Twelve-year-old Mik lives with his older brother Tony and their alcoholic father in a flat in Solna, a Stockholm suburb. Trouble at school and at home attracts the attention of the social services, in the form of two well-meaning but rigid and unimaginative social workers, a man with a gold tooth and a woman with parrot ear-rings (Mik calls them “Goldtooth” and “the Parrot”). They send him to stay with his aunt in Norrland, an environment that is utterly alien to the boy from the Big City. Then, just as he is settling in, they fetch him back to Stockholm, then decide to send him to a foster family outside the city. After numerous close shaves, misunderstandings and humiliations he escapes back to his aunt, but is again forced to go on the run from the authorities when it is decided that he can’t stay with her – this time in the company of the new friends he has made up north. As the net closes in on him, he is forced out onto increasingly thin ice, both metaphorically and literally.
This remarkable page-turner of a novel tells the story of one resourceful and extremely likeable boy’s journey through a world shaped by the arbitrary decisions of the authorities and the seemingly random actions of an assortment of adults, and his battle to hold on to his identity and sanity in the face of almost intolerable obstacles. Mikael Engström has once again managed to create an utterly credible world populated by memorable characters – the two ageing brothers who have not spoken to each other for years, the man who lets his dog chase cars, the gun-mad son of the foster family, even the mysterious woman in the tobacconist’s – and weaves together Mik’s story with a beguiling blend of comedy, tragedy, brutalism and surrealism.
If ever a novel could convince you that the social services of the western world need reforming, this is it!
The extract below is taken from the start of the book, followed by the section in which Mik first arrives in Norrland.
Part 1: The Snake
Mik was brushing his teeth and looking at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. It had a diagonal crack right across it, and one half had slipped a bit. Only by a millimetre or so, but enough to mean that his face was split into two disjointed halves. His face didn’t match. His ears looked big. But that wasn’t the mirror’s fault. His ears were big. But they were the only things that were big. He was the shortest person in his class. Maybe even the shortest fifth-year pupil in the whole school.
“Are your ears all that’s growing?” the school nurse had asked, loud enough for everyone else to hear.
The whole class had been standing in line to be weighed and measured, and a doctor with cold hands had felt the boys’ balls under their pants.
“Are your ears the only things growing?”
Before then, no-one had ever paid any attention to his ears. After that, he was called Bat-Ears. Andreas came up with the name and started using it. And how much fun is Bat-Ears, on a scale from one to ten?
Ploppy only had one ball. That gave him a certain notoriety. And Stefan, who always went blue in PE, had a problem with his heart. A hole between the chambers so the blood ran to and fro inside his heart. Now he never had to do PE ever again. And Sara had got really big breasts really fast.
“Are your breasts the only things growing?” the school nurse didn’t ask.
People only said that about ears.
Ploppy’s knob had also got bigger. Ridiculously big. But no-one mentioned that either. And Andreas had got hair.
Everyone else in the class was perfectly healthy.
Mik picked up his mobile. The screen was cracked and the battery had died ages ago. But that didn’t matter. He didn’t have a connection anyway. He didn’t have a SIM-card. But who was to know if he was talking for real or just pretending? Mik kept his number secret and never lent his phone to anyone. He could ring Dracula, he could ring Tengil. He could ring God. He could ring anyone he liked. Perhaps he could ring and say he wasn’t well? School wasn’t his thing. The homework was no problem, because he didn't do it. The problem was all those hours shut in. Their classroom was on the ground floor, and had bars on the window after the school computers had been stolen for the third time. It was a prison. Mik spent most lessons drawing. Whether it was maths, geography or English, he drew. So of course his teacher was worried.
In the breaks you could play hockey or go up onto the hill above the old railway tunnel. You weren’t supposed to, because a group of homeless winos lived up there in tents and under tarpaulins. Nowadays the trains went through the new tunnel on the other side of the industrial estate. The old tunnel opening was blocked off with a metal door and the rails had been removed, and the area just outside had become a no-man’s-land that didn’t seem to belong to anyone. The parents and the school had tried to get the camp cleared. The police had been several times and dismantled it. But before long the winos had rebuilt it. There was one fat old woman as well. She had no bottom teeth and would sit and pee in full view of everyone.
It was break-time, and the boys were on the hill above the railway tunnel, looking down on the winos’ camp. None of the drunks were visible. It looked like a rubbish tip. Filthy clothes drying on the rusty railings. Cans and saucepans among the tree branches. Boxes and newspapers. Half-rotten tents and bleached-out green tarpaulins, and a few old bicycles.
“Hello!” Mik shouted.
“Piss-heads!” Andreas shouted.
Ploppy and Stefan were looking for ammunition, and had collected an impressive pile of sharp stones left over from when the tunnel was blasted. Nothing happened. A tarpaulin fluttered in the breeze. Bits of polystyrene blew about. An empty beer-can rolled towards a car battery.
“They’re probably asleep,” Ploppy said.
“What? In the middle of the day?” Stefan said.
“They can’t stand the sun,” Mik said. “They aren’t of this world.”
He picked up a stone and yelled:
And he threw the stone and hit one of the tents. Nothing happened. They all joined in. Andreas chucked a really big stone, like he was a shot-putter. Stefan worked so hard he turned blue. Stones rained down.
The tent collapsed.
“Stop, for God’s sake!”
The stones whistled through the air and the people down there crawled out their homes, filthy, hairy and dishevelled. As far as Mik was concerned, they were evil creatures, not people. Zombies from his nightmares, crawling, rotting. Now they were crawling out into the sunlight. They had their arms over their heads, trying to get away. Tent after tent collapsed, and one tarpaulin was torn to shreds.
Stones from the heavens.
“I hate fucking drunks!” Mik shouted, and carried on throwing.
“Little bastards! Stop it!” they shouted back, trying to find cover.
The old hag flopped out from under a tarpaulin. She squatted and had a pee without a care for the stones that were thudding all around her.
“Filthy, flea-bitten piss-heads!” Mik yelled. “Diieeeeeee!”
He threw and he threw and he threw. Really got into it. Went mad. He picked up a big, sharp stone. Ploppy grabbed his arm.
“That’s enough. Let’s go. This is stupid. Andreas and Stefan have already pissed off.”
Mik tried to throw the stone, but Ploppy stopped him.
“That’s enough. I’m going.”
“Diiiieeeeeeee!” Mik yelled. “Drink yourselves to fucking death! Drink some meths!”
Someone crawled out of one of the tents. A scruffy old man in a filthy baby-blue quilted jacket. Mik launched his stone and kept his hand outstretched as though to steer the stone towards its target. The stone sailed through the air. The perfect trajectory. The old man turned round. Their eyes met. Sick, yellow eyes.
Clonk. In the middle of his forehead.
He fell down, and stayed down.
“Oh,” Mik said.
And he ran.
Their teacher was setting up an old projector in the classroom.
“We’re going to watch a film of old Hagalund,” she said. “The way it looked before they pulled it down and built the blue tower-blocks. We’re going to have a history lesson about the place you live in. Your own district. It’s all very interesting.”
Andreas put his hand up.
“Can’t we surf the net instead?”
“No, because we haven’t got the new computers yet. The IT room’s still empty after the last break-in. We’re not getting the new computers for another three weeks.”
Åsa’s mobile started to ring.
The teacher gestured towards the whole class.
“I’ll say this for the last time: all phones must be switched off, unless you want to hand them in each morning when you get here. I’m going to have a word with the headmaster to see what we can do about this. We can’t get through a single lesson without...”
The classroom door flew open and the headmaster stormed in. Everyone just stared at him, and the teacher lost her thread:
“We’re in the middle of...”
The headmaster was a fat man in a blue shirt and tie. The shirt had dark sweat stains under the arms, and his face was redder than usual. He looked at the class with a completely mad look on his face.
“I’ve really bloody had it with you lot,” he said. “I’ve had plenty to deal with at this school, but this takes the biscuit...”
The pupils looked at one another and had no idea what was going on. Had he heard Åsa’s mobile? Had he been standing outside with his ear to the door?
The headmaster went out into the corridor and led in a man in a baby-blue quilted jacket. He had streaks of blood down his chest. He was holding a towel to his forehead. There was blood on that as well. The headmaster turned to the teacher.
“This class was the only one that had break between 9.20 and 9.40, which is when this happened.”
Mik stared at the man – rigid with terror. Him – here? How could he get into this world? Yellow eyes with big, black pupils. They looked at each other. The filthy, bearded old man held the towel to his forehead and pointed at Mik.
“It was that one – he threw the stone.”
Mik had to stay behind after school. He sat at his desk and his teacher took a chair and sat opposite him.
“The others were throwing stones as well,” Mik said, eyes downcast.
He drew on the desk.
“Don’t draw on the desk.”
He carried on drawing and said:
“It’s only a piss-head.”
“Only a piss-head? How can you say that? Look at me, Mik, how are things with you?”
“Fine,” he said, still staring at the desk.
“I mean, really. How are things at home?”
The teacher stood up and went over to Mik’s drawer, which contained his drawings. She leafed through a thick pile. Lots of blood, guts, arms, legs, heads. And one or two eyes that had fallen out.
“You only draw amputated body-parts. They’ll skilfully done. You’re good at painting and drawing. But the subject matter... it’s... so sick. There are hundreds of them. Isn’t there anything else you’d like to draw?”
Mik shrugged and tried to smile. But he said nothing. The teacher brought the pile of drawings with her and sat next to Mik.
“This one, what’s it about?” She held up a blood-covered piece of art. Blood, guts, bones.
“It’s a hand that’s been cut off.”
“I can see that. But why?”
“The colours are good.”
Mik and the teacher sat in silence. She leaned closer to see what he was drawing on the desk. A long, straggling creature in pencil. Lines and circles intertwined to form an extremely complicated pattern. There were no loose threads, everything was connected.
“What about this? Is it a snake?”
“I don’t know,” Mik said. “Thoughts, maybe.”
“You’ll have to rub it out before you can go. We’ll have to think of a way of solving this.”
Mik rubbed it out. All that remained was a dark stain. And he had no idea what had to be solved.
“You dad didn’t come to the last parents’ evening.”
“He had a cold.”
On the way home Mik stopped in the middle of the bridge and looked at the blue suburban trains rattling beneath him with their electrical contacts crackling. The trains braked and stopped at the station in Solna. People squeezed out of the doors, hurrying across the platform to get to the buses first. To get home before... well.
Mik was in no hurry to get home. He wanted Tony to get back first. It felt better that way. Mik walked slowly along the pavement beside the Råsunda road. A big lorry thundered past, making the ground shake. A police-car drove past, all sirens and flashing blue lights. He stopped for a while by the pizza place, smelling the air. On the corner was the tobacconist’s. The window was brown from all the traffic on the road. Mik wiped a patch clean with his hand, and inside was a display with rows of pipes and open cigarette cases, on a faded bed of green velvet. In the front of the window stood some shiny silver and gold cigarette-lighters. An open box of chocolates full of dusty pralines. And in the middle of the window lay a little stuffed crocodile, leaking sawdust from a split seam.
What was it doing there? And where did it come from? Africa, or South America, Madagascar? Maybe it was a Nile crocodile. Mik opened the door and went in to ask. There were four steps down into the shop, a heavy smell of tobacco. It was good, dark and musty. Cigar cases and boxes of cigarettes were piled up behind the counter. Gift-boxes of chocolates were arranged higher up, close to the ceiling. Tins of tobacco and pipes were crammed onto the counter. A tall, pale woman with jet-black hair emerged through a dark red curtain behind the counter. Her eyes were ridiculously green, like two glittering emeralds. She looked at him and lit a cigarette.
“Can you swim?” she said, blowing smoke at him.
Mik paused, the question was so weird.
“Children drown so easily. Can you swim?”
She reached up among the shelves, fetching two bars of chocolate and gave them to him. They were twisted out of shape. The chocolate had melted and then set again.
“We can’t sell them. The box was left somewhere too warm, but they’ll taste okay.”
Mik climbed the four steps up to the door, opened it and went out. It was dark chocolate. He put one bar in his pocket and pulled the foil off the other. The chunks were shapeless, and dusted with white powder. He didn't like dark chocolate, but he ate it anyway. It was free.
[“The Parrot” arranges for Mik to stay with his aunt in the north of Sweden. After a long bus journey he arrives in a dark, snow-smothered community “at the end of the world”. Aunt Lena is not there to meet him, so he waits in freezing weather. As he waits, he encounters a group of children his own age, including a girl with a large birthmark that “looked like a third eye”.]
Part 2: The Land of Ice
The Hawk Owl
A dirty old Volvo estate rolled into the square. A woman in a green anorak climbed out of the car. She had big eyes and long dark hair. Anyone guessing her age would have said something approaching thirty, but she was actually forty-two. The woman looked around the empty square, bewildered. The customers in the Konsum supermarket stared out through the windows.
A woman who was paying for her shopping at the till snorted:
“Ha, that one. Not right in the head.”
She leaned towards the cashier and whispered rather loudly:
“She’s one of those lezzies.”
The cashier handed over the woman’s change and said:
“She can be whatever she likes, so long as she shops here in Konsum. Anyway, that’s only a rumour, loose gossip.”
The woman took her change and carefully put it in her purse.
“I think she should shop at ICA. Anyone can see how things are. Why else would such a beautiful woman live alone?”
“We don’t make any distinction between our customers here,” the cashier said.
“And she’s supposed to be the district nurse,” the woman said, packing her shopping into bags. “Can you imagine them letting someone like that? And why hasn’t she got any children?”
Mik picked up his bag and went out into the square. He had recognised her. It was Lena, his father’s sister. She saw him and rushed to meet him.
“There you are, sorry, but I had to visit Gustavsson. He’s a miserable old git who refuses to go to the clinic even though his toes are blue.”
She leaned down to give him a big hug. Mik stiffened, something funny was happening to his body. His limbs froze. Lena noticed at once.
“It’s been a long time since anyone touched you, hasn’t it?”
She pushed Mik away with her hands on his shoulders, and looked into his eyes. She gave a hoarse laugh.
“Have you been waiting long?”
Mik merely nodded.
“Well, sorry again, but I’m no good at time-keeping. Haven’t got a watch.”
And she gave him another hug. Mik was getting dizzy.
“Jump into the car and we'll get going. It’s not far. But we’ll have to stop to drop off Hilma’s medicine.”
The car smelled of damp dog. Lena started the car, looked at Mik, ruffled his hair and made the snow fly by spinning the car round in the square and back onto the road.
“Have you got a dog?” Mik asked.
“No, it went through the ice last winter. Stupid...”
She shook her head.
“Oh,” Mik said.
“The current took it.”
Lena stroked the seat with her hand.
“But I can’t get rid of the dog-hairs.”
Mik sat in silence as they drove through the snow-smothered community. The car rattled and clunked, and the heater howled. The houses were scattered about randomly, chimneys smoked, and they all had satellite dishes pointing up to space. They swung off the road towards a large yellow house. There were lights in the windows and people were looking out from behind the curtains.
“Hilma’s got senile dementia, so her family’s looking after her. Sometimes she gets out. So now she’s been out getting cold and her lungs are bad.”
They went into the house without knocking.
“Hello!” Lena called out.
Mik hid behind her.
The girl with the birthmark under her eye appeared in the hall.
“Hello Pi,” Lena said. “How’s Grandma?”
“She’s a pain.”
The girl called Pi looked at Mik. More people came out into the hall. Pi’s parents and the muddled grandmother. Lena handed over the medicine and explained how and when it should be taken.
“And this is Mik,” Lena said, putting her hand on Mik’s head. “He’s going to be living with me for a while.”
“That’ll be nice, get a break from Stockholm for a bit,” the father said.
“Stockholm,” the muddled grandmother said, slapping her knees. “Stockholm. Just murders and drugs, murders and drugs. Misery upon misery.”
She looked like a troll.
Pi fingered her ear and laughed.
Mik ran out and sat in the car. He breathed on the window. It turned to frost at once. He melted it with his hand. Blew again, and melted it with his hand. He blew ice, and tried to think, but his thoughts froze to pieces, collapsing in a big heap. Was this where he was going to live? No-one seemed quite right in the head.
Lena opened the car-door and threw a pair of boots in the back seat.
“They’re for you. Pi’s grown out of them. You won’t survive here in trainers.”
Lena braked and stopped in the middle of a bridge.
“Let’s have a look at the river. It’s huge and it... Well, how shall I put it, it’s the life-blood of this place.”
Mik took hold of the railing and looked down. His eyes got used to the darkness. The water ran black and sluggish. Heavy, slow eddies moved between the snow-white shores. Steam rose from the surface. It felt as though it was the bridge that was moving over the water. As though he were standing in the prow of a big boat and looking down.
“It won’t be frozen for a good while yet,” Lena said. “But down in Sele, where I live, the ice has started to form. On colder nights, that is.”
“How come it’s still flowing, even though it’s so cold?” Mik said.
“Well, it’s still flowing because it’s flowing. Otherwise it would be ice.”
“I don’t want to fall in.”
“Over there’s the school. Do you see, Mik? The building we passed before the bridge.”
She pointed across the river.
“That little house?”
“Yes,” Lena said. “That’s where you’ll be going.”
They got into the car again.
“Twelve pupils, thirteen with you.”
“In the class?”
“No, in the whole school. You’re starting on Monday.”
“There are four hundred in my school at home.”
“You’re out in the sticks now, a hell of a way out. The furniture factory has closed down. The school is under threat and Konsum will probably be closing in the spring. And where are we to shop then?”
“At ICA,” Mik said.
“Here you either shop at Konsum or you shop at ICA. You don’t switch between them. There are ICA people here, and there are Konsum people.”
Mik saw an old man chopping wood in the dark, and a barking dog on a leash. It ran out onto the road and chased the car until the leash jerked it to a stop. Mik watched through the back window as the dog was thrown into a cartwheel and landed on its back. It probably died, he thought, nothing could survive a jerk like that, it’s like being hanged.
“That was Gustavsson’s dog,” Lena said. “The leash is far too long. It chases cars and it’s been hit seven times and now it’s got brain-damage and hates people. It’s a good dog, but Gustavsson’s ruined it. He got it from me. One of my dog’s puppies.”
“And she’s dead,” Mik said.
“Yes, she’s dead.”
Mik thought that was just as well, but didn’t say so.
They turned off the road and stopped in front of a blue house. At least it looked blue in the darkness. Three abandoned cars without windscreens or tyres stood covered in snow. One had no doors, and another had no bonnet.
“This is where I live.”
“Nice,” Mik said. “Lots of cars.”
“I’m keep meaning to get rid of them, but I keep cannibalising them to keep this one going.”
Mik picked up his bag. Lena looked up at the sky.
“It’s a starry night. It’ll be cold. Minus twenty-five. At least.”
The bed was comfy, with clean, slightly stiff, crunchy sheets. A soft mattress and a cool, heavy duvet and three feather pillows. It was so quiet, no screaming traffic, no commuter trains rattling past. No video shops, no pizza place, no people shouting on the streets.
Nothing. Just a bus leaving on Thursdays.
It was so quiet that he could hear the sound of his own head for the first time. It made a soft whooshing sound, like when you listen to a shell. In his right ear there was a low, almost imperceptible note, wavering slightly.
Had it always been there?
He turned onto his side, blue moonlight lit up the room. The walls were covered in dark red wallpaper, and the ceiling was low. It was an attic room, with a bed, a desk, a chair and a chest of drawers. Nothing else. It smelled nice.
He had noticed it as soon as he entered Lena’s house. In the big kitchen. It was a kind house, and a complete mess. There were books everywhere. Great teetering piles of them. They were on the floor, on the table, on shelves and in boxes and bags. Had she robbed a library? Lena seemed a bit strange. She didn't have a telly, no computer, not even a radio. And obviously she had no DVD-player or video. Just books.
How could it be so quiet?
He pushed back the covers, got out of bed and sat in the window. The snow was shining blue, glittering slightly in the moonlight. Lena’s house was high up. Far away you could see tree-covered mountains. The community lay in a little valley where the river formed a lake, the Sel. The place he had come to was called just that, Selet. Smoke was coming from the chimneys, but the windows were dark. The houses were sleeping, breathing ever so gently. A cluster of houses, then just forest, forest, forest. The two closest houses below were exactly the same. A high fence ran between them, as though the houses could not stand each other. Kick-sleds stood parked by the steps.
Which way was home?
He recognised the moon. But that was all.
A strange, round bird landed high in a birch. But was it a bird? It looked more like a little troll. A flying troll? No, it looked more like an animal than a bird. Although birds are animals as well. But this one was...
The staircase creaked. Mik turned to look at the door. No-one could creep up on him here in the attic room. He would get some warning. But if the staircase creaked and no-one came – then there was a ghost. The footsteps had almost reached the top. He looked at the door handle and thought – if anyone comes in without it creaking – whoever it is must be a ghost.
The handle was pressed down, the door opened and Lena came in with a tray holding two cheese sandwiches and large glass of milk.
“You haven’t eaten all day. Just been sitting on the bus. I’d completely forgotten.”
She put the tray on the desk and squatted down by the window next to Mik.
“Isn’t it great,” she said softly in the darkness, so as not to disturb how great it was. “I love this place. It’s small, and everyone knows all about everyone else. Or so they think, anyway. I’ve lived here for seven years now – I’ll probably stay.”
“There’s a flying troll sitting in the tree. Is it supposed to be there?”
“No, that’s a hawk owl. It usually sits there. It comes for a while late every evening. It keeps an eye on me. Makes sure things are as they should be. Then it flies off again. Now eat something.”
Mik picked up a sandwich. Took a bite and looked at the owl.
The lights went on in one of the houses behind the fence.
“That’ll be Bertil with his chamberpot.”
The door opened, an old man came out onto the steps and emptied a chamberpot onto the heap of snow beside the door. Then he went in again.
“He has trouble peeing,” Lena said. “Little, but often.”
“Hasn’t he got a toilet?”
“So why does he pee in a potty?”
Lena laughed softly in the darkness.
“I don’t know. He’s just like that.”
The light went out and a little while later the light went on in the house on the other side of the tall fence.
“That’ll be Bengt with his chamberpot.”
The door opened and an old man came out onto the steps and emptied a chamberpot onto the heap of snow beside the door.
“Does he have trouble peeing too?” Mik said.
“And has a toilet, but is just like that?”
“Yep,” Lena said. “They’re twins, but they haven’t spoken for thirty years.”
“They’re old men, so there’s probably some elk-hunt or piece of forest or some fishing rights that they’ve fallen out about. And that can take several hundred years to sort out.”
“Now I get it,” Mik said. “I saw the same old man twice today. He went into Konsum with some pike, then came back with pike for ICA. But there were two of them.”
“Yes,” said Lena. “The Selström brothers.”
“Who have trouble peeing,” Mik said.
“Yes, and the only difference between them is that one’s a bit more barmy than the other.”
Lena laughed again. She laughed a lot. Mik liked that, and she smelled good. He finished the second sandwich and drank the milk.
“Now, time for bed. It’s school tomorrow.”
The hawk owl was gone. Mik hadn’t noticed it fly off. He crept into bed, pulling the heavy duvet around him. Lena took the tray.
She turned in the doorway and said:
“It’s good to have a boy in the house.”
They looked at each other in silence for a bit. She smiled.
“The moon up there and a boy in this room. That’s good.”