2005:2 issue.

On a business trip to a fictitious Eastern European country (Grigia) Sverker picks up a young prostitute, and the next morning he is found lying on the street with a broken neck, having presumably been pushed/fallen out the window of a derelict building. The novel opens seven years after that “accident”, and everything from the past is recounted as flashbacks.

Sverker is wheelchair bound (or is he dead?), and the reader follows his wife on two alternate courses of life, Mary and Marie separately and alternately. Marie has served a six-year prison sentence for pulling the plug on Sverker’s respirator while he was still in a coma in the hospital in Grigia.

Mary is a government minister and has recently returned from a conference on trafficking in Grigia. She was supposed to make a speech at the conference, but was suddenly overcome by being there again, by the memories of her urgent trip there seven years earlier, and is affected by “transient aphasia”, as she had been when she arrived in Grigia the first time, after the news of Sverker’s “accident”.

The first part of this extract describes an appointment between Sverker and the hospital psychologist in Stockholm during his rehabilitation. Then, in “The Last Day...”, the reader follows both Marie and Mary as events move towards their dénouement. Marie has driven from Stockholm to the house in which she grew up and in which she now plans to live (her parents are dead), and Mary has left Sverker and appears to be heading there as well. There are still fifty pages of the book for the reader to enjoy after this extract.


Possible darkness

Forgetting is a gift.

He could just take a deep breath and the memory vanished. Was gone. Had never existed. All that was left was a vague sense of warmth, as if he were wrapped in a blanket or had an extra epidermal layer. It was very pleasant. It made him a better human being. Happier. Friendlier. Literally warmer.

But when he awoke from his long coma he was chilled to the bone. That was the worst part, worse than anything else. It would take him weeks to comprehend that he was no more than a living head on a dead body, but he felt the icy coldness right away. He was freezing and he was unable to forget. The moment he shut his eyes, that girl was staring at him, forcing him to recall every inch of her body. Her rough hands. Her wide open gray eyes. Her half-open mouth and her thin lips. Her sharp little breasts, one nipple slightly deformed. Her back, where every vertebra and every rib was visible.

Her back was the first thing to affect him. Move him, as Emma, the rehabilitation psychologist would say. During their first sessions he got so fed up with her repeating that word over and over, so furious he had ordered one of his aides to take down the thesaurus and write him a list of alternatives. Make an impression on, afflict, influence, upset. It didn’t help. Emma had just cocked her head and given him a look.

“So what is it about that word that gets to you?”

He had refused to reply, just shut his eyes and contemplated the girl. Nothing had happened yet, she was sitting with her back to him with the other girls at the bar. Smoking. Drinking something that could be gin or vodka but was probably just tap water with a slice of lemon. Her clothes were completely ridiculous. Mail order elegance. Green trousers of some kind of rough synthetic fabric, slit almost to the knees. Black boots with worn heels. A burgundy blouse with embroidered roses, unbuttoned all the way down to her non-existent cleavage. The seam under her arm had split, he glimpsed a white underarm when she moved. A whore. A cheap Eastern European whore. Not for Sverker Sundin who had a line out for a certain twenty-five-year old brunette with a C cup and a college degree. She'd be arriving at his hotel tomorrow, in fact.

But still. That back. That meager back.

Anders and Niclas, his colleagues, had laughed. “Oh my God, Sverker, not again! It’s practically cradle robbing. Can’t you ever resist?” But no, he couldn’t resist. Was unable to. His hand tapped the table. He turned the cigarette package over and over again. His throat was dry, he couldn’t talk, just shook his head when Anders and Niclas got up to go. No, he wasn’t going back to the hotel with them. Not yet. He needed to make it happen so that afterwards it wouldn’t have happened.

He sat still for a few minutes after they left, then got up and slowly pushed his chair in under the table. Over at the bar, heads turned, a peroxide blonde with enormous tits was already smiling at him. For an instant he could see himself through her eyes, a burly man with thick hair and dark eyebrows. Black pants. Black shirt. Gray cashmere sports jacket. Recently-polished shoes.

Now the girl turned around, but not smiling like the others, just staring at him for a moment, then taking a swallow from her glass...

That was when he had opened his eyes. Emma was still sitting there with her head cocked. Waiting. Her hair had been streaked since his last appointment, but she was still wearing the same top. Ivory, loose-knit. Didn’t she own more than one top? Sure, he knew hospital staff psychologists weren’t exactly raking it in, but she still ought to be able to afford a change of clothes. Maybe she was just cheap. Maybe she despised him so thoroughly that she consciously made herself unattractive.

He was groping for words. Innocuous ones.

“MaryMarie can talk again.”

“I know that. You told me weeks ago.”

He frowned. Was his ability to forget returning?

“I did?”

There was a minute of silence. He let his eyes wander. Her old desk. Her half-full bookshelf. Her ring binders.

“You have an ugly office.”

“I know you think so.”

“But she never talks to me.”

“MaryMarie?”

“Mmmm.”

“How do you know she can speak?”

“She talks to my aides. But not very much.”

“Do you talk to her?”

He heard himself sigh.

“This is pointless.”

“Is it?”

“Completely. If I could walk I’d walk out.”

“But you can’t.”

Emma crossed her legs. The same old jeans she always wore. The same round-tipped shoes. He shut his eyes, was back at the bar, putting his hand on that thin back and opening his mouth to speak, then blinking and looking around the psychologist’s office. The afternoon sun had shifted in colour. It was redder. Autumn was on its way.

“What’s the date?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Quit the therapy routine. What’s the date?”

“September first.”

“One year ago I could walk.”

“True.”

“I could have seduced you. If I had wanted.”

“Could you?”

“Uh huh. Though I don’t know that I would have found it worth the trouble. You’re as ugly as your office.”

Two red spots bloomed on her neck, but she didn’t give anything away, her facial expression was unchanged as she looked at her watch. Sverker smiled.

“Time’s not up yet.”

Emma clasped her hands over her left knee.

“I see. Two minutes left.”

“Yes,” Sverker said. “Two minutes.”

“You are in pain,” said Emma. “One day you’ll have to admit it.”

He shut his eyes, the girl at the bar turned around. She looked frightened.

“Champagne?” he asked.

“Thank you,” she answered.

He smiled at her accent. Thenkjew. So she was Russian. All the better. He’d never done it with a Russian.


The last day...

At last it is daybreak.

I am sitting at the window of my room, looking out over the lake. The mist rises and slowly unveils one little mounded islet after another. The fir trees stand black in the pale light, but soon they will be in colour. Soon, too, the shore on the other side of the lake will be visible, although for now it is shrouded in morning haze and cannot even be divined. That’s a good thing. It means that my side of the lake can’t be seen from the other shore, either.

My body is heavy and tired. I’ve slept badly, waking up and falling back into fitful sleep only to wake up again. When Mary vanished I was suddenly afraid to close my eyes, afraid of the dark and of my own fear, afraid of the images that fluttered past every time I started to drop off. Anastasia lying dead in a pool of her own blood outside her cell. Sverker’s face when he…

I wish I was back in prison.

That thought is so absurd that I have to frown at myself. It’s completely unreasonable, of course I don’t wish I was back in prison. I glance at my watch. The girls on the ward are still asleep, the cell doors still locked. Inside their cells Git and Lena, Rosie and Rosita are still in bed, waiting for the clanging of keys outside in the corridor. In an hour’s time they’ll be sitting at the breakfast table, mumbling in sleepy conversation, while the guards follow their every word and movement from behind a pane of glass. But they won’t be talking about me. I’ve been released and am gone, soon to be forgotten altogether. Maybe I’m already a character in their stories: Remember what’s-her-name, you know, the journalist who murdered her husband...?

Perhaps I ought to go back to bed. If I couldn’t sleep here in the dark, I ought to be able to sleep now that it’s light out. On the other hand, I’m hungry, too. Maybe I should go down to the kitchen instead and make breakfast. And write a to-do list of all the things that have to be organized today. Call the parole offices in Stockholm and here. Drive to Nässjö and do some grocery shopping. Take old furniture down to the basement to make room for my own things when they arrive.

But I do none of these things. I just sit there by the window and watch the day break. Maybe I don’t exist. There’s no point in doing all kinds of things if you don’t exist.

 

Mary has begun packing. She’s put a suitcase on the bed and gone to the closet, she’s standing in front of the open doors, arms dangling, trying to remember why she’d walked over there.

Right, clothes. She has to decide what clothing to take. Her hand runs aimlessly along the skirts and jackets. Work garb. She’s not going to need that any more. She pulls out a pair of black trousers and examines it. Okay. Black trousers are always good. And a top.

The suitcase isn’t even half full when she’s put in several changes of underwear, an extra pair of shoes and her toiletries bag. When she clasps it shut and lifts it, she hears how the contents settle to the bottom. So what?

She stops outside the doorway and turns back, looking at her room. It’s extremely orderly. The bedspread is flat and unwrinkled, the closet doors are closed. An open book on the nightstand is the only evidence of anyone ever having slept here. Outside it’s gotten dark and the little window lamp is lit. She hesitates for a moment, then decides to leave it on.

 

Andreas is reading at the kitchen table. He is hunched myopically over his book, and doesn’t look up until Mary is standing right next to him. He smiles apologetically.

“Exam on Tuesday.”

Mary nods.

“Have you checked on Sverker?”

“Yes. He’s sleeping. I didn’t want to wake him.”

Mary moistens her lips.

“You won’t leave him until the next aide arrives?”

He shakes his head.

“No, I won’t. I promised you before. And this isn’t the first time you’ve ever gone away.”

“This time is different.”

“I know,” says Andreas. “I figured that out.”

Now it is full daylight. The sun is bright over Lake Hästerum. A fly buzzes on the window pane, I observe it for a few minutes before lifting a book off the table and bashing it. It falls to the sill but doesn’t die, just lies there on its back flapping its legs. A second one appears out of nowhere, hovers over it buzzing intently, as if aware that fly number one is dying. I slam the book down again, trying to kill the two proverbial birds with one stone, but I fail. When I raise the book up, fly number one is still wriggling and number two is gone, I can’t even hear any buzzing.

“So it goes,” I tell myself aloud, getting up. Enough of all this pondering and fantasizing. Now I’ll take a long shower and put on clean clothes. Then I’m going to have breakfast and get down to my new life.

In the bathroom, I step gingerly into the tub and reach for the faucet. Everything in this room is original, and the years are beginning to show. Several tiles are cracked and the bathtub enamel has black spots. Another item for my list: redo the bathroom. Maybe I should do the kitchen, too. Throw out those blue cupboards and put something new in their place. Pull up the old linoleum. Why not get all the floors sanded while I’m at it. And repaper the living room walls. That old fiber weave absorbs all the light. And what’s more that kind of wallpaper doesn’t belong here, and it never has...

I direct the shower down on my head to calm myself down. I’m not exactly made of money, after all. I can allow myself paint, buckets and buckets of paint, but it wouldn’t be very wise to start buying a bunch of new fittings and bringing carpenters into the house. Besides which I’ve already seen through myself, I know the only reason I’m daydreaming about home alterations is so that I won’t have to think about how I’m going to be able to live here. What will fill my days? How will I cope with the loneliness?

I need to be alone. I want to be alone. And at the same time I’m afraid of what loneliness will do to me. Will I forget how to talk? Will I stop washing and brushing my teeth? Will I find myself at the kitchen table one day stuffing my face with chocolate and jujubes, cookies and pastries until I throw up into the sink?

The solution, of course, would be a job. But can I get a job?

I could work freelance. Theoretically. The problem is that I’d have to give my name to the editors and their secretaries who would be buying my articles, and they would recognize it, if not instantly then after a while. Not that this would necessarily make them less inclined to buy my texts, on the contrary they would be only too delighted. And soon they would have ideas. Would I consider writing about criminal policy? Or my prison memoirs? Or about trafficking and prostitution? Or even a big spread on my very own case?

No way. That would be prostitution if anything was. So I have to think of something else. The problem is that writing is the only thing I’m any good at. I don’t know how to do anything else, haven’t even got the training to be able to man a grocery store checkout or work as a nurses’ aide at a convalescent home.

I turn the water off and find I am standing, arms wrapped around myself, knee-deep in the tub. I’m shivering. And I’ve forgotten to get myself a towel so I have to shake myself off like a dog and tiptoe across the hall to the linen closet in what was once Sverker’s and my bedroom.

This room has no morning sun and no view of the lake. Wrapping myself in an old bath towel, thin and familiar and with which I must have dried myself a million times as a child, I look around. Suddenly I know what I’ve got to do first. First of all, before I make up my mind about any aspect of the future, I’m going to gut this room. It’s a mausoleum, a shadowy vault with white bedspreads and just as white curtains. It’s repugnant. I don’t want to see it, don’t want to remember the people whose room it was. I’d rather have it empty and unfurnished than a monument to the past.

The towel drops to the floor as I walk over to the window and open it. The morning chill makes my flesh go bumpy, but I don’t mind. I have things to do, things that have to be done right away. The curtain rod comes away when I tear the curtains down. There are going to be ugly holes in the wall, but they can easily be spackled over, now all I want is to get rid of all this shit. I don’t stay at the window long enough to see the curtains flutter to the ground, just turn and walk over to the bed, pull off the spread and the old red comforters, drag down the lace-edged sheets, cart the whole bundle to the window and toss it out.

There we go. Tonight I’m going to have a little bonfire. But not now. Now I have other things to do. I’m hungry and can finally have something to eat.

I end up sitting at the kitchen table for a long time, can’t rush, don’t even pick up the pen to write on the blank sheet of paper beside my coffee cup. The parole administrators won’t be at work this early, the stores in Nässjö won’t have opened, and the living room furniture can stay where it is for a while longer. I am calm. For the moment, perfectly calm.

Mary isn’t as calm where she stands, outside Sverker’s room. She has raised one hand to knock, but lowers it and takes a deep breath before she actually raps on the door. No answer. So she knocks again. Standing with her head cocked, she waits a moment before grasping the handle.

He’s asleep.

His wheelchair is at the window. He must have been sitting looking out at the yard and the twilight when he dropped off. His head is tilted against the headrest, his hands on the armrests as always, as if he were about to grab them and stand up.

Sissela was right. He is shrinking. He’s lost weight over the last year and his muscles are atrophying. His thick hair has gone gray and needs cutting, it’s already hanging an inch or so down over his white shirt collar at the back. His face is deeply furrowed, but his eyebrows are as dark as ever and his long eyelashes could be those of a child.

The one I loved. The one we both loved, once.

Mary cups her hand over his cheek, but she only brushes it lightly, without waking him. He just inhales audibly and sinks even more deeply into sleep. His eyes are moving behind his eyelids. He’s dreaming and Mary intends to let him go on doing so. Very cautiously, she lifts the desk chair over to the window, sits down next to the wheelchair and sets her hands in her lap. At rest and watching Sverker rest.

It’s very dark outside the window.

No. It’s very light outside the window. A glorious day with a blue sky and an autumn sun that makes the whole world shimmer. I want to get out. Have to get out.

Still, I’m exacting about clearing the table and putting my cup and saucer in the sink. The day I stop bothering about the dirt and the dishes I’ll be a goner. Then I suddenly find myself out on the front steps, standing perfectly still and noticing how the blue the brown, ferrous water of the lake looks now. Looking at the sunshine. Seeing that the maple is turning. That the leaves on the lilac bush are losing their green, going pale. That the fir trees down at the lake shore are reflected in the water.

The air is so oxygen-saturated I feel dizzy.

A thought takes me by surprise. This is the world. The world is not just a place where we torment each other. This, too, is the world.

Mary does not return until I am in the car driving slowly down the narrow gravel road through the woods. I haven’t talked with the parole officer, there was no answer in Jönköping when I called. Not until the phone has rung at least ten times does it strike me that it’s Saturday. All the offices will be closed. And so I’m heading for Nässjö with a long list of errands. Groceries for several days. Salt, sugar, soap and detergent, houseplants and some of the other thousands of things that make a house a home.

Mary is still sitting next to Sverker, contemplating him. She is in no hurry, is going to leave soon but doesn’t have to be anywhere at any specific time and knows that no one is waiting for her at the other end. Just now she doesn’t even want to go, though she knows that she must. Yet she wishes these moments could last forever, that she could just sit quietly and calmly next to a sleeping Sverker until the instant the universe collapses, have him right by her and at the same time far away. But that doesn’t happen, his facial muscles give a little twitch and he opens his eyes. Looks at her.

“What are you doing?” he asks.

“Nothing,” says Mary, but changes her mind right away. “Waiting.”

He lowers his eyes.

“What for?”

“For you to wake up.”

He gives his head a jerk to set the wheelchair in motion. It rolls back a few inches.

“Why is that?”

“I’m going away. I just wanted to say good-bye.”

He is suddenly on his guard, his eyes narrow.

“And why is that, then?” You’re always going away but you’re not usually so ceremonious about it.”

Mary straightens up. Her whole body prepares itself.

“But this time I don’t know when I’ll be coming back. Or if I’ll be coming back.”

His head jerks again and he rolls another few inches back. He can’t get farther away than this, the rear wheels of his chair have already hit the wall.

“Aha. You’re dumping me.”

At first Mary doesn’t answer, just looks down at her hands. They’re clasped; she’s holding her own hand.

“I’ve stepped down.”

“And it’s my fault, of course.”

“It’s not your fault.”

He snorts.

“Of course it is. It’s me who’s the scandal.”

His voice is suddenly high and whiny. Mary turns her gaze up and looks at him, scrutinizing his drawn upper lip and his exposed teeth. She has to control herself so as not to reveal the contempt that suddenly shoots through her whole being. He seems not to have seen it, just glances at her and then focuses on the window.

“I’ve known it all along.”

“What?”

“That you would leave me. Sooner or later.”

“In that case you’ve known more than I have.”

“Bullshit. Are you moving in with Torsten?”

Mary sighs. This wasn’t the conversation she had in mind. They were supposed to sit and talk softly, gently, in low voices. He was supposed to realize and admit that there was no way back, he might even let her rest her cheek on his when the time came to part. Instead he’s sitting here picking a fight. Suddenly she has an urge to hurt him.

“No. I’m not moving in with Torsten. But who could criticize me if I did? You?”

I stop right in the middle of the road through the woods, take my foot off the gas and lay my head on the steering wheel. I don’t want to see Sverker. I don’t want Mary to sit so close to him that I have to look at this face. He’s dead. I killed him.

He’s smoke from a chimney, ashes in an urn, buried in a grave in the churchyard at Råcksta. He can’t be sitting in a wheelchair in Bromma looking at the woman I would have been if everything had been different. And Mary can’t be sitting by him, suddenly ashen and fearful of what they might say to each other.

Now his voice sounds like it did in the old days. Or almost:

“You want me to die.”

She shakes her head.

“That’s not true.”

“It is true. I saw you. I know you stood there by my bed and were going to pull the plug on my respirator. That’s the only truth there is between the two of us.”

He is accusing her. Again. Him. That liar. That john. The notoriously unfaithful husband. She can feel herself growing hard from inside, and as she hardens she sees the power she actually has over him. And Sverker sees it too. He pales, she can literally see the colour drain from his face. “He’s scared,” she thinks. “Sverker Sundin is actually afraid of me. And he has good reason to be. I could murder him with just a very few words, cut his throat with a retort...”

But she doesn’t do it. She isn’t going to do it.

“You’re oversimplifying,” she says instead.

Sverker doesn’t answer. The desire to injure him is a scratch in her throat. Mary gives a little cough, but it doesn’t help.

“You are accusing me of something you imagine I was planning. But you can’t read my mind. And I didn’t kill you, I didn’t even leave you.”

“But you’re going to leave me now.”

“Yes, I’m going to leave you now.”

“Why now, exactly?” Sverker asks. “Is it because of the press?”

Mary sits silently a moment. Thinking honestly about his question.

“No,” she says shortly. “It’s because I’ve realized I cannot forgive.”

Sverker gasps.

“Haven’t I been punished enough?”

In her chair Mary experiences a jolt of impatience, but she controls herself. One cannot blame a person because he doesn’t understand. Not even Sverker.

“So, you’ve had your punishment, have you?”

His voice goes shrill and accusatory again.

“Of course I have.”

“And since you’ve been punished, I ought to forgive you? That makes us even?”

His only answer is to screw his face up into a grimace. Mary can’t hold it back:

“So you’re saying that the reason you broke your neck was not because somebody pushed you out a window. It’s a punishment. But who is punishing you? God? As far as I know you’ve never believed in God.”

“No, but...”

“A Grigian pimp?” Why would he punish you? Were you trying to get away without paying?”

Sverker grunts.

“I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

“Because surely it wasn’t the girl who did it? Was it?”

She hears her own voice, sharp and tough as if this were a debate. She restrains it. She’s always had a tendency to go too far in debates. To destroy things. She doesn’t want to destroy Sverker. Or even if she does, she has no intention of letting herself do it.

Now his voice is thick.

“I don’t know how it happened. I can’t remember.”

“But you do remember going with her, don’t you?”

He hesitates for an instant, then nods. Mary exhales.

“That’s all I need to know.”

After that there is silence between them. The rain whispers on the window pane.

“I’ve tried to understand,” says Mary after some time. “But I don’t.”

She doesn’t look at him. Sverker’s voice is tired. Overcome.

“There is nothing to understand.”

“What were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t thinking.”

Mary nods. He wasn’t thinking. That must be true. It’s the only reasonable explanation. She stands up.

“Don’t go,” says Sverker.

I hold my breath. She’s not going to stay, is she? She hesitates for a moment, then bends down over him, putting her hand on his.

“I have to go,” she says.

Sverker blinks.

“Why did you let me live?”

There are many answers to that question, answers that flutter rapidly through her mind. Because she was cowardly. Because she was afraid of the shame and the punishment. Because every cell in her body knew she had as little right to kill him as he had to purchase another human being. Because she loved him and knew she would always love him. But she did not say any of these things, she could not say any of them. Instead she shrugged.

“I don’t know.”

She straightens up. They look each other in the eye for one second before Sverker leans his head against the headrest and looks away.

Mary hears the heels of her shoes rap against the floor as she walks out of the room.

I start the car and let it roll slowly along the narrow forest road, biting my lip hard in an attempt to bring myself back to my own reality. I’m failing. I cannot help but follow Mary as she stands there in the hall buttoning her jacket, I need to see her glance in the mirror before she opens the door, I have to see if she shuts it behind her and really does walk down the front steps.

She does.

She locates the key ring in her pocket and grips it tight on her way to the garage. Her fingertips explore and sort, so she’s got the right key in her hand by the time she reaches the garage door. She opens it and turns on the light. There are two cars inside, one specially-equipped disability van and one red VW Passat. Her car. Her own car, which she hasn’t used for months. Yet it starts right up when she turns the key in the ignition, and a man’s voice comes out of the radio, in the middle of a sentence. Mary puts the car into reverse and drives very carefully out of the garage.

And I have finally made it to the main asphalted road. I shift into third gear and floor it.