<cite>The Poles</cite> ‘When does real life start?’ is the question Fredrik Lindström explores in his recent volume of short stories. Each of them takes a moment in the life of a character we almost recognise, their existence effectively on hold because they are trying to solve that one problem which prevents life from being just right.

Martin, his relationship destroyed by not dealing with his ever-growing pile of unmatched socks, Emma, with a packed suitcase ready to set off on a life-changing journey she will never take, Estelle and Fredrik, vainly seeking the sofa that will suit their stylish home; problems that may be utterly trivial, yet stop the characters getting on with their ‘real’ lives. 

Lindström is known as a stand-up comedian and as the presenter of entertaining TV programmes about the Swedish language and national identity. As a writer he has reflected on the modern human conflict between our high ideals and our inbuilt genetic impulse to survive, reproduce and look after ourselves, in Evolutionen och jag kommer inte överens (Evolution and I Do Not Agree). In the stories of his collection När börjar det riktiga livet Lindström allows us to glimpse, with his characteristic perceptiveness, the humorously fatal flaw in our fellow human beings, and to muse on where our own flaw may lie.

The gang of Polish builders had appeared at the beginning of May.

They had converted the garage of one of Lisa’s neighbours who lived  further down the road, to make a completely new extension with a utility and laundry room. Extremely practical. And cheap. 

Within a few days word had spread that they would do more or less anything. Painting and wallpapering, including buying what was needed if you wanted them to, they were conscientious, working hard, daytime, evenings, and even weekends as well. That sort of thing spurs people into action, reawakening their old dreams of balconies and patios, of saunas or playrooms.

They weren’t expensive either. They seemed to live very simply, apparently all together in a couple of caravans that were parked in the copse of aspen trees the other side of the wood, over by the industrial estate. They saved up a great deal of money from their work in Sweden, to take home to their families in Poland, where that money was worth a lot more. How could they manage it? Well, it was just because they were so cheap. It all seemed perfect!

But everything has its downside. It wasn’t that they didn’t do their work well. On the contrary, everything they did was just right and they certainly didn’t cut corners. No, the disadvantage was quite simply that it gave you a bad conscience. When they were at Lisa’s for more than a week, building a south-facing balcony made of pressure-treated wood, she got to know them well enough to realise that most of them had families at home in Poland, but that they didn’t get home for months on end. Obviously it would be too expensive for them to go home for an occasional weekend. That would have used up a large part of their precious earnings. No wonder she felt guilty.

Just imagine not seeing your little children for such a long time, how much you’d miss! In her case she found it hard even to leave the children with a babysitter for just an evening. She kept a diary of almost everything they did together as a family: every home-baking session, all the little activities, the outings and other wonderful things she and Lasse did with the children. And she put pictures of it all on the Internet, of course.

So she always had a bad conscience about the Polish builders and tried to make up for it by offering coffee and buns, making cold drinks if it was hot, checking if they needed to use the toilet, and so on. As if in some way that helped the children back in Poland. It wasn’t very easy to understand the Poles. It wasn’t at all clear that they wanted coffee at all, and if they did accept it now and again, they usually sat in absolute silence and looked embarrassed while they drank it and ate the buns she heated up in the microwave. When they took a break they went off by themselves, seeming just to want to stand and smoke. Perhaps they didn’t even realise how dangerous it was to smoke and that in Sweden there was scarcely anyone who still did so. And every single one of them took sugar in his coffee. She rummaged in the larder, looking for sugar, and tried to explain to them that no one in Sweden took sugar in their coffee because it isn’t good for you. But they just laughed uncomprehendingly. They didn’t seem to know anything about the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels at all. She ought to try and explain. But then they didn’t understand English very well, either.

They got her down, all these feelings of guilt! She would try to imagine how nice it would all be when they were finished, how often she and Lasse would sit on their new balcony, beautifully shaded by the leaves of the chestnut tree, making the time just to be together, to laugh, to play with the children, to have a barbecue and drink rosé wine on long, mild summer evenings. Thoughts like that helped a bit. Or at least took her mind off the guilt.

And anyway, it wasn’t just the Poles she had to worry about. Things really weren’t so easy for her and Lasse, either. It could be hard work getting the kids to nursery school when they were being awkward, or the time when she lost her mobile with all her telephone numbers in it and hadn’t kept a record of them. One evening she felt really sorry for herself when there was a sudden heavy shower of rain and she not only had a load of washing out that had only just finished drying, but also the cushions on all the garden furniture – including the upright chairs, the sun-bed and the recliners - not to mention toys, newspapers, a pile of books, packets of biscuits and a whole coffee set on a tray. She frantically set about trying to get everything inside, tripped on the steps and broke two cups, and felt like screaming.

But it turned out, when she and Lasse were chatting to a few of their neighbours one evening, that the Poles actually did have their wives with them. They had got cleaning jobs, and had left the children behind in Poland. They only saw them a few times a year. Goodness! To leave your children! She would rather starve. But what if it was her children who were starving? Then she’d have to work as a prostitute – that was the last resort. She’d always thought that; it would be dreadful, true enough, but she would do it for her children. Rather that than leave them.

The rest of her neighbours didn’t seem to be so bothered. The children were probably fine, living with Granny and Granddad or something like that. And if it wasn’t for us here giving them jobs, did she really think they’d stay at home with their children then?

But why were there no jobs back home, so they could stay with their children? Was there no work at all in Poland any more? Well, yes, but unemployment was around thirty per cent. Why was that? Well, it was the case in nearly all the old Eastern bloc countries. And why? It was because they were so far behind us. It was like it used to be in Sweden a hundred years or so ago. If our forefathers could have gone and worked in other countries and been much better paid, they’d have done so, too. And left the children with Granny and Granddad.

Heavens, imagine if it was like that again. What if the economy in Sweden got much worse than in Poland, would we have to go there and try and do woodwork and decorating there? No! Of course it could never happen. Thank goodness!

The balcony was finished a couple of days later and she loved it, and as soon as she had an hour spare she sat there in the corner in a folding chair – her new favourite spot – with a cup of coffee and her women’s magazine. But the Poles were around for a few more days, as Lasse found other odd jobs that needed doing, and besides that, she took the opportunity to clear out the attic and dragged out piles of junk. Yes, they’d do that too: take stuff to the dump, the recycling centre or the charity shop.

But she felt a bit ashamed when it became obvious 

that they wanted to keep many of the things themselves. Everything from old clothes and shoes, partly broken toys, video recorders and bulky old television sets to used wood with rusty nails in. But of course they could hold on to whatever they wanted, it was great if it was of use to them.

They had a party to celebrate the completion of their new balcony on Friday evening and many of the neighbours came over for grilled salmon and halloumi salad and everyone pronounced the whole project a great success. It was one of those incredible May evenings when the lilac is bursting into flower and someone mentioned hearing the first cuckoo and nearly all the neighbours had got their gardens and patios and balconies ready for the coming summer, of which everyone had such high hopes that it almost made your head spin. They ended up all sitting there with their Irish coffees while the youngsters watched a film. And then the conversation turned back to the Poles. Everyone was intrigued by their numerous strange habits. When they weren’t working, for instance, it seemed that all they did was sit playing cards and drinking vodka, and some of the neighbours who’d happened to walk past their caravans one Saturday evening had heard them sitting there, drunk and weeping, while they sang sentimental songs.

It must just be because they were Catholics that they were so old fashioned. They believed in God and ate weird food, greasy sausages, offal and sauerkraut. You just had to realise that Sweden was an extraordinarily advanced country and that you couldn’t really compare us with other people.

Theremust be figures to prove it. In Sweden we were often the first to have things, we were curious and always looking to the future and we had computers when others scarcely knew what they were. We had the highest concentration of mobile phones in Europe. And it was the same thing with Internet access. In short, we had progressed further into the information society. The Poles, on the other hand, were still at the point where we used to be, and they worked with their hands, producing things, digging, and doing bricklaying and woodwork.

It was like a law of nature that stipulated that different peoples could not be at the same level at the same time. Since we had progressed so far in Sweden, we worked on more advanced things: the media, web solutions, communications, advertising and so on; and as a result we could hire in others to do the harder manual jobs, others who were a couple of steps below us on the ladder. It was to everyone’s advantage! The Poles earned more than they could at home, and at the same time we avoided having to dig out sewage or to lay duckboards.

It was such a relief to be able to look at it in that way. It was quite simply like a sort of global cooperation between those at different stages of cultural development.

And the converse was quite simply unthinkable. In a way it was quite fortunate, too. I mean, how would a lot of Swedes cope if they were forced to go round the Polish countryside, where everything is so old-fashioned, looking for work? Can you dig, can you lay bricks, can you do woodwork? No, we can’t do that – after all, we are more advanced than you are! But we could help you set up communications web platforms for your business, and if that is no use to you, you have only yourselves to blame.

For whichever way you look at it, it really isn’t our fault that others are less advanced than we are.