Dead calm

31 December 2007 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel En lycklig liten ö (‘A happy little island’, Söderströms, 2007)

In the beginning the computer screen was without form, and void, and the scribe’s fingers rested on the keyboard.

The scribe bit his lower lip. His gaze travelled like a fly from the workroom’s crowded bookshelves to the rocking chair in front of the window and the coloured prints of birds on the walls. He went out into the kitchen and drank some water. Then he sat down in front of the computer again.

To create from nothing a fictitious world assisted only by the tools language places at our disposal, surely that must be a great and exacting undertaking!

The scribe hesitated and racked his brains for a long time before finally typing the first word: ‘sky’. Then after long thought he typed another word: ‘sea’.

Thus sky and sea were created but as yet there was nothing to separate them. He dealt with this problem by laying out a horizon in the far distance and leaving it completely unbroken, for an open horizon at sea was the most beautiful sight he knew.

Then he became increasingly energetic. He placed a sun in the sky to light his new world, and several scattered cumulus clouds mainly for decoration. Then he let a light breeze blow from the south-south-west, force 2 on the wind-scale developed in 1805 by Commander Francis Beaufort as he lay on board his ship in Plymouth Sound waiting for orders to sail. The sunlight glittered and danced on the little waves driven by the breeze.

The scribe needed a piece of terra firma to anchor his narrative so he added to the sea a small rocky skerry. This was nothing but a long narrow granite ridge shaped like a capsized ship about to sink; on its north-western side flat rocks worn smooth by melting glaciers rose gradually from the water, but on its southern side a cliff plunged abruptly into the sea. The scribe created plants and animals for his little island….

On its highest point he set a stunted pine, knotty, surly and twisted. His reason for chosing such a knotty and twisted variant of Pinus sylvestris was that this tree has often been used as a symbol of the harsh life to which the people of the archipelago have been exposed, and of their struggle to preserve their individual characteristics and their right to their own language. A stunted pine is ideal for this function in a narrative of this kind. Then it occurred to the scribe that while he was about it he might as well give his new land a name. So he called it Skogsskär, or ‘Forest Skerry’, because he imagined this was just the sort of name the people who lived there might have chosen for their rocky little island where nothing grew apart from one solitary windswept pine.

He looked at his work and thought: Well, that’ll have to do. And set about creating the first human being.

But if creating sky and sea and a rocky little island equipped with all the plants and birds it needed – not to mention a stunted pine on its highest point – had been relatively easy, the scribe soon discovered that creating a human being was much more difficult. After a great deal of hard work he finally finished the wretched Adam, a pitiful sight.

Adam lay on his stomach in the shallow water below the steep southern point of Skogsskär. The sea rocked him, softly and lazily. The swell gently lifted him against the rocks so that his head touched the cliff, then drew him back a little way before pushing him up to the land again. The first human being patiently submitted to being the plaything of the sea. He stretched out an arm as if trying to grab hold of the land.

Spots of light fractured by the prisms of the waves glided along the seabed round his body. A tuft of green seaweed waved a few centimetres in front of his wide-open eyes. Gulls, posted on stones and rocks, kept watch over him like motionless guardsmen parading in white uniforms and light-grey mantles.

*

The shipping forecast on the radio at 22.05 hours had promised a period of changeable weather with variable winds of 9–14 metres a second and showers of rain. The people of Fagerö island carefully studied sky and sea, tapped their barometers and agreed on a prognosis.

The murmur of the sea became deeper, darker in tone. The wind lifted and stretched out the household pennants on their flagstaffs of the people of Fagerö and from the grey mantles of the sky shook out rain, which pattered on the wet green earth.

The fishing gulls at Tunnhamn harbour cried out in shrill lamentation.

To: policedept@districtadmin

From chiefsuperintendent fagerodistrict.police

Subject: Discovery of bodies

Bodies of two dead women and a youngster about 15 years of age taken by coastguard vessel to Tunnhamn, Fagerö, at about 15 hours. All found washed ashore at Flakaskär skerry southeast of Lemlot, Fagerö. Coastguard Service has made a preliminary investigation of place of discovery and taken photographs. Bodies judged to have been in the water about a week and showing injuries to head, trunk and arms. Deathmarks and gas-bloating also noted…

The wind threw a pattering cluster of raindrops against the windows of the District Administration Office. In his room Riggert von Haartman looked up for a moment from his computer screen.

In the outer office a telephone could be heard ringing, followed by the clerk’s voice: ‘Fagerö District Departmental Office, Wikholm…’

The clock on the wall ticked.

The District Administrator looked at the telephone on his desk – a white plastic cover with black buttons and inbuilt speaker, standard state model. His phone remained silent, clearly not a call for him. He could hear Axelina’s voice in the outer office but it was impossible to make out what she was saying. He turned back to his screen. With stiff forefingers he typed:

No identifying features found on the bodies….

What is District Administrator Riggert von Haartman thinking about this at this moment? Let’s just write him into the story, sitting there at his office computer and putting the finishing touches to a preliminary report on newly found bodies that he’s about to email to the District police department – identical to many reports he has already sent.

With the help of electronic equipment we can access his messages on the police’s internal computer net and read them, even if such a procedure is illegal and renders the scribe liable to prosecution. On the other hand we are in no position to access District Administrator Riggert von Haartman’s private thoughts by electronic or any other means. We cannot look in through his eyes. We have no way of scanning the images stored in the cortex of his brain.

All we can do is describe his appearance – for example, we can say that he has dark rings under his eyes. His eyelids are swollen. His mouth is slack. He pinches the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger….

As far as our narrative is concerned we have now reached an extremely awkward point. We shall have to turn to Post-Janne and ask him to help us carry the story forward.

‘And what’ll it be worth to me if I help you?’ asks Janne with a crafty grin. He’s sitting in stockinged feet and unbuttoned shirt at the table in his little kitchen, drinking herbal tea and munching graham crispbread. The kitchen is as clean and tidy as a health centre – Janne does not keep plates and cutlery covered with dried remains of food lying in the sink, his stainless steel work surfaces have been wiped clean and the glazed-tile wall is spotless. The rings on the electric cooker are immaculate. Spice jars are ranked tidily on the shelf above the oven. A chopping-board is hanging from a hook on the wall next to a couple of crocheted panholders. The microwave gleams.

He has set out on the kitchen table the tools he needs for his unlawful trade – cotton gloves, a sharp knife and a pair of tweezers. There’s a kettle steaming on the hob.

‘You must understand we can’t promise any particular remuneration for your help, Janne,’ says the scribe in answer to his question.

Janne continues to chew his crispbread, crunching it between his molars like sand in a cement-mixer. He is quite clearly chewing something more than mere crispbread. He swallows and rinses his mouth with a sip of tea.

‘May I speak in the strictest confidence?’

‘Of course,’ says the scribe encouragingly.

‘Well, it’s like this. I’m a man in the prime of life, healthy and willing and at the height of my powers. But as things are I’ve never yet been together with a woman. Not because I don’t want to. I’m not one of those! I mean, I really like women… So, well… I’m wondering if maybe you might be able to arrange a woman for me… You being a writer and all that?’

‘I’m afraid that might be just a little bit difficult…’

‘Take the one married to the District Administrator, for example… Hard to find a more decent woman, blonde and stylish.’

‘No, no. Totally inconceivable!’

‘Well, what about Judith’s girl, then?’

‘She’s only seventeen, if I remember rightly.’

‘So what? It’d be perfectly legal.’

Janne!

The kettle on the stove sets up a piercing whistle. Muttering to himself, Janne sifts through the day’s outward post which he has laid out on the kitchen table. There aren’t many letters – Janne complains that even here on Fagerö people are less interested in writing than they used to be. These days they all have phones and computers. What will the future be for the post? It is certainly open to doubt whether these letters will be able to contribute any further material to our story. But Janne is determined to check them even so, and that will take him a little time. While he’s busy violating the sanctity of the post, let’s amuse ourselves with a story – a story of a miraculous rescue, of the danger of travelling on thin ice, and of two kicksledges which end up side by side at the bottom of the sea.

‘Is that worth talking about?’ snorts Janne, as he takes the first envelope in his experienced hands and holds it over the jet of steam from the spout of the kettle….

Post-Janne inherited both his nickname and his job from his father. Johan Styris the Elder was known as the last real postman in the southwest archipelago, a brave man with a strong sense of duty, who never allowed himself to be discouraged by bad weather, fog, difficult conditions either underfoot or on water, or any other problem nature might think up that could obstruct the delivery of the post. Letters, packets, money orders, anything correctly addressed and stamped, had to be delivered to the addressee without undue delay. This was laid down in the Regulations of the Office of Posts and Telegraphs. And Post-Janne the Elder took these rules seriously. He was an employee of the state and thus considered himself a cut above ordinary mortals: they only needed to think of God and the criminal law, but he was subject to the Postal Regulations as well.

All else counted for little when weighed against the Postal Regulations – even matters of life and death.

In the days when there were still permanent residents on the outer islands and before there were any connecting ferry services, it was the postmen who were resonsible for regular communication between the islands. The areas they covered were large and thinly populated. Post-Janne the Elder’s beat was no exception: it included Fagerö, Lemlot, Busö and the other small Gunnarsholm islands, and out as far as Dömaskär and the other inhabited islands spread among the rocky skerries furthest out to sea, including Skogsskär. Janne the Elder carried the post round his territory three times a week. His work was demanding and risky, and sometimes plain life-threatening.

He had his narrowest escape when his boat capsized as he was rounding Domaskär one dark blustery December afternoon. By sheer force of will he freed himself from the sea’s icy grip and dragged himself onto a wretched little spit of rock, swamped by the breakers which the wind was hurling in from the open expanse of Kvigharufjärden bay. No sooner had he struggled to his feet than he realised that the little watertight keg in which he carried the post was missing. Then he saw it bobbing up and down on the waves a little distance from the skerry. Without another thought he went back into the sea and saved the keg.

The most remarkable thing about this was that he had never learned to swim. But somehow he managed to save himself even so.

He took a deep breath and calculated his position.

It wasn’t very promising.

There were people living on Dömaskär – Sylvius Andersson, his wife Manda and their six children. But Dömaskär was more than a nautical mile away and Post-Janne realised there was no point in shouting against the roar of the waves and the storm. He would have to hold out till daybreak when with any luck someone on Dömaskär might look out over the bay and see him on the skerry. He also realised that he had to keep moving; the air temperature was a couple of degrees below zero and the fierce wind needed only a couple of minutes to freeze his wet clothes and transform them into an icy suit of armour.

A weaker man would have given up at this point. But not Post-Janne the Elder. He had a wife and newborn son back home on Fagerö, and he had no intention of ending his days on a wretched skerry out in Kvigharjufjärden bay.

So he began circling the skerry, climbing over icy rocks and stones with the post-keg in his arms. It took him eighty-four steps to get back to the point he’d started from. He did ten circuits clockwise, then turned round and walked anticlockwise. Oddly enough it took him eighty-seven anticlockwise steps to get all the way round. His feet went numb. His calves went numb. The lower part of his belly went numb.

But Janne went on going round and round with the keg frozen fast to the front

of his sweater and to his arms.

He even kept his jaw moving. But he didn’t pray to Our Saviour or sing hymns as most others would have done in the same situation. Because Post-Janne had words more powerful than prayers at his disposal.

Towards dawn the wind veered to the southwest and slackened and a thick raw fog filled the air.

Janne went on circling his skerry, numb and only half conscious.

His mouth continued to move of itself too.

Towards dusk that December day the fog lifted a little and Sylvius on Dömaskär decided to row out and see whether the nets he had laid had survived the storm. His wife went with him in the boat. When they came near Janne’s stony skerry a hoarse voice could be heard croaking: ‘…if any fully stamped package is addressed to a person residing in any location to which it can be delivered without any great delay or significant deviation from the appointed postal delivery route, then this may be done.’

At first Sylvius thought he must be hearing the voice of a sea sprite or perhaps

even Old Nick himself.

‘But no sprite or devil would say such strange things, I’m sure,’ said Manda, a sensible, down-to-earth sort of woman. ‘Let’s row over and have a look.’

So that time Post-Janne the Elder was saved.

‘Well, how’s it going?’

Post-Janne the Younger ignores our question. He’s glancing through the latest letter he’s opened and clicks his tongue. He holds the sheet of paper carefully between two fingers and goes to the bedroom; we follow. The bedroom is just as tidy as the kitchen – the way the bedspread is folded down would be approved by the most exacting drill-sergeant, there are no clothes or newspapers lying about, and there’s a crocheted table mat under the glass of water on the bedside table. Post-Janne’s parents look out solemnly over their only son’s bed from a framed wedding photo hanging on the wall at the head end.

Janne has set up his office in one corner of the bedroom. This is where he keeps his computer, fax machine and photocopier, and he now uses the latter to make a copy of the letter. Then he makes a hole in the copy with a punch. He takes down an accounts folder from a shelf of others like it and clips the copy to it before putting the folder back on the shelf.

‘Naturally I take a copy of every letter that anyone might think could be of the slightest interest, ‘ Janne explains. ‘I study reality. So I’m not forced to make things up as some other folk are.’

Janne takes the original letter back to the kitchen…

‘Please Janne, help us to take our story forward! What are the people of Fagerö thinking? What’s the mood like there? What’s going to happen next?’

Janne doesn’t answer. He stands by the kitchen window with his hands in his pockets; it’s raining again, another shower, with big drops beating on the metal windowsill and water running down the windowpane like tears on a cheek.

The day’s harvest of letters has been sorted. The envelopes are lying on the kitchen table, neatly resealed. A few more pieces have been added to a puzzle that when it’s complete will give a portrait of the little community we call Fagerö. The people who live in the archipelago will at last be seen as fully rounded figures. Janne’s highhanded conduct may be illegal and in many ways reprehensible, but the information he gathers, records and classifies with such scientific accuracy

about the community of Fagerö and its inhabitants is priceless. But for Janne…

‘That’s enough,’ he interrupts. ‘You’re just talking a load of nonsense!’

‘We want to be able to describe what happens when a small community is exposed to unexpected stresses and strains. How people react, both collectively and individually.’

‘Why not just leave us alone? We were getting on perfectly well before you came snooping round here! Just go away!’

Post-Janne is red in the face, his fists clenched in his trouser pockets.

*

‘Perhaps the worst is over now,’ says District Administrator Riggert von Haartman. ‘We haven’t found any new bodies for a couple of days, even though the coastguards and the fire service and we ourselves have been out searching for them. But we’ll remain on full alert until after midsummer just to be on the safe side… Recently… It’s been absolute hell, frankly. The bodies are in ever worse condition, they’ve been lying in the sea for two or three weeks now… seeing to them is incredibly stressful.’

‘I can well understand that.’

‘No you can’t, excuse me. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been directly involved can have any idea what it’s like… All one can do is try to stay detached and forget that these were once human beings, just concentrate on getting the job done…’

‘But how do you manage… really?’

‘The police have to examine the bodies and record what there is to record… We’ve been offered crisis assistance and counselling…’

The Administrator went silent. He was sitting on his garden seat with his left leg over his right knee and one hand holding his lower left shin; his other hand was steadying the glass of whisky resting on his right thigh.

‘But the worst of it is that…’ began the Administrator again, more to himself than to the woman in the chair beside him; he stopped and looked down into his glass, as though savouring his words in his mouth. ‘To date ninety-four dead bodies have been washed up here on the Gunnarsholm islands and a further ten or so have been found elsewhere. It was a bloody awful job from the first, naturally. We organised a collection centre in Tunnhamn harbour and I applied for a backup team of criminal pathologists and technical people to be sent here. At one point we were working round the clock… And of course there was a great influx of journalists, even some from abroad…’

‘I know,’ said Ghita Saarinen. ‘I tried to interview you live on radio.’

‘Well, the days passed, and we kept on finding more bodies. Then the criminal pathologists and technicians were ordered home. Our management complained of being short-staffed and missing their holidays… We were told to do the best we could with the resources we had.’

The Administrator held his whisky glass between two fingers and rotated it like a wine-taster.

‘We stopped conducting post mortems on the bodies,’ he went on. ‘In the end we just made do with an external examination and with establishing that they had really drowned. The District issued a directive to say they should be buried as quickly as possible – just get them underground. In lines of anonymous graves. And the media lost interest and went home.’

‘I wanted to continue reporting but my boss said no.’

‘Exactly.’

‘After the tsunami disaster there was plenty of money to send experts to Thailand to identify the dead and deal with them,’ the woman beside him said vehemently. ‘And the state paid for them to be flown home. The tsunami dominated the news for I don’t know how long… Now more than a hundred unidentified bodies have been washed up here in the archipelago. You’d think adequate resources could be set aside to discover what has happened, who these people are and where they came from. But no one really seems to care. To all intents and purposes the media stops reporting after a week or two. You wonder why… What’s the difference between these people and the tsunami victims.’

She stopped, and looked at Riggert von Haartman.

He raised his glass and drank, twisting his mouth into a grimace.

When he spoke it was in a low, bitter voice. ‘A bright radio journalist like you should be able to work that out.’….

‘Let me try to summarise what you’re saying,’ he began. ‘Forgive me. That’s what we are like, we lawyers, we always have to summarise. Well, in effect you’re saying that it’s rumoured that people are disappearing over there to the south. A question of the homeless, the unemployed, drug addicts, sick people who can’t afford medical care, orphaned children… Hundreds of people have been removed during at least the last six months.’

‘Yes,’ Ghita put in. ‘I’m sure that’s true. And some of them have been killed.’

He changed his position and the basket chair creaked. He doesn’t like being interrupted, she thought, biting her lip. There was a short pause, during which an unhappy moth made another attempt to break out through the window pane. ‘The dead were thrown into the sea. Some of them have been washed up on our own shores, here in Fagerö….’

‘As I said, I’m a lawyer,’ he went on, ‘and as a lawyer I’ve learned to stick to the facts. Well, let’s suppose that what you say really is what happened, that people have been disappearing… Naturally over there to the south they have authorities and keep a record of their population just as we do. If people have been disappearing it must have been reported to the police. There will have been investigations. The media will have been quick to take up the matter.’

‘But suppose these people have no families who can report their disappearance. Or that their families aren’t interested. We too have cases where people lie dead in their homes for several months before anyone notices anything here.’

‘Well, yes, of course such things happen. But several hundred disappearing… It’s bloody difficult to believe this could happen without a massive reaction.’

‘Not necessarily,’ said Ghita.

‘If in some easy way you could get rid of surplus people who are useless from the point of view of productivity and consumption,’ she went on, thinking aloud now. ‘People considered a burden to society. Then it would be cheaper than paying out social assistance and income support and pensions. Many comfortably-off people would think it an excellent idea.’

He gave her a long look.

‘Do you really mean that?’

‘I don’t know,’ she sighed. ‘I really don’t know… But there can be no doubt that in the past people really have solved their social problems in this way… It’s no secret that shopkeepers in the third world pay murder squads to clear away the street children who crowd the pavements in front of their shops. In Central America banana workers who demonstrate against the company that employs them are regularly killed. Tens of thousands of Indian peasants have committed suicide because they can’t afford to buy genetically manipulated seed with the result that they can’t support their families. This causes no outcry. And when the Americans needed the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean as an airbase, d’you know what happened? They forcibly transported the whole population and then lied about it for twenty years… Besides it’s just struck me that… These people we’re talking about, I mean the ones who ended up here on Fagerö, of course – wasn’t it perhaps the whole point that they should be killed? Perhaps the intention was to move them forcibly somewhere else for some reason like the island people of Diego Garcia. But something went wrong. Perhaps they were transported in a boat which sank and they drowned. The matter had to be hushed up, because otherwise it would have put the authorities and the whole country in an unfavourable light. It had to be denied. But of course it could also be that…’

She could hear her own voice. It sounded altogether too shrill. She shut up and left the rest unsaid, hanging in the air, exhausted.

*

It’s autumn, with the wind driving angry foaming waves against the supports of Tunnhamn pier and tearing at the thinning crowns of the birches; yellow dead leaves are dancing over the quay where the ferry docks; a discarded paper bag is tossed high up in the air; the halyard on the flagstaff raps against its pole with a quick tack-tack-tack. The sky is one single moving mass of ragged rolling grey. A formation of scoter ducks flies out over the North bay; they head southward with the wind behind them, and disappear from sight behind Gråharukläppen point.

It is now only local inhabitants and their acquaintances that the ferry Arkipelag carries over the North bay – plus you and me, reader and scribe.

In the cafeteria on board the Arkipelag we find Ghita Saarinen. She has been granted leave of absence from regional radio and is working for a newly-founded human rights organisation that documents unlawful enforced movements of population and other outrages both here at home and abroad and attempts to bring those responsible to justice. At the beginning of the week she returned from a new trip to the south, where with the help of local civil rights activists she investigated a series of unexplained disappearances that have occurred in recent years. During the autumn she will be preparing a comprehensive report based on the information she has managed to collect.

We cannot know any more, because the Arkipelag has reached Tunnhamn and Ghita has to hurry off to her car.

She drives up to Storby, to the Old Administrator’s Residence. Nowadays her little white Nissan Micra can be seen most weekends parked in front of the house beside Riggert von Haartman’s four-wheel-drive Volvo.

Let’s continue our tour of Fagerö – that happy little island in the sea; to have a chance to live there is like winning the lottery.

Or at least that was what the inhabitants of Fagerö themselves used to think.

On the fourth Sunday in August – a sunny but rather cool day with extended cirrus clouds painted like feathers against a pale blue sky – Chaplain Lökström once again stood in the pulpit at Fagerö church, for the first time since that unhappy day before midsummer.

The morning service had been more formal than usual and the church was full, since the bishop was on a visitation to the parish and himself officiated and preached. He had chosen as the text for his sermon 1 Timothy 6:12, in which St Paul says: Fight the good fight of the faith, take hold of the eternal life to which you have been called.

Chaplain Lökström was not seen until they reached the collection hymn. Then the door to the sacristy opened and he came out and climbed up into the pulpit.

His entrance astonished everyone: for all they knew he was still on sick leave. He was extremely pale and those sitting nearest the front thought they could detect tears in his eyes.

From the little nest of the pulpit Lökström glimpsed the blueness of the sea; he looked at the votive ship hanging on its cord from the ceiling and the organ loft and the whitewashed cross-vault; he looked at the wondering, bewildered faces turned up to him from the pews.

His wife was sitting in the front pew with her head bowed.

He drew his hand over his eyes, gripped the sides of the pulpit more firmly and swallowed. His throat was dry, rough as sackcloth.

‘Dear friends…’

He had to begin again.

‘Dear friends… I have a confession to make.’

It had by no means been an easy decision. He had paced the vicarage night after sleepless night; he had tried to pray; he had even cried out to God in his despair; he had wept till his eyes were dry. The bishop had interrupted his holiday to give him spiritual counsel.

But neither meditation, prayer or the bishop’s words had been of any help at all.

‘I want to make a statement Before the Bishop, the Dean and the other members of the Cathedral Chapter,’ began Chaplain Lökström. ‘When death came to our island I failed you. I…’

Again his voice gave him trouble and he was forced to swallow several times. ‘I confess before you all… that I was frightened by these dead strangers who were washed up on our shores. I denied these people. In my great fear I denied them the compassion they had a right to expect. The words I spoke over them were empty noise, nothing more.’

He swallowed again.

‘In medieval pictures that illustrate the ravages of the plague one often sees the dead greeting the living with the words: ‘We were once as you are now. And you will become like us.’ We humans are all alike in the face of death; death is our common lot irrespective of our origins, of the colour of our skin or of which language we speak. Dead or alive, we all have a right to be treated the same. But in my fear and horror I treated these dead people who came here as different from us.’

Chaplain Lökström looked out over the congregation.

‘I failed these strangers. I failed you – I wasn’t able to give you the comfort you had a right to expect of one who calls himself your pastor. I failed myself too. I have no faith left.’

He reached behind his neck and unfastened his white dogcollar.

‘I have decided to lay down my office and leave the congregation. I beg you – forgive me.’

He descended from the pulpit and walked slowly down the central aisle through a crossfire of eyes. When he went out through the porch it was so quiet in the church that you could hear the hinges of the door squeak and the iron latch click as he closed the door behind him.

Translated by Silvester Mazzarella

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