The Session

Issue 2/1982 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Pappas flicka (‘Daddy’s girl’, 1982), an extract of which appears below, is published in Finland by Söderstrom & C:o and in Sweden by Norstedt. The Finnish translation is published by Tammi. Introduction by Gustaf Widén

At first I say nothing, as usual.

Dr Berg also sits in silence. I can hear him moving in his chair and try to work out what he’s doing. Is he getting out pen and paper? Or perhaps he has a tiny soundless tape-recorder he is switching on.

Or is he just settling down, deep down into his armchair, one leg crossed over the other, like Dad used to sit? I used to climb up on to his foot. The he would hold my hands and bounce his foot up and down, and you had to say “whoopsie” and finally with a powerful kick, he would fling me in the air so that I landed in his arms.

I have worked it out that the little cushion under my head is to stop us lunatics from turning our heads round to look at Herr Doktor.

It would certainly be nice to sit bouncing up and down on Dr Berg’s foot. His ankle would rub me between my legs …

I soon start feeling ashamed and blush.

“Mm,” says Dr Berg, as if reading my thoughts. Or can he see my face from where he is sitting? I try rolling my eyes up to catch a glimpse of him, but all I can see is the ceiling with all its thick beams.

“I seem to have been here before,” I say.

“Of course.”

“No, no, you don’t understand what I mean at all.”

He says nothing to that.

“I mean,” I say. “It feels as if I’d been here some time when you were absent.”


“I don’t know if it was a dream, or what it’s all about. But I’ve a definite feeling I’ve walked round this room. I’ve stood in front of that picture. I’ve stood by your desk there, leafing through a book. I’ve sat in your chair. And you were absent.”

“Where was I, then?”

“I don’t know. Just absent.”

“But I wasn’t the one who was absent.”


“Yesterday. It was you who didn’t come.”

“Yes, yes. It was my father’s funeral yesterday.”

He says nothing.

“What the hell? Did you want me to get up in church right in the middle of the funeral just to come here?”

“Why should I want that?”

“Anyhow, I couldn’t get a lift, because Fredrik just went off, and Martina locked herself in her room, and no one bothered about me!” Before I realize it, I’ve added:

“Neither did you.”

He says nothing. I begin to feel worse and worse. These small evasions and white lies. Just like a schoolgirl, or like when I’d taken Dad’s nail-scissors, which I wasn’t allowed to, and then he suddenly asked for them, and I put my hands behind my back, and then he asked me to show him my hands, and he seemed so terribly serious, I just stood there blushing and showed him one hand while managing to hook the scissors on to the back of my trousers with the other, and when I showed him my other hand and turned to get away, he gave me a slap on the backside with the result that the point of the scissors stuck into me, and to this day I don’t know whether he did it on purpose, and then he took me into his arms and comforted me and put a plaster on the wound, and it hurt so terribly; no one could console me like Dad.

When I had thought that far, the silence began to be uncomfortable.

Did Dr Berg really want me to tell him all that?

“Where were we?”

It sounds stupid.

“We were talking about you being absent from yesterday’s session.”

“Yes, yes. You know why.”

Then there was another silence. I started feeling tearful. This would never work. Nothing would ever come of this.

“I don’t expect you to come here if it coincides with your father’s funeral,” he says. “But don’t you notice that you were absent in a very special way?”

I know perfectly well what he is getting at. He presumably knows I know, as he doesn’t wait for me to say it myself, but goes on:

“You stayed away without telling me beforehand. It’s not part of our agreement that you come here if there are insuperable obstacles in the way, such as illness, or why not your father’s funeral? It’d be absurd, in that case. But part of our agreement is that you let me know beforehand if that is the case. The same applies to me, if I’m the one with obstacles. That’s nothing remarkable in itself. You always do that if you’re forced to cancel a meeting with someone, don’t you? But for some reason or other, you failed to do so this time.”

Phew! That was the longest harangue I’ve ever heard him produce, almost a whole monologue. It amuses me; always something gained. It amuses me sufficiently to make me almost forget that grinding sense of guilt.

“You’re angry with me, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” he says. “If I were angry with you, what would that feel like?”

“I apologize,” I say meekly.

I get nothing for that. Clearly that’s not at all the way he wants me to go.

“You stop me,” I say. “I’d just got hold of something which seemed important, and now I’ve gone and forgotten what it was and why it seemed so important.”

But all he contributes is his eternal “Mm.” His recent lengthy tirade must have taken his breath away, and the very next moment I remember: the room.

The room I had walked around on my own. Not his room, but Dad’s.

Dad’s room. Dad’s large empty apartment.

I took a taxi from the hospital. I had to fetch his pyjamas. The driver was a chatterbox who cruised through the traffic as if the other vehicles were gates on a slalom slope. He told me he had once had Olof Palme, the Swedish prime minister, as a passenger; a real gentleman, although they said he was a socialist, and just imagine, a prime minister just getting into a taxi like any ordinary person. Then he started talking about Kekkonen. They all start talking about Kekkonen sooner or later.

It was a long and involved story and I didn’t understand a word of it. I took out pen and paper instead, making myself be as practical and methodical as possible. I achieved a long list – with neat little dashes – of all the things I was going to take back with me: pyjamas and dressing-gown, shaver, toothbrush, comb, handkerchiefs and the photograph of Mother.

His key-ring felt as large and heavy as it had when I was a child.

I used to go on with my game with his keys after we had arrived home. I used to sit on the sofa and carefully put my hand into his pocket. He pretended to be asleep, and just as I got my hand all the way down, he suddenly caught hold of it. “Aha, a pickpocket!” he cried, and then we laughed. I really do wonder why I was always finding my way down into his pockets. Dr Berg is sure to have some ingenious theory about that, which naturally he won’t tell me. Then I used to be allowed to hold his key-ring. While he sat there on the sofa having a nap, I sat playing with his keys. I had only one key myself, the front door key hanging on a string round my neck. Dad had seventeen keys, which must mean he was a very important person with a lot of power. They all looked slightly different. Some were worn, others seemed almost unused. A lot of them were simple yellow keys, like mine. Others were silvery with a whole lot of notches on both sides and a deep furrow down the middle. Sometimes Dad used to tell me which doors he could open with his keys. First there was the car, the basement, the office and the big padlock up in the attic. Then it grew more exciting. He had keys to the stadium tower, Borgbacken, the President’s palace, to Nelson Rockefeller, who was the richest man in the world, to the State Treasury, where all the gold was kept, and to a secret underground passage where he kept a time-machine that could send him off into the future at any minute.

Then I used to ask him if he ever saw me over there, in the future.

He screwed up his eyes and frowned heavily. Then he said he thought he’d seen a woman who might be me. That woman had been all right. She lived in a house outside town with her husband and child. They had a very neat little house, a car of their own, a garage, and a little play-house in the garden: how the hell could he know that?

Or have I, without noticing, arranged my life exactly as I thought Dad would have wanted it?

Or is it in fact Dad who has arranged my life?

There was a little black key that looked different from all the others.

Dad used to say it was the key to God. So that one was sure to go to Him when one was dead.

In actual fact it was the key to his safe.

I remember Mother not liking that.

But Dad just laughed.

We just laughed, Dad and I.

Now I was standing there trying them out in the lock, one after another. It was not easy to keep track of them, taking them in turn and not putting the same key in several times, at the same time trying to wipe my eyes to be able to see anything at all …

I tried being methodical again. The chances of finding the right key among seventeen should be a hundred per cent, fifty-fifty, which meant with a bit of luck, I ought to find the right one among the first eight and a half …

It was the tenth.

I stepped into the hall.

The first thing I saw was the safety-chain on the inside of the front door. It was still broken. Father and all his inventions…

He had tried to invent a safety-chain that could be unhooked even when you were outside the door.

For a whole week he spent his evenings on the landing outside, hammering and sawing and measuring and fiddling about. The apartment got so cold, we had to go round in two sweaters and long woollen pants, and Mother was cross with him.

Maybe she was also thinking of the neighbours.

Dad didn’t do that. Dad never bothered about what the neighbours or anyone else thought.

I helped him as best I could, as usual convinced he was doing something which would make him world-famous.

He also acquainted me with the problems involved.

“What is the purpose of a safety-chain?” he said.

“To fasten the door,” I replied.

“Excellent. And how does it work?”

“You hook it on.”


I demonstrated.

“Excellent,” he said. “But did you notice one thing?”


“To fasten the safety-chain, you have to be on the inside of the door.”

“Of course. You can’t put your hands through the door can you?”

“Exactly. In other words, to be able to use your safety chain, you have to be at home. Excellent. What is a safety-chain for?”

“To keep out burglars.”

“Good. Do burglars come when you’re at home?”

“They might, mightn’t they?”

“And what do you do then?”

“You shout BOO and they run away.”

“Exactly. So you see, it’s when you’re not at home you need a safety-chain. And then you can’t use it. In other words, a safety-chain is an arrangement which is only useful to you when you don’t need it. That’s the core of the nutshell.”

“What nutshell?”

Then he explained that most inventions of importance had seen the light of day under similar circumstances: there was a disparity that was so old and habitual people had stopped thinking about it. What separated the inventor from other people was exactly that ability never to take anything for granted and always regard surroundings with unprejudiced eyes. For in principle, it is always possible, everywhere, at any time, to improve the conditions of life. It was simply a matter of being constantly on guard and never accepting things as they were, or seemed to be.

It sounded grandiose, rather like when they talked about God at Sunday School.

I went in to Mother and told her Dad was busy with the core of the nutshell.

She nodded. “I know,” she said.

Naturally, nothing came of it.

He wearied of it, as usual, from one moment to the next.

Mother had to telephone for a carpenter to come and mend the front door.

And there it went on hanging, Dad’s safety-chain out of order and semicomplete, hanging there year after year. Dad could not even bring himself to unscrew it from the door.

There was a letter lying on the hall floor. I at once recognized Fredrik’s handwriting on the envelope.

A letter from Fredrik to Dad?

It was inexplicable. Why should Fredrik write to Dad?

Out of habit, I put the letter on Dad’s desk in the living-room. The room looked just as it had done all my life, heavy old furniture, a cracked mahogany table, dark covers, dark brown and moss green, like in Dr Bergs room. Engravings on the walls, a smug ancestor in a black hood and wig, and everything that had anything to do with me: childish scribbles, drawings from schooldays, and a picture he’d bought at the private view. He’d insisted on paying for it, although I really wanted to give it to him.

There were traces of him everywhere, newspapers on the sofa, a sock under the table, an ashtray full of cigarette ends.

Right in the middle of the floor was a strange little object.

It consisted of a pyramid of small iron rods soldered together with a scales on top. Then there were some lead weights hanging on thin wires, and in the middle of the pyramid a vessel with a hole in the bottom of it.

An inexplicable object.

Dad’s latest invention.

I would never find out what he had tried to achieve.

A spanner was still on a nut. A clamp was holding a joint together.

A hammer was lying yearning towards a heap of brass nails.

And all I had to do was to fetch his pyjamas.

It was terribly difficult.

I had to become methodical again. I picked up Dad’s invention and marched purposefully across to the “invention cupboard” which was between the kitchen and the hall, as large as a small room.

Mother had called it that. It was where Dad kept his secret arsenal of inventions.

That was where Mother and I eventually used to take his inventions.

That was where I now went, with purposeful steps, Dad’s last invention is my arms.


My throat constricts and suddenly I am furious with him. Can’t he help me? Is he going to leave me lying here like some damned experimental guinea-pig? Can’t he find anything to say to console me? The tears run down my cheeks on to the cushion. That’s of course why he puts a paper tissue on it. He doesn’t want the next lunatic to get wet from the previous lunatic’s tears. My stomach constricts.

I constrict all over. And I had thought the session had been going well.

It was easy to talk and I even forgot that as usual he had said nothing at all. And then things start constricting like this, pain with neither aim nor meaning, as if from primaeval days, descending through the generations, wanting me to do nothing but open my mouth and bawl It all out for life is such a senseless dreadful story that on no account do I want to be part of it. I don’t want to! Dad! I don’t want to!

But I control myself.

Neither should he think he can sit there looking at my distorted face and my hands running round in meaningless circles, over my stomach. Anyhow, my time must surely soon be up, so there’s no point in saying anything at all. Best to control myself, then I don’t have to go out into the waiting-room blubbing like an idiot.

“The session isn’t over yet,” he says.

Can the bastard read my thoughts? Not over yet? Of course it isn’t over, even if there’s only ten seconds left. But I’m going to stop now, anyhow. Otherwise he’ll only interrupt me, and I can’t stand that.

“What happened in the cupboard?”

I begin to feel rather foolish. He seems to know something did actually happen in the cupboard. He seems to know everything about me already. What’s the use of lying here paying out good money? Why can’t he simply tell me what’s wrong with me? Why can’t he simply tell me what I should do to get better, exactly like an ordinary doctor prescribing antibiotics for an infection?

“I found those pictures.”

“What pictures?”

The silence is greater than ever. I can’t even hear him breathing.

If he says “Mm,” I’ll go away and never come back.

But he’s as silent as a dead man. And I bawl:

“All the pictures sold at my first exhibition!”

After that, my head is empty except for one thought: that must have scared the next patient. She’ll probably leave now.

“So your father had bought them all?”

“Yes, he had.”

There is a short pause. As long as he doesn’t say his “Yes, well, then, we’ll meet again tomorrow.”…

“What did it feel like?” he says.


“I can’t. Tell me instead.”

“I was simply furious! I was so angry, I went and opened the letter from Fredrik.”

“Why did you do that?”

“What? He’d cheated me! And Fredrik was sure to be involved.”

“So you wanted revenge. An eye for an eye?”

“Yes. Though it was pointless. It was too late to take revenge on Dad.”

Then out it comes, leaping out as quick as quick, before he had time to end the session.

“So I took revenge on you instead. You had to sit here waiting for me, and it serves you right.”

Suddenly it was all so amusing and the session ends at exactly the right moment. I get up with a bubbling little laugh inside me, and I think he is smiling, too, isn’t he? We shake hands. I warble my way out to the car, where Fredrik is waiting for me, and I’m in such a cheerful mood, I almost give him a kiss on the cheek.


Translated by Joan Tate


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