The Commission Taken from Jonas Karlsson’s second volume of short stories Den perfekte vännen (The Perfect Friend, 2009), this is an intriguing and somewhat disconcerting tale of an artist who unwittingly unearths some murky secrets on the estate of the well-heeled family that has commissioned him. It is in many ways typical of the collection as a whole, showing everyday lives in juxtaposition with bizarre encounters and misunderstandings. Male friendships, loyalties and rivalries are often at the heart of the stories. We can find echoes in Karlsson’s work of Raymond Carver and of Swedish short story writers like Jerker Virdborg and Robert Kangas. But Karlsson is his own man, with his own personal style, humorous, quirky and intelligent, and almost always with a twist. The collection’s spookily memorable centrepiece is the Kafkaesque, almost novella-length ‘Rummet’ (The Room), set in a modern-day office where the neurotic narrator takes frequent refuge from the pressures of work in a disused room – which turns out to exist only in his head. Jonas Karlsson (b. 1971) is one of Sweden’s busiest actors, working for TV, film and the theatre. He began his writing career as a dramatist before publishing his first story collection Det andra målet (The Second Goal, 2007). In his stories we readily detect an actor’s ear for the pauses that endow dialogue with meaning. Karlsson joins the ranks of story writers in a nation where prowess in the shorter genre has traditionally been seen as a badge of real literary skill.

For Arvid, drawing meant taking decisions all the time. Which was something he needed practice at. For that reason, he made sure never to carry an eraser on him and preferred to work in ink. He saw an object and straight away he would make a dash, a line, a dot or whatever it was. And then another one, and then another one. Piece by piece, what he saw emerged on the page. Whether he was drawing something or just imagined it in his mind. Mostly he drew something. He drew what he experienced.

Afterwards he could assess which of the lines had been a little crooked. Thin, hesitant pencil strokes that created a kind of shadow effect, giving depth and space to the drawing. He could even appreciate pure mistakes, small accidents in a movement of the pen or where someone had jogged him and his hand had made an involuntary movement. Generally that didn’t bother him. Quite the opposite.

On occasion he could quite intentionally not look at the paper, in order to rely totally on the feeling in his hand. A kind of direct contact between perception and movement. Without making any judgement on what was rational or even beautiful. Those lines, even if they were crooked or misplaced in terms of the perspective, always felt true.

There were other ones that sometimes annoyed him. Real, straight lines. Decisions taken without feeling. With no idea of what they were doing to him. Lines he had drawn, not always because he’d seen them, but because he thought he maybe ought to have seen them. Or, even worse, because he thought someone else had seen them. Those lines always made him think of the tale of the Emperor’s new clothes. And each time he saw lines like that on one of his old drawings, even if several years had passed, he could immediately tell them apart from the real ones. They made him feel ill.

He realised that he was nothing without the decisiveness that had become something of a trademark for him, a kind of directness and doubtlessness that he only had in artistic matters and in no other aspect of his life, but whose involvement in the creative process was absolutely necessary. Without it he was nothing.

Arvid was afflicted with a sluggish character, lacking in will, which never knew what it wanted. Most things seemed ambiguous to him. He could listen to diametrically opposed opinions and find both of them equally reasonable. A strange feeling of rootlessness pursued him. And he knew it was only art which offered him a kind of weight he could lean against and get a sense of who he really was. He understood this was something that should be cultivated.

When Arvid got the commission he thought it was easy money. A job that wouldn’t demand any special effort. He was to draw the Bjurholms’ garden sculpture on their country estate in Målilla. How hard can that be, he thought as he took the bus out on a hot day in high summer, with all his things in his large blue work bag.

Claes Bjurholm met him at the gate when Arvid arrived from the bus stop. He stooped forwards slightly as though he were bowing, and it took a while before Arvid realised that he simply had bad posture. ‘My wife and I are very happy that you could take this on, we’re both great admirers of yours. My wife can sit for hours browsing books of your drawings.’ ‘Thanks’, Arvid said. ‘I myself’, said Claes, as if tasting his own words, ‘am particularly impressed by your, how shall I put it, graphic style. The way you fill empty space with movement.’

You could tell that he had prepared that sentence, thought Arvid, and thanked him for the praise. Immediately Arvid noticed how easy it was to feel superior to the man, despite the fact he was clearly an extremely wealthy person. Socially, too, Claes Bjurholm bowed down. ‘This is a very beautiful garden’, said Arvid.

Claes gave a proper bow, which almost made him topple over. Arvid felt a little uncomfortable in such company, being used to occupying the lowest position himself.

They walked slowly along a path of slate by a short, well-pruned whitebeam hedge. It must take many years, thought Arvid, to discipline a plant that unruly. Arvid smelt freshly cut grass while Claes walked just in front of him pointing things out.

‘Here she is’, Claes said, as they came to the end of the path by a small fountain with a pond where leaves covered the surface. A large willow spread its branches over the statue and shadowed the whole pond. Strips of light showed on the water’s surface. ‘The pregnant woman’. ‘Pregnant?’ ‘That’s what we call her.’ ‘Who is the artist?’ asked Arvid. ‘We don’t know. It’s been here since my mother was a child. She didn’t know either. We think it’s from the sixteenth century.’

Arvid walked around the statue, a woman and a dwarf. She was sculpted with pure, smooth lines. Long hair. Head bowed down in a pious movement. Her eyes closed and both hands resting on her stomach. The dwarf inclined towards her side. As though he were guarding her. Probably no older than a hundred and fifty years. It looked just like the kind of garden ornaments that were popular at the end of the nineteenth century. A calm, harmonious work. Beautiful in a simple way. He could well understand why they liked it so much.

‘It’s for my mother’, Claes said.

‘Oh’, Arvid said, and Claes quickly explained:

‘The drawing, I mean. She used to love sitting here in the shade looking at it. Now I’m afraid she’s... erm. It’s going to be her birthday present.’

‘I see,’ Arvid said.

Further off in the garden Arvid saw a small boy in a Superman costume sneaking around with a water pistol in one hand. Now and again his head popped up, and then disappeared again.

‘Well then, I shan’t disturb you any more’ Claes said. ‘Do you have everything you need?’

Arvid did, and when Claes had gone he began to unpack his sketch pad and pencils. He walked around the statue for a while to get an idea of it and finally decided that it would look best if drawn straight on, from the front. He couldn’t decide if he’d made that decision for artistic reasons or because there was a bench in the comfortable leafy shade to sit and work on. He decided it was the former.

The woman was sculpted with simple lines and fun to draw. His pencil moved to and fro over the paper almost by itself. The dwarf wasn’t as easy, and, moreover, it was difficult to get them to interact, to become the same picture. Each time he thought he’d succeeded with the woman, he couldn’t get her to work with the dwarf.

He tried practising the dwarf separately and that worked better straight away, but as soon as he tried to combine them something went wrong. He stood up, thinking that he was seeing them `in the wrong way´. Maybe he would have to change the angle after all, place her slightly more in the background and let the dwarf dominate the picture, in a kind of worm’s eye view. He walked around and made a couple of swift sketches. That felt better. Something happened to the picture and the two separate figures could come together.

He had a sketch he was fairly satisfied with when Claes came out with a glass of squash on an expensive designer tray.

Claes stood hesitating for a long time. Finally he held out the tray.

‘I thought you might be thirsty.’

‘Thanks’, Arvid said, and drank.

The squash tasted of rhubarb and was presumably homemade. Arvid made an approving face at Claes, as he stood there with the tray under one arm. Like a servant, Arvid thought.

‘There’s a little bit of artistic talent running in our family’, Claes said after a while. ‘Really?’ ‘My mother was a very good sculptor. Used to spend a lot of time doing it. Never professionally, of course. But yes, very good.’

Arvid nodded. He turned the drawing round so that Claes could see it and understand that it was okay to comment. ‘Marvellous, marvellous’, Claes chuckled, bobbing his head up and down. He bent down to see and breathed right next to Arvid.

In the silence that followed Arvid could sense that something wasn’t right. There was something Claes wanted to tell him. He thought he could help him out.

‘I’m not really sure about this perspective’, he began. ‘What do you think?’

‘Well, I don’t know’, Claes said, ‘that’s your decision, Mr-’

‘Please, call me Arvid. I’d much prefer it.’

Claes nodded, still looking at the drawing. ‘Yes. Hmm. Erm...’

He turned his head slightly, looking up at the statue and then down again at the paper. Up and down once more. ‘But isn’t the child a bit big?’

Arvid swallowed the last of the squash. He put the glass back on the tray and wiped his mouth.

‘Thanks, that was good’, he said.

‘Don’t mention it’, said Claes, standing up and taking the tray but still standing beside Arvid. ‘Just say if you’d like some more.’

Arvid ran his fingers along the outside edge of the paper and squinted at the statue. Finally he cleared his throat and said:

‘I think it’s a dwarf.’

‘Do you?’ said Claes.

‘I’m quite sure’, Arvid said.

Claes looked at the statue again, then at Arvid, and finally at the drawing.

‘Mm, no’, he said. ‘I would say it was a child. We would. I’m sure I’ve heard.... Yes, it’s definitely a child.’

‘It doesn’t look like a child.’

‘It does.’ Claes excused himself and hurried away with the tray and glass.

The boy in the Superman costume suddenly jumped up from his shelter in the bushes, stretched out his arm and fired a round straight at Arvid. Arvid clutched at his chest and pretended to be wounded. The boy laughed and disappeared.

Arvid looked at his sketch again. Then he scrunched it into a ball and looked around. The whole garden was a strange mixture and the inside of the house was probably the same. A mishmash of different styles, which was usual on country estates at the end of the nineteenth century. He could see Claes rushing around the back corner of the main building, where a large oak gave a pleasant summer shade. They probably had some kind of outside seating area behind there. I would, thought Arvid. Then again, he wouldn’t have the big swing which stood on one of the garden lawns. But maybe you couldn’t choose such things, he thought, as the small boy again moved about amongst the undergrowth. All the time with his aim fixed on Arvid.

Would I have this statue, that’s the question, he thought, beginning a new sketch of the strange artwork.

Claes came shuffling back again. This time he stood with his hands clasped in front of him, as if he’d been sent to deliver a message. He nodded and Arvid waited. Claes looked towards the main building.

‘Did you think of something?’ Arvid asked.

‘Yes... no’, Claes said.

His gaze shifted sideways. He tried to concentrate on the statue.

‘We all think it’s a very beautiful child. Isn’t it?’ Arvid nodded. Claes fished a small checked handkerchief out of his pocket, and wiped it across his forehead. He leaned forward.

‘Smooth, pure lines... and so on.’

Arvid looked at the dwarf’s face and the tufts of its beard. Claes stood with his eyes fixed on the statue all the time he was talking to Arvid. ‘We like it very much.’ Arvid let his pencil move over the paper. He made dashes and lines which had no significance for the picture but were nice to draw in Claes’ company. He hoped that Claes would go away soon. ‘Hmm’, Claes said after a while and turned back to the house.

Shortly after that, Arvid heard someone clip-clopping along on the slate behind him. He turned the sketchpad upside down and looked over his shoulder. A woman was walking swiftly towards him. He assumed it was the lady of the house. Sure enough, she didn’t introduce herself.

‘Hello there’, she simply said. ‘Hello’, said Arvid, standing up. ‘How’s it going then?’ the woman asked, putting one arm on her waist to support the other one on. She placed two fingers on her chin and Arvid could see that she had alarmingly manicured nails. ‘Not bad’, Arvid said. The woman looked around. ‘I don’t see an easel’, she said. ‘No’, Arvid said. ‘I don’t have one.’ ‘You don’t have an easel?’ the woman said. Arvid shook his head.

They stood looking at each other a while. The woman scrutinised him as only the truly affluent can. Arvid guessed she wanted to see something, but he didn’t intend to show her. Finally she stretched out her hand.

‘Arvid’, he said. `Oh´, the woman said, and gave a little laugh. ‘Yes. Louise Bjurholm.’

Her handshake was as limp as a rag for paint thinner. ‘Yes’, said Louise, nodding towards the statue. ‘It’s a fantastic work.’ Arvid nodded. ‘Claes’ mother is going to have it. The picture, that is.’ She continued along the path. She was probably looking for the boy, but he was nowhere to be seen. She looked around, sighed, and turned round. On the way back she called to Arvid, ‘Mother is very fond of the child.’

Arvid nodded again. Did she make a mistake or did she really call her mother-in-law ‘mother’? He turned the sketchpad round the right way and scrunched the next sheet of paper up into a ball, too. He put down his things beside the bench he was sitting on and rubbed his face with both hands.

The woman and the dwarf stood there in the shade and he felt as though they were staring at him. The dwarf was probably intended as some kind of symbol, he thought. Didn’t dwarfs stand for the unconscious, amoral forces in nature? How would he ever be able to explain that to the Bjurholms? Did they seriously believe it was some kind of overgrown baby? You could clearly see small tufts of beard on the cheeks, even if the statue and particularly the dwarf had been worn away by the wind and rain.

The boy in the Superman costume appeared right behind the statue. He fired a few shots at Arvid with one of those plastic guns that make a noise. He still added his own sound effects, though. It was as though he wasn’t really satisfied with sound the factory had provided. Or maybe feelings, regardless of the sound quality of the toy, always reside in our bodies? He wiped his mouth, stepped forward and stood beside Arvid. He lowered his weapon and let it flap against a pair of army green camouflage trousers that he’d simply pulled on on top of the Superman costume. Arvid didn’t realise they came in such small sizes.

‘Good afternoon’, said the boy in a very precocious little voice. ‘Good afternoon’, said Arvid, and wondered if he was being teased. The boy sat down on the bench beside Arvid and dangled his legs. ‘What a heatrave we’re having.’ Arvid nodded, smiling. ‘Are you drawing?’ the boy said after a while. ‘Mm. I’m trying to, anyway.’ ‘I like to draw as well.’ ‘Really? That’s nice.’

They both stood in silence for a long while and looked at the statue. Arvid moved the pencil over the sketchpad. Filled in a few shadows. Didn’t make any decisions. Just let the pencil dance along, hardly touching the paper. The boy scraped his weapon absent-mindedly against the ground.

‘What do you usually draw then?’ Arvid said. ‘Spiderman’, the boy said. ‘Oh, is that all?’ ‘Most of the time. I am Spiderman.’ Arvid looked at the Superman costume. ‘Aren’t you Superman?’ ‘No, Spiderman.’ ‘Okay.’ ‘Why are you drawing that?’ He pointed at the statue. Arvid thought for a bit. He was wondering that, too. Maybe he should say, ‘Because I’m being paid to’ but for some reason he didn’t think it was especially funny to say that to a child. ‘Your mum and dad asked me to’, he said. ‘It’s grandmother’s’, the boy said. ‘She liked him best.’

Arvid nodded and wondered who she liked best and if that meant that there was someone she liked less. Was the boy talking about the artist or the dwarf, or was the boy also assuming the dwarf to be a child? Arvid started to think about Bruegel’s paintings of children who all had those adult proportions. He decided to ask.

‘Don’t you think the child’s cheeks look square?’

‘That’s because he’s going like this.’

The boy puffed up his cheeks and turned to Arvid. ‘That’s what he did when they took the picture.’

He jumped down and swung his weapon about like a hockey stick or perhaps a golf club.

‘Can you see the small spikes on his cheeks?’ Arvid said. ‘That must be a beard, mustn’t it?’ ‘No, that came from when they put it there’, the boy said. ‘Put it there?’ Arvid said, but the boy was already gone. He swung the gun over his head as he ran over the lawn towards the main building.

Arvid put down the sketchpad and pencil. He got up and went over to the statue. He examined it and the dwarf child fearlessly returned his gaze. He ran his finger along the top of its head and it came off with quite a thick layer of dirt.

Around the woman’s legs and over her back there lay a film of, what would you call it, moss maybe? No, more a kind of oil. The dwarf had nothing like that.

Arvid went to his bag and fetched a piece of sheet that he used as a rag. When he wiped away the dirt from the statue he saw the join.

Between the arm and the head where both bodies were joined together there was a thin line, scarcely visible.

He knocked on the dwarf and touched it with his fingertips. Was it plaster?

Suddenly the boy jumped out from behind the statue. He shot at Arvid, who jumped for real this time. ‘Christ, you scared me’, he said. ‘Were you frightened?’ said the boy, pleased.

Arvid didn’t answer, but continued to rub the cloth along the join and saw clearly that there were two different materials. Why hadn’t he noticed until now?

‘Aren’t you finished yet?’ said the boy, sitting on the bench. He sat quietly for a while, looking at the statue. The cape was stuffed inside his camouflage trousers. ‘What did you mean when you said your grandmother liked him more?’ Arvid said, feeling the statue. ‘Grandmother liked him more than Dad’, he said.

Arvid turned towards him, but the boy was already running across the lawn. He turned back towards the bench and sat down.

He sat still for a while, looking at this unholy alliance.

He turned his head slightly and thought he could glimpse Claes Bjurholm making his way around the corner of the main building and then immediately turning back.

He took a new sheet of paper and drew page after page with the intensity of inspiration in full flow, until he had captured the exact thing he had experienced in front of him. It looked good and turned into a good picture with expressive use of space, a little as if someone had put a Matisse next to, say, a Zorn. He looked at it and felt satisfied.

Then he lifted his big blue bag and put the drawing in it, picked up another pad and began the commission. He drew the pregnant woman with a child beside her. He drew the child straight from imagination and tried to make it resemble the boy in the garden as much as possible.