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from When Nobody is Looking
Karin Holmlund
Translated by Marlaine Delargy

This article appeared in the 2006 supplement.

Karin HolmlundFar from being obsessed with getting drunk and losing her virginity, Elin has much more important issues to deal with. A committed animal rights activist, she is prepared to take considerable risks in order to stand up for what she believes in. As a result her life is often uncomfortable to say the least; the friends she has had since childhood don’t always understand why she needs to behave as she does, and she finds it impossible to confide in her parents. Instead, she expresses her feelings through a series of “letters never to be read”. In this extract from the beginning of the novel, we see Elin at her feisty best.

 


1

FUR IS MURDER, I write on the shop window. I crouch down on the pavement, feeling the pulse in the tips of my fingers on the top of the aerosol. The last few letters were a bit thin. I give the can a good shake. The sound of the metal ball echoes around the shopping precinct. I press the nozzle down again. Red dust and gas.

A car skids and brakes. The headlights are reflected in the shop window.

“What the hell are you doing?”

A taxi. With the driver’s door open. I drop the aerosol can; it rolls away into the gutter.

“Answer me!”

He’s grabbed the collar of my jacket and he’s twisting it. My scarf slips down and my hair falls out of my hood. I pull at his arm, force one of his leather gloved fingers backwards. He draws back and I pull up my scarf and run.

“Stop! Stop, you little cow!”

The car door slams shut. He drives along between the Galleria and the wooden containers with Christmas trees in them. He knocks one of the containers over. The fairy lights flash and go out. He slams into reverse.

I end up in a sort of courtyard, press myself against a wall. Although it’s several degrees below freezing, my clothes feel hot and sticky. I throw away my gloves; they’re red from the spray paint. The sound of the car is getting nearer. Shit.

I throw myself to the ground and wriggle under the fence. A rough plank scrapes my back. Once I’m out on Brovägen I tear off my jacket and hood.

My hands are shaking as I tap in the key code for 19C. The lock clicks open. I race up the two flights of stone steps.

The flat is dark. Not a sound from the staircase. I flop down on the hall carpet. The ice on the inside of my scarf is melting against my chin.

“Shit, shit, shit,” I say, half out loud, and lean my head against the door.

How could I miss him? Never let your concentration slip. Always listen for movement.

 

My eyes are getting used to the darkness. On the hall table are Mum’s files and her class’s maths books. Mum. At this time of night she’s probably still sleeping over at Gran’s. With Dad.

I run my hand through my hair. I can hear the taxi driver’s deep voice as he rings the police. “About one metre seventy, slim build. Pale eyes, could be grey. And long, red hair – I’m sure about that.”

I push the bathroom door open. The light above the mirror hurts my eyes. My face is burning, my hair is sticking to the back of my neck with sweat. There is a faint smell of paint from Dad’s overalls, hanging next to the towels.

The hairdresser’s scissors are lying there next to the hand basin. I feel their weight in my hand. Four years’ careful saving.

I start to chop just below my chin and the blades rasp against my hair. Long, henna coloured clumps land in the basin.

I can see red marks on my neck where the taxi driver twisted my collar.


2

“Morning, poppet!”

Mum is standing in the doorway in her tracksuit, her nose red from the cold. Aija slides past, wagging her wolf grey tail, and jumps up on to my bed. Her claws go straight through the cover.

“It’s half past ten,” says Mum, and wipes the condensation from her glasses. “Haven’t you got school?”

“Half ten? Shit, I’ve overslept.”

I push Aija away; she’s snuffling behind my ear with her cold nose. Pamphlets and home made posters are spread out all over the dark red rag rug. And my jacket and scarf.

I sit up in bed and shake my head. What am I doing! Why didn’t I tidy up?

“Did you get in late last night?” Mum asks, pushing back the hood of my sweatshirt.

It’s warm and creased; I must have gone to sleep with my clothes on. She strokes my hair as usual. Her hand stops when she touches the back of my neck; I pull my head away.

“Whatever’s happened?”

“Alex did it yesterday. She’s going to be a hairdresser, after all.”

She follows the jagged ends of my hair with her eyes.

“Oh well, I suppose the choppy look is in these days,” she says.

She bends down to pick up my jacket off the floor and pushes her fingers through the holes where the material is ripped. The lid of the aerosol falls out of the pocket and rolls on to the floor. Aija watches it with interest. I gulp and start gathering up my books for school.

“Where’s this jacket come from?” she asks.

“It’s Ronny’s old one. How was Gran, anyway?”

The banner over my desk is falling down. Animal liberation – Human liberation. I try to put it back up but can’t get the drawing pin in properly.

“She was a bit upset because you didn’t come with us.”

Mum passes me my jeans. I look her in the eye and nudge the aerosol lid with my foot so that it rolls under the bed.


3

“Catch!” I call, and take the bunch of keys out of my pocket.

Alex is sitting with her back to the cupboard, beating a rhythm on her knees with invisible drumsticks. She pushes her headphones down around her neck and catches the keys with one hand.

“I slept at home instead,” I say. “A taxi followed me. I didn’t want to lead him to you.”

“What have you done to your hair?”

“The driver saw me without my hood and scarf.”

Her black eyebrows shoot up, and her forehead is covered in deep furrows. I shove the army jacket in the cupboard and slam the door shut.

“But you got away okay?” she says, as she opens the door to the computer room.

It’s empty. I nod and plonk myself down at a computer. Got away, yes. In Sociology we read that one in ten cases of criminal damage is cleared up. According to those statistics it has to be my turn soon.

But not on Sunday. No chance.

I open up a new file. PRESS RELEASE, I write. During the night of ... Alex reads over my shoulder. One of her black dreads brushes against my cheek.

“We’re starting in three minutes,” she says. “It’s a test on justice and the law.”

“Marianne already knows that I’m okay on all that. Oh – can I borrow the keys next Sunday?”

“If you tell Suvi what you’re up to.”

I turn round. In the dim light her brown eyes are almost black. She’s twisting one of her dreads round her fingers. Her thin silver bracelets are rattling.

“You know I can’t cope with secrets,” she says.

I carry on writing.

“Well, you’d better start,” I say.

PRESS RELEASE

During the night of December 2nd slogans were sprayed on the windows of the Fur Centre. This is one of a series of actions taken in order to force the closure of the shop.

1.3 million minks and 10,000 foxes are slaughtered every year for the fur trade in Sweden. Before they are killed with gas or an electric shock, they spend their lives in tiny cages. This happens with our approval, as long as we fail to protest. Sentient beings die despite the fact that no human being needs to kill in order to survive. We must take responsibility and question outdated animal protection laws which are not even observed.

We must defend the defenceless.

THE STRUGGLE GOES ON!

I put my gloves on so that I don’t leave fingerprints on the envelope. The printer churns out the sheets. One to Brand, one to Alarm. No point sending anything to the local papers, they’d never print it. They don’t even report what we do.

The printer falls silent and I read it through one last time. Why can’t you write a press release to your family and your friends?

I rest my head in my hands. Remember Suvi, when I explained why I’d stopped having milk and eggs. Alex was on my side, as usual. But if somebody makes fun of vegans, she doesn’t say anything.

What will she say when Suvi condemns what I’ve done at the Fur Centre?

The door behind me opens. I close the window and stand up.

Alex has left the bunch of keys next to the keyboard.

 

Letter which is never to be read:

Mum!

On the morning of December 3rd I lied about my hair and a black padded jacket. And these lies are just part of a whole series of lies.

I usually come to you when I don’t know what’s right. This time I can’t.

Is it worth trying to explain why I’m doing this? Or would you say the same thing that Dad says about my eating habits? That they’re just based on a subjective view that animals should be allowed to live for their own sake. But aren’t your views subjective as well?

“Don’t think about things so much,” you say. “If you do it’s too hard to live.”

If only it helped, just thinking about things.

Maybe you think it’s just teenage rebellion. But I’ve already done that, and you know it. All those rows about what time I got home, denim shorts that were so short half my bum was hanging out, and my hair coloured to death. Drinking cheap booze when I didn’t know any better.

Can you understand that I can’t just live for you and Dad? Even if you did give me my life.

What would happen if I told you?

I’m afraid I already know.

/Elin


4

“We can put them on the Christmas ham,” says David, holding out a sticky label.

WARNING, I read. This pack contains parts of the corpses of animals which have been tortured and murdered.

He has a whole bundle of them in his other hand.

“You know what the rest of the group would think,” I say.

“If we do it now, it’s got nothing to do with them.”

His back is stooped. The lump on his nose and the colour of his hair make him look like a crow. Long and skinny, with straggly feathers.

Sticky labels maybe, but he would never help me spray slogans.

“All right,” I say. “As long as we’re careful.”

In the supermarket we split up. I peel off a label and pretend to be looking at the price of a Christmas ham as I press it on. A girl in snobby clothes looks back at me as she goes past.

Better move to another fridge.

After a while David comes along, gazing straight ahead.

“Better pack it in soon,” he says as he walks by.

I put back the minced beef pie with the sticky label on the bottom, pull on my gloves and breathe out.

“What the hell are you two up to?”

A man comes towards us. He grabs the pie and rips off the label.

“You’ve no right to do this sort of thing! Bloody propaganda!”

He stares at me, his face so close that I can smell the stink of snuff. I move away from him, feeling the edge of the freezer behind me.

“We are merely giving information about the contents of the packs,” I say. “Everything it says on there is true.”

David tugs at my coat sleeve.

“I have the right to eat whatever I like!” says the man.

“And the right to decide whether another creature lives or dies?”

A security guard a little way off is looking in our direction. David lets go of me and disappears in the direction of the checkouts. The man grabs my arm. I twist out of his grip, half running towards the exit, and push past two old blokes in the queue.

Just as I’m about to disappear into Anja’s Fashions, I feel the security guard’s hand on my shoulder.

“Take it easy! I’ll come quietly.”

A fair-haired girl turns her head and quickly replaces a hanger.

The guard is bending my arm right back and pushing me along in front of him. People stop and stare, some are whispering to each other. Shit, they’re bound to think I’ve been nicking stuff. My face is burning.

When we get to the baby food section the guard lets go and turns one of the tins upside down.

“If you can’t get these labels off you’ll have to replace the whole lot. How many shelves have you vandalized?”

“It’s just information. Did you know that over seventy million animals are killed each year just to...”

The guard twists my arm. There’s a burning pain in my shoulder.

“Just this shelf...” I say.

He has a truncheon in his belt.

“... and one or two things over in the freezer.”

He lets go, folds his arms and stares at me. I pick and pick at one of the labels and scowl at his ugly beret. I ought to say that it’s only those who are too crap to get into the police who become security guards.

Just as I’m opening my mouth I see the fair-haired girl come in through the main entrance.

“Excuse me,” she says, touching the guard on the arm. “I’ve just seen a man shoving things into his rucksack. It looked very suspicious.”

She pushes her hair off her face without even glancing at me. The way she talks makes her seem at least ten years older than the way she’s dressed.

“About one metre eighty, green rucksack, black jacket. Over by the fruit and veg.”

The guard hurries off, his hand on his truncheon. The girl nods at me and we set off together. I feel at my shoulder.

“Thanks,” I mutter. “I didn’t know it was illegal.”

“Just think about what you’re wearing next time.”

She puts her hand in her pocket, pulls out a necklace and puts it on. Little silver letters, v-e-g-a-n. I look down at my green combat jacket covered in badges with political slogans. I ought to get a stupid jacket like hers.

We walk across the square without saying anything. I wonder what she thinks she’s going to get out of this?

“Some vegans hate those who give them a bad reputation,” I say, and sneak a sideways look at her.

“I know.”

It’s only when you get close that you can see she’s wearing make-up. Her eyes are ice blue in the daylight, almost like Aija’s. I glance away quickly and start rummaging in my rucksack.

“We have an animal rights group,” I say, and hand her a crumpled leaflet. “There’s a meeting on Thursday.”

At first she doesn’t speak, she just smooths out a crease in the paper. Then she folds it up, puts it in her pocket and flicks her hair back off her face.

“Got to catch a bus now,” she says.

“Six o’clock at the Coffee House. They’ve got vegetarian chocolate cake.”

“Maybe.”

She turns away and waves, then she carries on across the square, heading in a completely different direction from the bus station.


5

Suvi offers me the plate of cheese sandwiches and grins. I try to look amused as I hold my hand up to refuse, but she catches my expression.

“Look, I’m sorry, okay?” she says.

She puts the plate on top of the pile of maths books. Nowadays we can always find a reason to meet, like me helping her with coursework. Just as well we never get round to opening the books, otherwise she’d notice that I can’t really cope with Maths any more.

“Gran was here today,” she says, putting down one of the photo albums. “She was talking about vegans.”

“Is she afraid you’re going to turn into one?”

“No, but she’s frightened of being attacked if she’s wearing her fur coat. It helped when I told her you were a vegan, though – she’s always liked you.”

Suvi pushes her fringe to one side and takes a bite of her cheese sandwich. Sooty is playing with a loose thread in the crocheted bed cover; I scratch behind his ear. Granny Ritva, with her tatty fur coat. Always liked me, just like all the rest of the adults. ‘If only everyone were as sensible as you, Elin.’

I sneak a look at Suvi’s wristwatch; seven hours to go. When I close my eyes I can hear the taxi driver’s voice. “What the hell are you doing?” I scratch at the goose pimples on my arm. Only one slogan in a whole night. But tonight I’ll be more efficient.

Suvi opens the album again.

“Look at our hair, whatever did we look like!”

In the photo I’m sitting on her shoulders. We had cut each other’s hair and bleached it with some sort of gunge we found in their bathroom cupboard. Mine went a sort of patchy orange, hers was yellow like a chicken, and her scalp was sore for a week afterwards.

“Year 7, wasn’t it?”

She nods, rests one half of the album on my knee, and carries on flicking through the pages. Holm Island, the pony we looked after called Malaga, our week out in the wilds when we meant to live on whatever we could find in the forest, the festival at Arvika when I’d gone teetotal and started quarrelling with everybody who was drinking beer.

Me in Year 9, wearing a T-shirt I’d painted myself: “Crush Scan – Go Vegan!” Mum went mad when she found out I’d been wearing it round town.

“Does she really think vegans attack people?” I wondered.

“Gran? She heard on the radio that some people had been spraying graffiti on the Fur Centre. And she’s worried about Dad. They might start on the lorries taking the animals to the abattoir.”

She presses her lips together, and I follow her eyes as she looks through the window. Risto’s lorry is on the drive. Thick flakes of snow are falling on the cab.

The front page of one of the national papers a few months ago. Banner headlines about some burnt-out abattoir lorries in Luleå, and pictures of the black skeleton of a lorry. I read the article several times: “The activists smashed the glass of the driver’s cab. They are then believed to have thrown in so-called Molotov cocktails, which set fire to the front seats... The whole lot went up in flames in minutes... One person was arrested nearby and is now awaiting charges.”

Arrested and charged. Imagine sitting in a cell with bare walls, knowing that you have to keep your mouth shut during interrogation, however afraid you might be, whatever they threaten you with and whatever they say.

Suvi places her index finger between my eyebrows.

“What are all these worry lines about?” she says, tilting her head to one side.

“How should I know.”

I stretch and try to yawn in a laid back sort of way. Sooty yawns in response.

“Destroying stuff is just stupid,” says Suvi. “They ought to tell the people who sell fur that the animals have to suffer.”

“As long as they’re earning money I shouldn’t think they give a toss.”

“So you think they’re doing the right thing?”

Sooty jumps down from the bed, hooks the door open with a paw, and slides out. From the kitchen comes the rattle of crockery and Eeva’s voice.

“I don’t know.”

Suvi looks at me, I flick through a couple of pages in the album, check the time.

“Nearly eleven. I’d better go.”

“Aren’t you going to stay? You can have my sister’s mattress.”

I get up slowly; my legs already feel wobbly. If I go now I should be able to get some sleep, just an hour or so.

The corners of Suvi’s mouth turn down and she studies her nails. The turquoise nail varnish is badly chipped.

“But we can meet up at lunchtime tomorrow, can’t we?” I ask.

Suvi looks out through the window. The snowflakes are still whirling down around the lorry.

“Of course. If you’ve got time,” she says.

 

Letter which is never to be read:

Suvi

When you joined our class in Year Two you used to hang about with Madde and her scabby mates. I used to sit on the swings most of the time to avoid being teased. One break time you came and sat on the swing next to me, although there were plenty of others to choose from. You were looking at me the whole time. Your hair was swinging back and forth, it was nearly white after the summer. Then you jumped off while the swing was still moving, and ran away.

If somebody said your name wrong you used to get cross, so at lunchtime I didn’t dare call out to you. Finally I decided you were called Sofi, and you laughed. We spent the whole of the lunch hour playing on the biggest tyre swing, and I made up lots more names for you.

After that we were the two who stayed shut in the cleaner’s cupboard at break times.

When we finished Year 6 we put two fingers up to Madde and the rest of them. We’d been looking forward to it for several years.

Would you be brave enough to do the same thing now?


6

The alarm is set for 05.15, two hours later than last time. They’ll probably be expecting me to strike at night again. If they’re looking for a pattern, they won’t find one.

I lift up the Che Guevara poster above the tatty leather sofas. On the back is a note from Alex.

Hola, comrade!

The Kurdish group has a meeting here at twelve tomorrow, so make sure you’re gone in plenty of time. Make sure you tidy up properly. If anyone turns up while you’re asleep, say the door was unlocked and try to look like somebody who sleeps on the street or something. You don’t know me. Good luck and BE CAREFUL!

Love X.

I smile and flush the note down the toilet. Alex will still be up studying, I’m sure. Peering at physics formulae. And Suvi will be lying in bed with Sooty under her chin. I could have curled up on a mattress on the floor, we would have nattered all night.

But what have we got to talk about?

An old copy of Red Press is spread out on the cloth covered in potato print stars. I prise open the lid of the paint tin with a screwdriver, stir in the layer of oil on the top and half fill the glass jars. The fumes make my nose prickle when I unscrew the lid of the can. I pour in the solvent, red streaks run down the jar. Without touching the jars I wipe off my fingerprints with newspaper. My eyes are stinging.

When I’ve tidied everything away I slip off my boots and crawl into my sleeping bag. My hands have cracked with the solvent. Next time I must get some proper gloves.

If there is a next time.

The sound of a truck in the distance on the E4 dies away slowly. The faint ticking of the alarm clock. Otherwise everything is silent.

If only I could hear someone else breathing. If someone could just hold my hand and tell me it’ll be all right.

I draw my knees up towards my stomach.

Squares of light move over the empty sofa beside me.


7

The last echo of the alarm dies away. Part of a dream lingers in my head: Suvi is sinking deeper and deeper into a bog, and I can’t reach her.

Something is tapping on the window. The silhouettes of the rowan trees are barely visible against the night sky. When my eyes have got used to the darkness, I can see the paint bombs on the table.

I can’t do it! I’ll just have to dump them, maybe somewhere in the forest. I wind the sleeping bag more tightly around me and shut my eyes.

I see the minks flinging themselves back and forth in steel cages. A farmer lifts one of them up by the scruff of the neck. She tries to wriggle away from the electric rod which is being forced into her mouth. The power is switched on, and her body jerks.

I clench my fist.

There is no excuse.

The luminous hands show 5.30. I shake off the images in my head, crawl out of my sleeping bag and lower my feet to the ice cold floor. The whole town will be empty. Not one single blue light.

I take a rice cake from the pile on the table and munch it. If I don’t eat now I’ll be starving when they take me to the police station, if anything goes wrong.

A single square of light moves across the wall.

I’ll be back in quarter of an hour. Quarter of an hour – what is there to worry about?

I nudge the door shut with my hip, lock it, and go up the cellar steps.

The back wheel of my bike slips to one side in the slush. A patrol car is parked at the bus station; wet snowflakes are sticking to the windscreen. Empty. They must be taking a look around. There won’t be any headlights to warn me.

The snow has turned to rain, cool against my face. I think about the foxes, listening to the raindrops pattering against the corrugated roof above their heads. What do they do when it rains, and everything smells so fresh? Do they push their noses out through the bars to sniff the air?

The Fur Centre. The yellow neon letters light up the mist. Not a sound from a car, no headlights. Not a movement anywhere.

I’m breathing hard; I open my bag, grab hold of a slippery jar, and throw it. It smashes against the wooden door; paint and shards of glass fly out across the street. I throw the other two. The red paint runs down the shop windows and drips on to the paving stones.

Blood, I think, and pedal hard so that the slush churns up around my wheels. Blood has flowed through veins beneath every single fur coat.