Close encounters

Issue 1/2003 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Stories from Konservatorns blick (‘A conservator’s gaze’, Schildts, 2002). Introduction by Fredrik Hertzberg

Unmarried and randy in a hotel foyer

The hotel foyer in Baghdad was swarming with people as anxious to advertise themselves as westerners at the opening of an art exhibition. I bumped into a man who quickly introduced himself, handed me his card and wondered whether I had an engagement that evening.

‘No,’ I said, truthfully.

‘Then kindly come home with me at nine,’ he said, with a florid gesture in the direction of my breasts.

‘No thank you,’ I answered. ‘I do have an engagement, I’ve just remembered.’

This the man was unwilling to believe. He wondered what country I came from, why I was where I was, whether I was married, whether I had company. His questions were very direct and he was not at all satisfied with the inconsistent answers I gave him, torn as I was between love of truth and an unbridled imagination.

‘But you must come,’ he insisted in English. ‘I am unmarried and needy.’

I found this frank confession of a randy unmarried man more touching than surprising. The heavy luxury of the hotel foyer, the scent of perfume which hung round our bodies like velvet curtains, the crush which forced us all to abandon our need for space aroused powerful if sweaty feelings in married and unmarried alike.

So we continued our conversation even though the home visit project was no longer on. The man told me about his economic status and his job. He manufactured filters for dialysis machines and in connection with this had had a certain amount of contact with Finland. As I have a cousin who has been through dialysis treatment I was also able to come up with something on this subject. We discussed at length the demand, quality and price of filters for dialysis machines. At the same time I gave some thought to the question of whether I should go home with him after all. But when I understood that he lived with his elderly mother I decided against it.

Having both shown how well brought up we were, we spent a long time taking polite leave of one another, as is the custom among Arabs. Later, in a letter to a friend, I described this man and his great need for a woman. As always, she answered quickly and to the point.

‘Once I went to stay with a friend of mine in New York. When I was leaving her husband escorted me to my taxi and said, “Please excuse me for not having come to bed with you, but I’ve got a hell of a cold.”’

In the gap

I was waiting for a bus at a stop in Högbergsgatan Street in Stockholm. A man standing near me seemed irritated.

‘The service is getting worse and worse,’ he lamented. ‘How long d’you think we’re going to have to wait this time?’

I decided not to speculate. I was freezing cold.

He took a step nearer, a conspiratorial step it seemed to me.

‘It’s so extraordinarily unnecessary,’ he whispered.

I didn’t altogether understand what he meant. I wasn’t quite sure that I wanted to. I took a step away from him.

‘There are of course so many other ways of getting around,’ he whispered.

‘I don’t have a car,’ I said in a tone of apology. In some embarrassing way I felt guilty about something which had previously been more of an economic question than a moral one. ‘I haven’t a driving licence either,’ I explained.

He looked amazed, but at the same time uninterested in my automobilistic traumas.

‘I’m talking about an invention of mine,’ he said. ‘I’ve been working on it a longtime. It’s nearly complete now.’

He waited for a grunt of interest from me. I grunted.

‘These energy-consuming contrivances are idiotic,’ he said. ‘It’s not at all necessary to transport so many people together from one place to another. Timetables are stupid.’ I agreed with him there. I’d been waiting for the bus a long time. My feet were freezing.

‘I’ve discovered a method of transporting myself from any place to any other by the power of thought. For example, from Söder here to the US,’ he said confidently. ‘It works. It’s fantastic. There’s only one catch.’

‘Oh really?’ I said. ‘What sort of catch?’

‘I can transport my body all right,’ he went on earnestly. ‘But I can’t take my clothes with me.’

It’s now many years since I met this remarkable man. His aspirations were great, but he’d been born in the wrong age. Perhaps a hundred years from now we will be able to transport ourselves in the manner he imagined. It was also possible more than fifteen hundred years ago, when the early father of the church, Augustine, wrote in The City of God: ‘No need to plan long journeys. If you have faith, you’re already there.’

But at the moment, in the gap between faith and thought, our clothes fall from our bodies, and we stand there utterly naked and freeze.

Blood on my hands

I never planned any violence. Yet I was thrown out of the Hotel Cimabue in Florence with blood on my hands.

It started one Saturday evening just before midnight when my daughter and I arrived at the hotel by car with two sleeping grandchildren. We had booked a room for the night, but before she gave us our key the lady in reception informed us that we had booked for two nights. No, we said, one night. From Saturday to Sunday. No, said the lady, two nights.

Our tight travel-budget had not been planned with a whole weekend in Florence in mind. But by now it was past midnight and too late to find another room. We went to bed. Next morning things were no better. The lady had talked with her husband, the owner of the hotel, who had explained to her that we were trying to cheat them. ‘You come from Finland and have no idea how to book a hotel room. Presumably this is the first time you’ve been free to leave your country.’ I lost my temper and lied that, on the contrary, I’d been round the world several times.

This made no impression on the lady.

We decided to come back later and talk to the husband. His wife followed us out into the street shrieking that she would take payment for two nights, and that she had the fax we’d made the booking with complete with the number of my Visa card. ‘If you do that you’ll be robbing us,’ stated my daughter.

When we got back the wife had gone and the husband had taken her place. He wasn’t the sort of man you argued with, and he wasn’t at all happy we’d called his wife a (potential) thief. But we weren’t happy either when he insisted we’d made a deliberate attempt to damage his finances and line our pockets at his expense.

He stood there holding the fax and went on and on about how he had all the trumps in his hand, and how any police or court of law would agree he was in the right. We were two delinquents from Finland who needed sorting out.

At this my daughter lost her temper. Like a true Nordic woman she demanded the right to be heard, and not to be judged solely on the statements of the prosecution. But equality has not yet reached this level in Italy. The hotel owner raised his voice and shouted that he was well aware of what he was dealing with. ‘You are a hysterical woman!’ he yelled in English, ‘I have seen them before, but you are the worst.’

This was too much for me. I too started yelling and grabbed the fax which he’d put down on the counter and tore it up. He attacked me, biting and scratching. My hands began to bleed. We were thrown off the premises by a hotel owner on the verge of a heart attack shouting that if I’d been a man he would have torn me in two.

‘Be happy you are a woman,’ he roared in English. ‘You terrible Finnish bastard!’

Translated by Silvester Mazzarella

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