Translated and introduced by Linda Schenck
This article appeared in the 2015:1 issue.
Jonas Karlsson was born in 1971. He holds a permanent position on the staff of the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm and made a great hit during autumn 2014 in the lead role of Shakespeare’s Richard III. He has acted on various other stages in Sweden as well as in numerous television series. His first collection of short stories Det andra målet (which may, with intentional ambiguity, mean either ‘The Second Goal or The Other Aim’ or some other combination thereof) includes the two stories ‘My Friend at Gondolen’ and was published in 2007. These stories also formed the basis for a feature film, Stockholm Stories, in which he starred, in 2013, and where the famous, elevated restaurant Gondolen also plays a central role. Karlsson has written three other volumes of short stories and is reportedly working on a novel ‘that will be very different from my stories’.
When asked about his writing recently, he answered: ‘I am extremely interested in how people behave when they are to accomplish something together – what signals we transmit and how our subconscious works’ (both quotations from Aftonbladet 28 November 2014).
My friend and I were supposed to meet for lunch at Gondolen at twelve-thirty.
I was there by twenty past. The mâitre d’ met me at the door.
‘Table for how many?’
‘Myself and a friend.’
‘Why don’t you have a seat at the bar for the moment?’
The coat check guy took my jacket and hung it up.
I ordered a mineral water at the bar.
At a quarter to one my friend called to say he couldn’t make it. He had forgotten. And wasn’t it tomorrow, anyway?
‘No, it was today.’
‘Ah, I thought it was tomorrow.
’‘Well, it was today.’
We decided to meet at the same place the next day.
After we’d hung up it struck me as strange that he had phoned today if he really thought our lunch date was for tomorrow.
I finished my mineral water and paid. The guy at the coat check said there was no charge. Since nothing came of it.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘Your friend didn’t turn up.’
The next day I was there at twelve-thirty sharp. My friend wasn’t. I waited outside for a few minutes, then went in.
‘Table for how many today?’ asked the mâitre d’.
‘Today? For two,’ I answered.
I hung my jacket in the cloakroom and sat at the bar.
The bartender was busy with a bunch of tourists who spoke very little English. He looked my way now and then, as if to apologize for taking so long.
The guests, who were Asian, seemed upset about something neither the bartender nor I could figure out.
When he finished with them he asked what I wanted.
I ordered mineral water.
At ten to one, when my friend still hadn’t materialized, I texted his cellphone:
Waiting at the bar.
Where are you? It’s today.
When there was no answer by one, I paid for my mineral water and left.
The coat check guy smiled when I asked for my jacket.
‘No luck today either?’
‘No,’ I laughed. ‘Change of plans. Gotta run.’
Quickly, I dropped a twenty kronor bill on the counter. ‘Keep the change,’
Later that afternoon my friend called, sounding stressed out.
‘Jeeze, Johan, I’m so sorry. I had a really bad day.’
‘Long story. If you want to know, I’ll tell you the whole thing tomorrow.’
I asked why he hadn’t answered my text message, but he said he never
‘Sorry. Can we say lunch tomorrow, same time? My treat.’
I said OK.
The next day on the way to Gondolen I called my friend.
‘Just wanted to check that you’re coming.’
‘Of course. It’s today, right?’
‘If you say so. See you in a little while.’
Same coat check guy, about my age. He greeted me like an old friend. In
the dim light among the jackets there was a second person. Standing perfectly still as if he, too, was, nothing but clothes. Our eyes met for a second and I couldn’t help wondering if he was another employee or just visiting his friend in the cloakroom. For some reason I felt obliged to say hello now that I had seen him. He smiled and said hi back.
The bartender was on the phone. He looked at me and mouthed a word, then pointed to mineral water. I nodded.
Glass in hand, I called my friend again. Line busy. The bartender went on talking on his phone. He laughed now and then. Looked and me and smiled.
I tried phoning my friend again but the line was still engaged.
Five minutes later the bartender walked over to me and said the person I was waiting for had been a little delayed.
I looked at him and he was wearing that slightly subservient smile only truly professional service employees can muster. For a moment I was tempted to think I might be master of the situation.
‘How do you know?’ I asked.
‘The phone. Anything I can do for you?’
‘I’d like to see the menu,’ I replied.
He went off and I called my friend again but his phone was off. It went straight to voicemail. I hung up without leaving a message.
The coat check guy came up to the bar. He spoke to the bartender, who laughed. I wondered if the bartender knew there was a second guy in the cloakroom, too.
A while later I saw my friend walking through the dining area in my direction. He was wearing a suit with a big red handkerchief sticking up out of the breast pocket. He was scanning the tables and I was about to wave to him when he suddenly caught sight of somebody else and sat down at a table across the room. He shook hands with a man in a business suit and his companion, a woman, similarly dressed.
A waiter approached their table with menus and all three ordered drinks. Then he moved toward the bar, carrying a menu for me.
‘There’s a free table now. Would you like to be seated?’
‘Yes, we would.’
The waiter showed me to the table right next to my friend, who was deep in conversation with the man across from him. After a minute he looked over and saw me.
‘There you are, Johan. Do you know Douglas?
He’s moving to China next week. Douglas, Johan. Johan, Douglas.’
Douglas extended a hand, and I had no choice but to get up and walk over to him.
‘Why don’t you sit with us?’ asked Douglas.
I pulled out the fourth chair and sat down.
We ordered, and our meal was brought in. Douglas talked about his new job in Shanghai. A gaming company was launching a new internet-based game played two by two on cellphones. The aim was to knock the other player out.
‘Gaming and social experiment all in one,’ he explained.
The woman in the suit and I sat opposite each other but we didn’t talk.
We had coffee after our meal, and we each had a little petit four on a tiny piece of paper. The woman in the suit only ate half of hers.
Then my friend said he was going to the men’s room. I said I was going too. We stood there next to each other for a long time, but neither was able to urinate. I asked my friend what he had against me.
‘What makes you ask that?’
‘I was just wondering. Why is your phone off?’
‘It’s not off. Out of battery.’
We were quiet for a bit. Then we both peed a little.
When we got back to the table my friend said he had to leave. We’d be in touch later.
‘I’ve got my hands full at work right now,’ he said.
Douglas nodded in agreement, as if he really identified. I felt myself nodding, too.
He hugged both Douglas and the woman in the suit.
‘I’ll be in touch’, he said to me.
Douglas and I stayed at the table while the woman in the suit went to the ladies’ room.
‘Aren’t you going?’ I asked.
‘I guess we need to pay first,’ he answered.
‘I meant to the toilet.’
‘Don’t need to.’
A few minutes later, Douglas’ cellphone rang. He put the bud in his ear and answered. The waiter brought the bill, and Douglas waved his hand deprecatingly when I reached for my wallet. He tossed an American Express card on the tray, pointing to his phone as if the person on the other end were picking up the whole tab.
When the woman in the suit returned we both got up and Douglas shook my hand, still on his phone. I waved good-bye to her and she smiled at me as they walked toward the door.
I sat there for a couple of minutes looking out the window. Drew my finger along the tablecloth and poked at the little piece of paper that had been under the dessert. Then I got up and went to the cloakroom.
The coat check guy put my jacket on the counter and hung the plastic tag back on the hanger.
‘Twenty-five kronor,’ he said.
‘Oh?’ I said. ‘OK.’