Araben

It was cloudy, and the water shivered in the wind. ‘Perhaps most important subject in school.’
‘Oh yes, definitely,’ she said. She was a human being just like him, and they could both pretend for a moment that he was just there to pay her a visit, like an old friend. He’d bought her flowers and arranged them in a vase in the living room. He wouldn’t drink too much. The air is so cold it holds no dust. That weekend, he took the subway to Gullmarsplan, where he hopped on the bus to the neighborhood where he had once lived. He shook it off. Suddenly a new possibility struck him. Photograph © Carles Tomás Martí Red leaves covered the ground. The only sound was the creaking of the wheelchair. He doesn’t know what it is exactly, but he knows that something is passing him by, right in front of his eyes. It was too much. He felt the tension in her shoulders when he grazed them with the comb. No. Leaving them was the only possibility. This was the second time she had cancelled the kids’ visit. His head felt heavy. How happy they looked. And it worked. They’ll get it, he thought. This would be followed by lunch at 11.00: a different pre-made meal for each weekday was the only variation she allowed for. Though life returns, not all of us will be here to see it spring. He can perfectly recall his last shift with her, and those eyes, the icy blue that made him decide to never return. Fallen leaves made a red-brown soupy mess under his feet as he walked the final stretch to the house on Sandfjärdsgatan. Wind took hold of his body. Before each visit, she would go to the bathroom. Her fur is black with white patches on the belly and by the nose. That’s what brought him here. She nodded. It gets dark early this time of year. She told him her daughter had called the day before to talk about her oldest granddaughter, who was failing math. ‘You foreigners, I mean.’ His hand froze. He couldn’t take it anymore. He stopped at the second high-rise. Always the same food: bread with liver pate and half a serving of oatmeal. He let a section of the towel fall over her face so she couldn’t see him. He didn’t want to count, and anyway it didn’t matter. Between work, his other classes and the children, he hadn’t been able to dedicate much time to studying. He can still picture her moving in her wheelchair between the kitchen and living room in the three-bedroom apartment she occupied by herself. He pulls up his shoulders against the cold and tries to clear his mind, tries to think about something else, tries to feel something else, but it’s impossible. It pushes against his ribs, pulses with his heart. That fall was the time when all he could afford for lunch was three rolls of bread and a small carton of milk from the grocery store in the subway station. They were wearing their rain jackets – hers in red, and his in green, colors they had chosen for themselves a couple of months ago in the store. The snow: cold and creaky, white and thick, greyish by the edge of the road. It was all he had, those two short days every other week. There were so many of them, the old ones, the old ladies. He still knew the apartment like the back of his hand. He rested his head in his hands. ‘I mean to say,’ she continued, ‘maybe it’s something in your culture, that you take better care of your elders? Gerda: her name was Gerda Bengtsson. Gerda would get up at 7.00, roll to the bathroom in her wheelchair at 7.15, have breakfast at 7.30. He turned the wheelchair around so she faced him, and for the first time since the beginning of the conversation, he looked into her eyes. Her life was strictly regimented, just as his is now. What, then, would happen to all he’d sacrificed on his way here? Come up with a plan B, an emergency plan. Fights about inherited money, accusations in court that he’d hit her – lies they’d instructed her to tell so she would have her way. What would it mean for the creased forehead of his mother, the downcast eyes of his father? What do they know, he thought as he watched them head off to buy their wraps and hamburgers. Moving one foot, then the other. Coffee and shortbread cookies at 3 p.m., and buttermilk with cereal at 6 p.m. It is extremely important to be certain, to have no hesitation or doubt whatsoever, that he has enough money to pay with: cash or plastic, it doesn’t matter. The only thing you have to hold on to are your schedules and plans. They both looked out the window. There are still many hours left to kill, hours he knows will need to be broken into little pieces until there’s nothing left but scraps and fragments piled on the ground. His eyes are shiny and clear, but a sense of something elusive rests at the very front of his belly, pushing against the taut skin. He was stuck in a never-ending loop of work, school, shopping, cleaning. There was a basket of blue shoe covers by the door, but he knew Gerda disliked it when he wore them. So they’d be able to look at him the way all children should be able to look at their parents. Which made sense to him. Crystalline, the thought arrived as the fog cleared up outside his window on the eve of the exam he had to retake. ‘A student?’ she said after a few more seconds had passed. He had to be strong. It was for them, he thought. A while later he walks out the door, looking straight ahead with his movements full of purpose. They were mostly women, wrinkled and fragile. He thought the outcome was what counted. In this, she was successful. Outside, the leaves had just fallen. Words he can still hear where he’s standing today, doing an inventory of the contents of his wallet. He who makes the biggest sacrifice and lives the hardest life will get the largest reward in the end – that’s what he thought. He didn’t know how to make it all work. Then he moved around to the back of the wheelchair, lifted the towel again and dried the back of her head. To previous new beginnings, and more recent ones? One day, when they’re old enough, they’ll get it. It would be his third attempt to pass. It might have a fireplace or a balcony with double doors and asymmetrical dimensions. As if it wasn’t enough – that scene she’d caused when she stormed into one of his lectures and threw all the documents he’d asked for through his lawyer across the room. Her eyes were alert as they fixed on him, and she pushed the cookie jar in his direction. Their backs were turned to him and their heads, covered in black curls, were bent over something in the sand that he couldn’t see from where he was standing. He’d reached his limit. Breathe for a few seconds. The idea hit him like a stream of cold water poured down his back. He was the one who’d purchased the furniture and chosen the decor, he’d bought everything for the bathroom and the kitchen, eagerly waiting for them to join him in the new country. Warmth finally starts spreading through his body again and he can relax his shoulders. But he never returned their looks. He loosens his scarf. To everything he’d left behind by the rounded peaks of the Alborz Mountains? His new chance at a regular life – was it the third or fourth attempt now? He couldn’t deal with it. They were silent for a few moments before she continued: ‘Somehow, you are just better at this kind of work than the Swedes, I would say.’ She paused, waiting for him to respond, but he stayed silent. He made schedules to get everything done on time; he crossed off checklists; he lined up his course books, one after another on the shelf, signs of the small steps he had already completed. ‘I’m student, actually. He could probably even get overtime. You can’t be spontaneous when nothing happens anymore. And he knew that what had just happened was part of a new scheme of hers. He’d have his weekends off, evenings off, more time and more money. Yes, certainty and confidence, guarantee and assurance, since he’s had to bear witness to this: the cashier’s turned-away blue eyes and the scent of her chewing gum (pink Bubble Yum), her impatient shuffle of I-have-better-things-to-do-than-this and his broken, ‘I think I must have forgotten.’ The timbre of high-pitched words that break and turn into a whisper. The part-time job paid the bills, but it was more than that. She got her way. No, he couldn’t take it anymore. Forward is the only way he sees. No more exams, no more late nights at the library, never again the heavy burden of difficult words in thick books. The eyes of the judge had said it all, even though he of course couldn’t be convicted without evidence. The children were hers now, but clearly that wasn’t enough. He continues to creak along, looking at the houses, these pretty houses that sell for millions of kronor. Just a small adjustment, a short intermission before real life resumes again. Once he had helped her shower and dry off, he moved on to drying her hair.  
The above is an excerpt from Pooneh Rohi’s novel ‘Araben’. They continued into the bedroom, where a stack of her clean clothes was folded over the back of a chair. Sure, they’d been forced to pay a stiff price, but they would be rewarded for it. He draped the towel across her shoulders and pushed the wheelchair over the threshold and into the hall, where he spoke again. At this time of year everything must die. That’s what he thought at the time. He can hear it crunching with every step he takes. He gazed down at his papers, at the open thermodynamics book. A new country, a new language, and a new chance. He would wash up while she went to the bedroom and put lotion on her face. Her blue eyes met his as he took hold of her leg to pull the garment over the other foot. He takes one step at a time, looking nowhere but ahead. Back and forth she rolled. He reached for the underpants, which were on top of the stack, and began pulling them over her right foot. ‘I must say,’ she began, her head still under the towel, ‘you are very good at this job.’ She removed a strand of hair that had stuck to her cheek. Got custody of the kids. What is a life? ‘In my country, I’m civil engineer. The trees stand naked, their branches exposed and weighed down by snow. Moving forward. He resumed, slowly moving the towel across her head. And just as he’d guessed, there they were, playing in the sandbox. He’d saved all the papers in a box for that day. It’s rare that he can recall the feeling. In between, she would gaze out at Lake Mälaren from her kitchen window or, in the summer, from her glassed-in balcony. They were going to go to the pool. Might that be the case?’ She tried to catch his gaze, but failed. There’s a jingle jangle from the coins in his pocket. A plastic bag in his left hand and a briefcase in the other. He had to make the decision now, before he was struck by hesitation or regret, before he could find excuses. What do they know about struggling, about having a goal? She was sitting in her wheelchair, swaddled in a large blanket. Today almost nothing remains from that period – the marginalia in his books, a few notepads, the soft lines around his eyes. He does remember that other time, when he was as busy as a person can be. And then there were the kids. She wanted to ruin everything that meant something to him. A step in the right direction, he thought. Wind rustled the shrubbery. Even if he left their life right then, they’d always have each other. Their tall windows shine bright as he steps onto the other sidewalk. Nothing gets through the snow. Little brother, wide-eyed, was looking intently at her. Above all, it is of utmost importance to be certain, because why would one ever – in fact, how could one ever – fail to anticipate such matters. It arrived as though it had flown through the sky between the high-rises and over the park and just landed with him. I was director for factory. There was a time when he, too, was a busy man, a man for whom time disappeared into memories, leaving no other trace. Instead, he had his studies and his part-time job at the home-care service for the elderly on weekends and evenings and every weekday he could spare. He had to make a decision, and stick to it. Well, yet another Decision, but this one was especially difficult. ‘Is important, math,’ he nodded. He would write his exam in the morning and pick them up from kindergarten in the afternoon. He needed to make a decision.  
­*
 
That was the fall when time was so short. The hardest path must be the right path. The hours were flexible, which meant he was able to work less during exams. Someone who thought the result was what counted. The others, the young ones, would stare at him and his cheap food, noting how he had the same thing every day. It was a good job. This is extra job for me.’ His voice was shaking, but he tried as hard as he could to keep it steady. Most of them he can’t remember at this point. He can’t see it. He’d prolong the hard times just a bit. He’d painted the children’s room a pale green from Clas Ohlson. He sat down for a moment, asked how she’d been, if she was hungry, if she had already taken her medication. But the sensation of it? He returned the keys to their hook, and went to give notice to Kerstin in her office. He took a few steps into the kitchen, where he knew she had been sitting all morning, looking out onto the lake. She’s here, right now, present, in this world. He has walked past the strollers and the bourgeois mothers and the unending yellow houses and trees – traversed the entire length of this sidewalk, out of a wish to keep to his schedule or out of habit or just to kill time. So he made up his mind. As he walks, he keeps his head down, watching the crunch, crunch, crunch of his feet on white snow. That first fall, in the very beginning, was the hardest. Until he’s back on his feet again. How he was sitting at his desk with his notebooks open, old course books lining the shelf above his head. Recharge. Low shrubbery covered most of his body. On top of it all, of course, were the things she did just to mess with him. He carefully moved the towel over her tender head. Just until they’re old enough to appreciate the complexity of the situation. It would be over. No wavering, no changing his mind again and again. His job introduced him to the forgotten ones, people who were lonely just like him. Sidewalks lined with naked trees: tall pines and other unknown species. He shivered. They’d give it to him if he asked. It was beautiful. ‘Hi there!’ He took his shoes off in the hall. He’d planned it so well. No. ‘So what are you going to become at this old age?’
He told them he didn’t want to see her anymore. He froze. ‘Hello,’ she greeted him. In a few years, when they’re a bit older. There was silence between them. He stops for a moment and looks at the animal. This is another thing he knows with absolute certainty. He used the short, slow movements she had taught him, beginning with the tangles at the end and working upwards. Underneath the thin silver hair, her scalp was exposed. When he was a person with plans. He’d already stocked the fridge and gone out to buy two small gifts on his lunch break: a pink pencil case and a red fire truck. Thin hairs stuck together in little wet clumps. The telephone was still in his hand. He envied them, and at the same time it filled him with joy. His hands were trembling. All that fits within a fur coat. He’d believe anything that came from her mouth. The job, his part-time job. His voice, high-pitched, screaming, still rang through the room. The documents that’d give them all the facts they needed, saved and stored for the final reckoning. A new chapter, a new beginning, a new life. So he could be the father they needed. If the day isn’t merciful and it doesn’t seem like your legs will go easily over the ledge of the bed, you can always choose to turn around and fall back asleep. Her sharp, ice-blue eyes – he’ll never forget them, especially the way they peered at him that last afternoon. A bird is flying towards a hole on the other side of the tree. He keeps walking, scooping his shoulders to preserve the warmth. The window frame is open a small crack, and from it wafts the scent of a private world. The bus came to a halt and he got off. He knew it from the moment the thought came into his mind, even though doing it wasn’t going to be any harder than the act of lifting his feet off a high diving board and plunging into the water. This is real life, here and now. But in the same way, there would be no going back once it was done. Translated from the Swedish by Kira Josefsson 
The snow flattens under his feet as he crosses the empty road. It would add up to much more than the study grant he currently got from the government. He took one. He was starting to feel cold again. He looks up in an attempt to regain focus, shifting his attention to the houses to his side. The streetlight is slowly growing brighter. He was sure that the tighter his chest felt, the larger the reward would be. That was her new strategy – as if it wasn’t bad enough that she had taught Yasaman to call him by his first name. Nothing but a sort of magnetism, an instinct, an insistent pulling heaving debilitating feeling. On the table was a plate strewn with a few breadcrumbs. Big sister was talking about something, as usual. The playground where they always played was in front of two high-rises, right next to the closed kindergarten that would be razed in the spring. He could easily turn it into a full-time position if he wanted to. An icy gust comes in through the window and the cat blinks arrogantly, looks away with a disinterested air and jumps down to the floor. ‘Of course there are so many people coming and going here anyway,’ she had said, ‘But there has got to be some order.’ When Kerstin told him this in front of all the others he had felt a sense of pride, but then he’d looked away and mumbled something before hurrying off to the key cabinet. Cars drive slowly, people walk faster, and the sky is full of clouds that hide the stars and eternity that stretches out behind them. There were toys on the beds in the kids’ room. Though he couldn’t see their faces, he knew exactly what they looked like over there in the sandbox: their round cheeks, soft like peaches, rosy from the chill in the air. Wind rustled the leaves underneath his feet. He let his head hang. That dark fall evening – walking down the street now, he remembers every detail. She didn’t ask any questions, just seemed slightly bewildered before she agreed to his request. Only the tree trunks remain, freezing.  
*
 
He turned the lock and stepped inside. One foot in front of the other. Apartment cleaning on Mondays, groceries on Tuesdays, shower on Thursdays, and a walk Fridays. He could disappear. The other country is insistent within him. People get an education so they can earn enough to buy a house that’s a hundred years old with a courtyard, a black tin roof, perhaps a maid’s chamber. New sheets. It was the time when he had no time at all, when he could barely manage to eat or cook or clean or shower. Postpone the great reward only slightly. So when he joins the throngs of fathers, mothers and children, when he walks past the shelves that hold Via and Pågen bread and Cornflakes and Blå Band sauces, he is certain. Around him, the world shrinks. I have 275 people work for me, you know.’
There was silence again as they crossed the threshold into the living room, rounded the couch, passed the table. Just a few years. Except for Gerda on Anders Reimers Väg. The doors can be kept open in the summer to welcome the sound of the children playing in the courtyard. He looked at his study notes. Cold air billows from his mouth as he puts one foot in front of the other. He’d stayed up until two in the morning cleaning the apartment and changing the sheets in the bunk bed. He gazed down at his shoes, standing in the flowerbed. ‘Today is day for shower,’ he said after a while. The room, which had just been filled with the sound of his shouting voice, now echoed with silence. He can hear the remorse in his own voice, recall the sensation of downcast eyes and flushed cheeks. She was sitting perfectly still with her hands folded in her lap, letting him work through his task. He’d never thought of Swedish as a beautiful language until he heard them speak it. He knows from experience that the way home is always quicker, so once he’s back on the road he tries to walk as slowly as he can. A schedule to follow.  
*
 
The snow is creaking and the sky, still grey, is about to fade to black. The memory is more alive to him than the snow, the trees and the pavement beneath his feet. The curls on their heads danced in the breeze. About having a plan? His plans, or rather his rearranged plans, all his ideas about how to make things right again, to make the world return to its proper order, to make life return to normal so they could get out of this surreal, impossible nightmare and never, ever look back. He asked about her family. An unwashed porridge bowl and the pot she’d made it in sat in the sink. Quiet light fell from the lamp onto the pages he was trying to read. Yellow houses with tall six-part windows and tin roofs are replaced by a highway, a parking lot and finally the entrance to his final destination, the supermarket. That last, hopeful night, he hadn’t slept a wink before his alarm finally sounded and it was time to go to the airport. It was meaningful and important too, and it exposed him to a side of Sweden that was different from the one they taught at the Swedish for Immigrants classes, or the one shown on television. He’d said he should be glad he’d been granted visitation rights. Like all roads, this one too comes to an end. He had to come up with a plan, make a decision, and stick to it. Manual labor, he thought, suddenly shivering in the wind. How effortlessly the language flowed from their lips. Thick, warming fur. ‘Yes, it’s Thursday today.’
He was the only male warden she allowed to help her shower, something she had specifically informed them of at the office. Time can never go by quickly enough. She always knew best. They have each other, he thought, and he felt that cold clear rush down his back again. Afterwards, even his own lawyer had a cooler demeanor than before. A cat is huddling in a kitchen window on the ground floor. How quickly they got used to the new country. No. He’d often sat at that bench, watching them. When Yasaman would be old enough to understand. It’s strange, when he looks back on his life, to think that time was once so quick, while these days it creeps forward at a snail’s pace, minute by minute, second by second. Perhaps that’s what happens to people who have too much time on their hands, he thought. He made the capital D Decision. The sensation of snow and ice and sharp cold air isn’t enough to overcome the memory of sun burning his skin. And there she was, sitting in her wheelchair with a red blanket over her knees. He considered what it would mean to be a caretaker. One step at a time, slowly bringing him home. Financially, it would be enough. Patting through his pockets, he finds his wallet and carefully counts the money. Something that anchors time so it doesn’t float away, something that stops it from going fuzzy and loose with no beginning or end. He knew she did it to exact revenge, to wreak havoc in his life and ruin what was not already ruined. She held up the empty case for him to see. Once he was done with this part, he brought out the comb and slowly began untangling her hair. The exam was tomorrow at 9.00. She offered him some coffee like she always did, and he accepted even though he’d already had some. Nobody could see him from here, but he had a perfect view. After the incident, he swapped schedules with Ililnca, a 50-year-old Romanian woman who, like him, had a degree in civil engineering, and always tried to get as many weekends and evenings as possible. Caretaker as the end and not as the means to get somewhere else. Irreversible. She wanted revenge.