A man called ove a novel, p.13
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       A Man Called Ove: A Novel, p.13

           Fredrik Backman
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  The stove and kitchen counter are noticeably lower than is usual.

  As if the kitchen had been built for a child. Parvaneh stares at them the way people always do when they see it for the first time. Ove has got used to it. He rebuilt the kitchen himself after the accident. The council refused to help, of course.

  Parvaneh looks as if she’s somehow got stuck.

  Ove takes the electric kettle out of her outstretched hands without looking into her eyes. Slowly he fills it with water and plugs it in.

  “I didn’t know, Ove,” she whispers, contrite.

  Ove leans over the low sink with his back to her. She comes forward and puts her fingertips gently on his shoulder.

  “I’m sorry, Ove. Really. I shouldn’t have barged into your kitchen without asking first.”

  Ove clears his throat and nods without turning around. He doesn’t know how long they stand there. She lets her enervated hand rest on his shoulder. He decides not to push it away.

  Jimmy’s voice breaks the silence.

  “You got anything to eat?” he calls out from the living room.

  Ove’s shoulder slips away from Parvaneh’s hand. He shakes his head, wipes his face with the back of his hand, and heads off to the fridge still without looking at her.

  Jimmy clucks gratefully when Ove comes out of the kitchen and hands him a sausage sandwich. Ove parks himself a few yards away and looks a bit grim.

  “So how is he, then?” he says with a curt nod at the cat in Jimmy’s arms.

  Water is dripping liberally onto the floor now, but the animal is slowly but surely regaining both its shape and color.

  “Seems better, no?” Jimmy grins as he wolfs down the sandwich in a single bite.

  Ove gives him a skeptical look. Jimmy is perspiring like a bit of pork left on a sauna stove. There’s something mournful in his eyes when he looks back at Ove.

  “You know it was . . . pretty bad with your wife, Ove. I always liked her. She made, like, the best chow in town.”

  Ove looks at him, and for the first time all morning he doesn’t look a bit angry.

  “Yes. She . . . cooked very well,” he agrees.

  He goes over to the window and, with his back to the room, tugs at the latch as if to check it. Pokes the rubber seal.

  Parvaneh stands in the kitchen doorway, wrapping her arms around herself and her belly.

  “He can stay here until he’s completely defrosted, then you have to take him,” says Ove, shrugging towards the cat.

  He can see in the corner of his eye how she’s peering at him. As if she’s trying to figure out what sort of hand he has from the other side of a casino table. It makes him uneasy.

  “I’m afraid I can’t,” she says after that. “The girls are . . . allergic,” she adds.

  Ove hears a little pause before she says “allergic.” He scrutinizes her suspiciously in the reflection in the window, but does not answer. Instead he turns to the overweight young man.

  “So you’ll have to take care of it,” he says.

  Jimmy, who’s not only sweating buckets now but also turning blotchy and red in his face, looks down benevolently at the cat. It’s slowly started moving its stump of a tail and burrowing its dripping nose deeper into Jimmy’s generous folds of upper-arm fat.

  “Don’t think it’s such a cool idea me taking care of the puss, sorry, man,” says Jimmy and shrugs tremulously, so that the cat makes a circus tumble and ends up upside down. He holds out his arms. His skin is red, as if he’s on fire.

  “I’m a bit allergic as well. . . .”

  Parvaneh gives off a little scream, runs up to him, and takes the cat away from him, quickly enfolding it in the blanket again.

  “We have to get Jimmy to a hospital!” she yells.

  “I’m barred from the hospital,” Ove replies, without thinking.

  When he peers in her direction and she looks ready to throw the cat at him, he looks down again and groans disconsolately. All I want is to die, he thinks and presses his toes into one of the floorboards.

  It flexes slightly. Ove looks up at Jimmy. Looks at the cat.

  Surveys the wet floor. Shakes his head at Parvaneh.

  “We’ll have to take my car then,” he mutters.

  He takes his jacket from the hook and opens the front door. After a few seconds he sticks his head back into the hall. Glares at Parvaneh.

  “But I’m not bringing the car to the house because it’s prohibit—”

  She interrupts him with some words in Farsi which Ove can’t understand. Nonetheless he finds them unnecessarily dramatic. She wraps the cat more tightly in the blanket and walks past him into the snow.

  “Rules are rules, you know,” says Ove truculently as she heads off to the parking area, but she doesn’t answer.

  Ove turns around and points at Jimmy.

  “And you put on a sweater. Or you’re not going anywhere in the Saab, let’s be clear about that.”

  Parvaneh pays for the parking at the hospital. Ove doesn’t make a fuss about it.



  Ove didn’t dislike this cat in particular. It’s just that he didn’t much like cats in general. He’d always perceived them as untrustworthy. Especially when, as in the case of Ernest, they were as big as mopeds. It was actually quite difficult to determine whether he was just an unusually large cat or an outstandingly small lion. And you should never befriend something if there’s a possibility it may take a fancy to eating you in your sleep.

  But Sonja loved Ernest so unconditionally that Ove managed to keep this kind of perfectly sensible observation to himself. He knew better than to speak ill of what she loved; after all he understood very keenly how it was to receive her love when no one else could understand why he was worthy of it. So he and Ernest learned to get along reasonably well when they visited the cottage in the forest, apart from the fact that Ernest bit Ove once when he sat on his tail on one of the kitchen chairs. Or at least they learned to keep their distance. Just like Ove and Sonja’s father.

  Even if Ove’s view was that this Cat Annoyance was not entitled to sit on one chair and spread his tail over another, he let it go. For Sonja’s sake.

  Ove learned to fish. In the two autumns that followed their first visit, the roof of the house for the first time ever did not leak. And the truck started every time the key was turned without as much as a splutter. Of course Sonja’s father was not openly grateful about this. But on the other hand he never again brought up his reservations about Ove “being from town.” And this, from Sonja’s father, was as good a proof of affection as any.

  Two springs passed and two summers. And in the third year, one cool June night, Sonja’s father died. And Ove had never seen anyone cry like Sonja cried then. The first few days she hardly got out of bed. Ove, for someone who had run into death as much as he had in his life, had a very paltry relationship to his feelings about it, and he pushed it all away in some confusion in the kitchen of the forest cottage. The pastor from the village church came by and ran through the details of the burial.

  “A good man,” stated the pastor succinctly and pointed at one of the photos of Sonja and her father on the living room wall. Ove nodded. Didn’t know what he was expected to say to that one. Then he went outside to see if anything on the truck needed fiddling with.

  On the fourth day Sonja got out of bed and started cleaning the cottage with such frenetic energy that Ove kept out of her way, in the way that insightful folk avoid an oncoming tornado. He meandered about the farm, looking for things to do. He rebuilt the woodshed, which had collapsed in one of the winter storms. In the coming days he filled it with newly cut wood. Mowed the grass. Lopped overhanging branches from the surrounding forest. Late on the evening of the sixth day they called from the grocery store.

  Everyone called it an accident, of course. But no one who had met Ernest could believe that he had run out in front of a car by accident. Sorrow does strange th
ings to living creatures. Ove drove faster than he had ever driven on the roads that night. Sonja held Ernest’s big head in her hands all the way. He was still breathing when they made it to the vet, but his injuries were far too serious, the loss of blood too great.

  After two hours crouching at his side in the operating room, Sonja kissed the cat’s wide brow and whispered, “Good-bye, darling Ernest.” And then, as if the words were coming out of her mouth wrapped in whisks of cloud: “And good-bye to you, my darling father.”

  And then the cat closed his eyes and died.

  When Sonja came out of the waiting room she rested her forehead heavily against Ove’s broad chest.

  “I feel so much loss, Ove. Loss, as if my heart was beating outside my body.”

  They stood in silence for a long time, with their arms around each other. And at long last she lifted her face towards his, and looked into his eyes with great seriousness.

  “You have to love me twice as much now,” she said.

  And then Ove lied to her for the second—and last—time: he said that he would. Even though he knew it wasn’t possible for him to love her any more than he already did.

  They buried Ernest beside the lake where he used to go fishing with Sonja’s father. The pastor was there to read the blessing. After that, Ove loaded up the Saab and they drove back on the small roads, with Sonja’s head leaning against his shoulder. On the way he stopped in the first little town they passed through. Sonja had arranged to meet someone there. Ove did not know who. It was one of the traits she appreciated most about him, she often said long after the event. She knew no one else who could sit in a car for an hour, waiting, without demanding to know what he was waiting for or how long it would take. Which was not to say that Ove did not moan, because moaning was one thing he excelled at. Especially if he had to pay for the parking. But he never asked what she was doing. And he always waited for her.

  Then when Sonja came out at last and got back inside, closing the Saab’s door with a soft squeeze, which she knew was required to avoid a wounded glance from him as if she had kicked a living creature, she gently took his hand.

  “I think we need to buy a house of our own,” she said softly.

  “What’s the point of that?” Ove wondered.

  “I think our child has to grow up in a house,” she said and carefully moved his hand down to her belly.

  Ove was quiet for a long time; a long time even by Ove’s standards. He looked thoughtfully at her stomach, as if expecting it to raise some sort of flag. Then he straightened up, twisted the tuning button half a turn forward and half a turn back. Adjusted his wing mirrors. And nodded sensibly.

  “We’ll have to get a Saab station wagon, then.”



  Ove spent most of yesterday shouting at Parvaneh that this damned cat would live in Ove’s house over his dead body.

  And now here he stands, looking at the cat. And the cat looks back.

  And Ove remains strikingly nondead.

  It’s all incredibly irritating.

  A half-dozen times Ove woke up in the night when the cat, with more than a little disrespect, crawled up and stretched out next to him in the bed. And just as many times the cat woke up when Ove, with more than a bit of brusqueness, booted it down to the floor again.

  Now, when it’s gone quarter to six and Ove has got up, the cat is sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor. It sports a disgruntled expression, as if Ove owes it money. Ove stares back at it with a suspicion normally reserved for a cat that has rung his doorbell with a Bible in its paws, like a Jehovah’s Witness.

  “I suppose you’re expecting food,” mutters Ove at last.

  The cat doesn’t answer. It just nibbles its remaining patches of fur and nonchalantly licks one of its paw pads.

  “But in this house you don’t just lounge about like some kind of consultant and expect fried sparrows to fly into your mouth.”

  Ove goes to the sink. Turns on the coffeemaker. Checks his watch. Looks at the cat. After leaving Jimmy at the hospital, Parvaneh had managed to get hold of a friend who was apparently a veterinarian. The veterinarian had come to have a look at the cat and concluded that there was “serious frostbite and advanced malnutrition.” And then he’d given Ove a long list of instructions about what the cat needed to eat and its general care.

  “I’m not running a cat repair company,” Ove clarifies to the cat. “You’re only here because I couldn’t talk any sense into that pregnant woman.” He nods across the living room towards the window facing onto Parvaneh’s house.

  The cat, busying itself trying to lick one of its eyes, does not reply.

  Ove holds up four little socks towards it. He was given them by the veterinarian. Apparently the Cat Annoyance needs exercise more than anything, and this is something Ove feels he may be able to help it achieve. The farther from his wallpaper those claws are, the better. That’s Ove’s reasoning.

  “Hop into these things and then we can go. I’m running late!”

  The cat gets up elaborately and walks with long, self-conscious steps towards the door. As if walking on a red carpet. It gives the socks an initial skeptical look, but doesn’t cause too much of a fuss when Ove quite roughly puts them on. When he’s done, Ove stands up and scrutinizes the cat from top to bottom. Shakes his head. A cat wearing socks—it can’t be natural. The cat, now standing there checking out its new outfit, suddenly looks immeasurably pleased with itself.

  Ove makes an extra loop to the end of the pathway. Outside Anita and Rune’s house he picks up a cigarette butt. He rolls it between his fingers. That Škoda-driving man from the council seems to drive about in these parts as if he owned them. Ove swears and puts the butt in his pocket.

  When they get back to the house, Ove reluctantly feeds the wretched animal, and once it’s finished, announces that they’ve got errands to run. He may have been temporarily press-ganged into cohabiting with this little creature, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to leave a wild animal on its own in his house. So the cat has to come with him. Immediately there’s a disagreement between Ove and the cat about whether or not the cat should sit on a sheet of newspaper in the Saab’s passenger seat. At first Ove sets the cat on two supplements of entertainment news, which the cat, much insulted, kicks onto the floor with its back feet. It makes itself comfortable on the soft upholstery. At this Ove firmly picks up the cat by the scruff of its neck, so that the cat hisses at him in a not-so-passive-aggressive manner, while Ove shoves three cultural supplements and book reviews under him. The cat gives him a furious look. Ove puts it down, but oddly enough it stays on the newspaper and only looks out of the window with a wounded, dismal expression. Ove concludes that he’s won the battle, nods with satisfaction, puts the Saab into gear, and drives onto the main road. Only then does the cat slowly and deliberately drag its claws in a long tear across the newsprint, and then put both its front paws through the rip. While at the same time giving Ove a highly challenging look, as if to ask: “And what are you going to do about it?”

  Ove slams on the brakes of the Saab so that the cat, shocked, is thrown forward and bangs its nose against the dashboard. “THAT’s what I have to say about it!” Ove’s triumphant expression seems to say. After that, the cat refuses to look at Ove for the rest of the journey and just sits hunched up in a corner of the seat, rubbing its nose with one of its paws in a very offended way. But while Ove is inside the florist’s, it licks long wet streaks across Ove’s steering wheel, safety belt, and the inside of Ove’s car door.

  When Ove comes back with the flowers and discovers that his whole car is full of cat saliva, he waves his forefinger in a threatening manner, as if it were a scimitar. And then the cat bites his scimitar. Ove refuses to speak to him for the rest of the journey.

  When they get to the churchyard, Ove plays it safe and scrunches up the remains of the newspaper into a ball, with which he roughly pushes the ca
t out of the car. Then he gets the flowers out of the trunk, locks the Saab with his key, makes a circuit around it, and checks each of the doors. Together they climb the frozen graveled slope leading up to the church turn-off and force their way through the snow, before they stop by Sonja. Ove brushes some snow off the gravestone with the back of his hand and gives the flowers a little shake.

  “I’ve brought some flowers with me,” he mumbles. “Pink. Which you like. They say they die in the frost but they only tell you that to trick you into buying the more expensive ones.”

  The cat sinks down on its behind in the snow. Ove gives it a sullen look, then refocuses on the gravestone.

  “Right, right. . . . This is the Cat Annoyance. It’s living with us now. Almost froze to death outside our house.”

  The cat gives Ove an offended look. Ove clears his throat.

  “He looked like that when he came,” he clarifies, a sudden defensive note in his voice. Then, with a nod at the cat and the gravestone:

  “So it wasn’t me who broke him. He was already broken,” he adds to Sonja.

  Both the gravestone and the cat wait in silence beside him. Ove stares at his shoes for a moment. Grunts. Sinks onto his knees in the snow and brushes a bit more snow off the stone. Carefully lays his hand on it.

  “I miss you,” he whispers.

  There’s a quick gleam in the corner of Ove’s eye. He feels something soft against his arm. It takes a few seconds before he realizes that the cat is gently resting its head in the palm of his hand.



  For almost twenty minutes, Ove sits in the driver’s seat of the Saab with the garage door open. For the first five minutes the cat stares at him impatiently from the passenger seat. During the next five it begins to look properly worried. In the end it tries to open the door itself; when this fails, it promptly lies down on the seat and goes to sleep.

  Ove glances at it as it rolls onto its side and starts snoring. He has to concede that the Cat Annoyance has a very direct approach to problem-solving.

  He looks out over the parking area again at the garage opposite. He must have stood out there with Rune a hundred times. They were friends once. Ove can’t think of very many people in his life he could describe as such. Ove and Ove’s wife were the first people to move into this street of row houses all those years ago, when it had only recently been built and was still surrounded by trees. That same day, Rune and Rune’s wife moved in. Anita was also pregnant and, of course, immediately became best friends with Ove’s wife in that way only women knew how. And just like all women who become best friends they both had the idea that Rune and Ove had to become best friends. Because they had so many “interests in common.” Ove couldn’t really understand what they meant by that. After all, Rune drove a Volvo.

  Not that Ove exactly had anything against Rune apart from that. He had a proper job and he didn’t talk more than he had to. Admittedly he did drive that Volvo but, as Ove’s wife kept insisting, this did not necessarily make a person immoral. So Ove put up with him. After a period he even lent him tools. And one afternoon, standing in the parking area, thumbs tucked into their belts, they got caught up in a conversation about lawn mower prices. When they parted they shook hands. As if the mutual decision to become friends was a business agreement.

  When the two men later found out that all sorts of people were moving into the area, they sat down in Ove and Sonja’s kitchen for consultations. By the time they emerged from these, they had established a shared framework of rules, signs clarifying what was permitted or not, and a newly setup steering group for the Residents’ Association. Ove was the chairman; Rune, the vice chairman.

  In the months that followed they went to the dump together. Grumbled at people who had parked their cars incorrectly. Bargained for better deals on paint and drainpipes at the hardware store, stood on either side of the man from the telephone company when he came to install telephones and jacks, brusquely pointing out where and how he should best go about it. Not that either of them knew exactly how telephone cables should be installed, but they were both well versed in keeping an eye on whippersnappers like this one, to stop them pulling a fast one. That was all there was to it.

  Sometimes the two couples had dinner together. Insofar as one could have dinner when Ove and Rune mostly just stood about in the parking area the whole evening, kicking the tires of their cars and comparing their load capacity, turning radius, and other significant matters. And that was all there was to it.

  Sonja’s and Anita’s bellies kept growing steadily, which, according to Rune, made Anita “doolally in the brain.” Apparently he had to look for the coffeepot in the fridge more or less daily once she was in her third month. Sonja, not to be outdone, developed a temper that could flare up quicker than a pair of saloon doors in a John Wayne film, which made Ove reluctant to open his mouth at all.
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