Cause of death

Issue 2/1999 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Åtta kroppar (‘Eight bodies’, Söderströms, 1998). Introduction by Ann-Christine Snickars

It was a bailer, a blue one. There they were, he, she, the bailer and a stormtossed net on the stern board of a hired boat. The boat had come with the cottage and the cottage with ‘Autumn archipelago package. Now nature is aglow.’

And it was aglow.

Masses of foliage and apples, damson and shiny russula spread out around them in all their glory. It happened everywhere, that glowing. Wherever one turned one’s gaze there was something ready to be picked or ready to fall, ready in general. Those first days they had, at least to each other, she to him, feigned enthusiasm about all this ripe richness, but that time was over.

Their time of fire and flames was over.

She stopped picking among the bushes, unburdening trees and scraping finds from the peat moss. This morning she had trampled a clump of tricholoma to a mushy paste. It wasn’t fun, either, but at least…. When she came back he had looked up from his jam sandwich and said: ‘Didn’t you find anything?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘Nothing.’

The jam sandwich disgusted her. A grown man. The stunted man’s woman disgusted her even more, a childish woman in open-air uniform with a favourite scarf round her neck, a stupid woman who for three days now had been trying to cover up the hole in reality with the bounties of nature. Lots of stews. To stuff it with jelly, with puree, with love-bleeding mash, while the thrushes pulled at the heart’s strings, yelling about foxes and rowanberries and yelling they were sour, sour, sour.

Quite soon, ready.

‘We must take up the net,’ he said. ‘The gale has died down.’

She thought about killing him right there and then, but thought the better of it. Murder, too, seemed to be a trend these days, and they were not going to follow all the fashions! No – he should be made to kill himself, and thus become unserviceable.

A pleasure to no one.

So they had trudged down to the outboard motor boat. It was called Buster and as he had insisted that Buster should be pulled high up on to land, half way to the woodshed because of the promised gale, they had had to work like dogs in order to get it down into the water again.

And so it had continued.

All the way.

Now they sat on the bay with the bailer and each other and a makeshift net between them. In the net there was, apart from one or two small fish and large quantities of seaweed and sea-grass, also a shining clean tin can which not so long ago had contained meatballs in cream sauce. He had tried to free the damn thing but cut himself and swore. She had said nothing. Well, she had pointed out that they were meatballs produced by a cut-price chain and that they were not good for you, but otherwise she had kept her mouth shut and neither poured oil on troubled waters nor taken umbrage at his use of language, his clumsiness or his cut – which could lead to blood poisoning, amputation and unemployment.

He was surprised. She was pleased.

She was surprised. He was pleased.

They were interchangeable with each other, they were thirty years of life together.

Here on the September sea his eyes were lustreless. That did not console her. Soon he would do something, she knew and tried to enjoy the little she had left, from knowing him best and far too well. ‘A bailer damn well shouldn’t be blue, it’s just bloody impractical,’ he roared a moment later, and she laughed incautiously. It was as though he had finally managed to get the outboard motor going, which until now had refused to work. But she had to laugh alone, he didn’t join in. He gripped the oars in a stranglehold and a vein at his temple beat out messages from an intense inner life.

Splash!

That was the bailer falling into the lake. Bright red in the face he hurled the bailer over the gunwale and she realised that now they really had become what they were – cartoon figures.

Entertainment.

Of course the bailer did not sink. Bobbing happily and seemingly boldly tumbling it stuck to its right to float, and this made him wild. What had to go under must sink! He could not bear his cramped position, his appearance of ridicule, the fact that nothing was said or done. Like a drowning man he fought to eliminate the bailer and in his brain the link was clear: if the bailer sank, his f ability to change his life would float up and take its place.

Give him strength, so that what must be done was done.

He grabbed hold of the rolling log, which lay inactive on the bottom of the boat, to use it to press and force the bailer down. In his hurry he managed to a hit one of the oars, whereupon it floated away, and when, widely sprawling, he tried to rescue the oar he lost his grasp of the rolling log on the other side.

It peacefully took up a position beside the bailer.

Both were floating.

‘Let me help you,’ she said, putting her arms round the cold, wet, seaweed-heavy tangle of nylon net. It frisked about almost comfortably against her body, alive. She hugged, held, knelt slightly and heaved the whole lot overboard. Over the bailer and the rolling log, over the marker.

Her splash was bigger than his. More hollow.

‘Well, it’s not blue now,’ she said. He said nothing. The tangled net, the tin can, the bailer, the whole sorry mess sailed remarkably quietly away from them, carried along by the rolling log. The white cartons of fruit juice which formed the float, shone.

‘Now are you pleased,’ she said, confirmingly. ‘Or shall we throw in some more? We still have the motor and the boards left….’

Plus each other, they thought to themselves, but neither of them said it. He lit a cigarette, she fished up the oar, mainly because it was floating straight at the boat and now thudding headachingly against the metal hull. He pretended not to see it.

When would he say it? She knew that he would, was trying, wishing that he already had. Probably he hoped she would help him say it, being a woman and being able to formulate things. Emotions. Could she not come to meet him and clothe the situation with nice words like ‘new start’ and ‘possibility’ and ‘it might be nice for you too’!

And of course she could have. Life’s refractory equations were her province, she was a master of the impossible. What made him stickily perplexed and furious made her almost greedily capable of action. During the years that had passed he had seen her move mountains when it had been necessary to get the family’s various tasks, timetables and allergies to fit together, in spite of everything.

Sometimes he had thought he saw the mad glint of the true fantasist in her eyes. She was a mountain climber, though with one decisive difference: she climbed downwards. But otherwise she used the same methods in order to reach her goal, hacking and testing, turning and twisting possibilities, went on ahead a bit, and while the other mountaineers were sticking their flags into this or that mountain peak, she had in her own way undermined yet one more complete impossibility and could triumphantly poke her head into the parlour and inform the speechless family that she had now found out how they could celebrate a birthday, attend a private view and do football training in three widely separated places – at the same time!

As planned.

He never understood how it worked out. But it had worked out, for a longtime.

He flicked his cigarette-end away in a wide arc. Everything was quiet now. Sky and sea burned in a harsh blue, and between them flickered the maple and aspen flames of the autumn shores.

The rowan-berries glowed.

‘If the matches get wet there’ll be trouble,’ she thought. Of course she had a box of her own in her pocket but he didn’t know that. She did not smoke. She had it ‘for all eventualities’. For thirty years she had been a box for all eventualities’ ready for anything.

Only not for this, not for the ordinary.

The nights were worst, by this time the maritime sheets on her side of the bed were completely crumpled. She lay in extremis and waited for him to at last take the blade out of his mouth, the life out of her body, but nothing happened! Nothing but ‘good morning’ and that pathetic jam. Nothing but sitting here shivering with cold, bumping archipelago brochures with a fermented Baltic herring.

‘Give me a cigarette.’ she said.

‘But you don’t smoke.’

‘No.’

A flight of cranes split the blueness of the upper storey. They would both rather be birds than sheep-dogs just now, just now and at other times too, but they did not know how. The cranes continued. They left cheerful visiting cards of cries behind them.

‘You don’t fuck twenty-eight-year-olds either,’ said her figure.

‘No, that’s right. Just their daughters,’ said the next speech bubble, and the picture showed a dark man with a sinister, foreign appearance, perhaps a Kirghiz?

Someone has invaded him, she thought. It’s not him sitting there at all, and so I’m not me either, how nice, but then the Kirghiz spilled ash from his eternal cigarette on the white chest of his sweater and it smouldered and he didn’t even notice it and with a whimper she realised that the man must be her husband after all, for there was no one else just like him. It was horrid. They were made of flesh and blood and it was horrid to be for real. Just their daughters – how could he say something so infamous?

The post boat came by. It saved them. The sucking sudden depth of enormous wash waves gave them the foothold that was needed after what had been said, and they rocked, mortally afraid, two ordinary, normal people in a safe sea emergency.

Everything but life, that fragile thing, disappeared.

After all the summer’s wrongly addressed letters the regular driver of the post boat had taken a well-earned vacation. The substitute driver decided, upon closer consideration, that the couple in Buster constituted a stop on the route –why otherwise would they be sitting out there without doing a damn thing? He put the boat into reverse.

‘Jalle has gone to Lapland on holiday,’ he shouted over above the din of the engine. ‘I don’t know your names?’

The water around them boiled.

‘Who?’ shouted the man.

‘We’re not from round here,’ the woman shouted, but it was no use, the words did not carry.

‘Do you want o-o-ne or bo-o-o-th of the newspapers?’

‘We’re not – from – round – here!’ they shouted for all they were worth, in unison this time, and as the chance postillion suddenly turned off the engine it became a rather large and somehow superfluous statement.

‘No… no… ,’ he said quietly in the silence that had arisen. He wondered how Jalle would have handled this.

The woman sat down, the man still stood in the boat. He supported himself with the oars and in his white sweater he was vaguely reminiscent of a Christ on stilts, but the substitute postman did not dare to laugh, they looked so wretched after all. So he added good – naturedly, if against his better judgement: ‘You don’t have to worry about that.’

And then he drove the boat away.

The man and the woman watched him go. They did not look at each other. Now they had made fools of themselves, too, made fools of themselves together and this time not just in front of each other. It did not increase their sense of togetherness.

Life was already an old story.

‘Speed freak,’ said the man, with the appropriate emphasis. The post boat did not go in the same direction as the cranes, it rushed in the opposite direction, but it too disappeared, but that too was gone. One could move about. One could move about in all directions, if one was able. If one did not just sit there.

‘Let me row,’ she said. ‘So we move.’

‘Weren’t you going to have a cigarette?’

‘No,’ she hissed, and began to row with wild fury in the direction of the cottage, though without any particular desire to get there.

They didn’t get there, either. They ended up in a clump of reeds. She didn’t row straight. She had carried bags and children and heavy presents for the sort of number of years that leave their mark, carried them in her right hand than become one-sidedly strong and that was why they ended up in the reeds and not on their own, rented beach.

He sat on the stern thwart and saw where it was heading. He said nothing. All the same he waited for his golden chance and thought that perhaps if we get stuck in the reeds, perhaps then I can put things right, begin in the right way, build a durable bridge of rushes between the will to kindness and the will to happiness? Like a sudden priest, who has no practical experience, he sat in the stern preparing a credible and edifying sermon, one in which the similes would not appear like cribs but like rainbows, which would throw a transfigured light over everything. Open up possibilities. Reveal the poetry. Show that the right way was neither broad nor narrow – it just shimmered!

It was shimmering light, and man’s duty to tread.

Why should she not be able to do it, too? She wasn’t old, it wasn’t that.

No one near him was old.

When the boat got stuck in the clump of reeds and he did not even swear, the fear moved in thick, lumpy surges through her body. It was closer now than ever, was it now it was going to happen and be said? Got over with.

She braced her feet.

She said: ‘What shall we get Johan as a birthday present?’ And he said nothing. And he said nothing and nothing was got over with. They sat in the reeds and turned yellow.

The reeds rustled.

He will never come to the point here, she thought. He hasn’t got the strength. I haven’t got the strength, I can’t stand my ability to stop him any more. He’ll come out with it just before we get home. At the town boundary. Yes, at the first traffic lights at the town boundary he will light one more cigarette and force out ‘I want a divorce’ and I will say ‘I’ve already filed the papers,’ and the lights will turn green and off we will go.

‘Shall we leave here,’ she said.

And he braced his feet and with his index finger he secretly dialled his lover’s telephone number in his left palm. Seven figures. It went easily and he heard her voice cooing. Soon, very soon and he should cut his fingernails beforehand.

‘Did you hear,’ she said.

It’s getting misty, he thought. I’ll say it on the way home. I’ll drive, or yes, if she wants to she can drive at the beginning but towards the end I’ll drive, she mustn’t be at the wheel when I say it. The latest it can be is at the town boundary.

They sat in the reeds. They were yellow.

‘I mean now right away,’ she said.

‘We’ll have to pack first,’ he said.

At the traffic lights nothing was said. There wasn’t anything to say any more. A man had been divorced from his life, that was all.

Another.

They drove through a red light, they wanted to get home and no one saw them. The town was asleep, the people in their beds. They had not stopped since his visit to the corner shop. He was going to get cigarettes and she wanted something to drink, but it didn’t work out that way.

The post boat driver was dead. He had hit a sunken reef and drowned.

A deep gloom reigned in the little shop and no one could understand how it could have happened. It was true that Olof was only substituting for Jalle, but he knew these waters – it was strange. He must have run into something, something that was drifting, it had been some nasty object. He must have veered and gone aground, but that did not explain the net… someone had heard that a net had been tangled round the screw, but this was not known for certain.

The matter was going to be investigated.

They went. He had no cigarettes and for once she had no idea what they ought to do. He drove all the way. And all the way he silently thanked his lucky stars that the net had been their own, he had brought it with them from the town. Now it was only the bailer, that damned blue bailer, which might possibly be traced.

‘It was the mist,’ he said to her over a brandy at home, and she saw his hand was shaking as he poured. He wasn’t going to go anywhere.

‘Yes,’ she said. She felt empty.

‘He was also driving like a madman… so fast.’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Do you think he had children?’

‘Who?’

‘Olof, his name was Olof … do you think he had children?’

He took a deep swallow and a deep breath and then he said in a warm voice: ‘No, he was a typical bachelor. Fathers of families don’t drive like that.’ She said nothing. They drank.

‘Have you thought that…’ she said after a while, ‘that the net, that it wasn’t part of that package, that it was our own net. I’ve been thinking about it – isn’t it terrible?’ They looked at each other and she knew that neither he nor she would go. The double cell of marriage closed around them.

Translated by David McDuff

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