A man called ove a novel, p.8
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       A Man Called Ove: A Novel, p.8

           Fredrik Backman
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  Ove stood in his garden and watched, helpless and in sorrow, as it burned.

  When a few hours later he stood in a telephone booth calling the insurance company, he learned that they had never heard of the jovial man with the round face. There was no valid insurance policy on the house. The woman from the insurance company sighed, impatiently explaining that swindlers often went from door to door claiming to be from their company, and that she hoped at least Ove hadn’t given him any cash.

  Ove hung up, and clenched his fist in his pocket.



  It’s quarter to six and the first proper snowfall of the year has laid itself like a cold blanket over the slumbering community of row houses. Ove unhooks his jacket and goes outside for his daily inspection. With equal surprise and dissatisfaction, he sees the cat sitting in the snow outside his door. It seems to have been sitting there all night.

  Ove slams the front door extra hard to scare it away. Apparently it doesn’t have the common sense to take fright. Instead it just sits there in the snow, licking its stomach. Utterly unconcerned. Ove doesn’t like that sort of behavior in a cat. He shakes his head and plants his feet firmly on the ground. The cat gives him the briefest of glances, clearly uninterested, then goes back to licking itself. Ove waves his arms at it. The cat doesn’t budge an inch.

  “This is private land!” says Ove.

  When the cat still fails to give him any sort of acknowledgment, Ove loses his patience and, in a sweeping movement, kicks one of his clogs towards it. Looking back, he couldn’t swear that it wasn’t intentional. His wife would have been furious if she’d seen it, of course.

  It doesn’t make much difference anyway. The clog flies in a smooth arc and passes a good yard and a half to the left of its intended target, before bouncing softly against the side of the shed and landing in the snow. The cat looks nonchalantly first at the clog, and then at Ove.

  In the end it stands up, strolls around the corner of Ove’s shed, and disappears.

  Ove walks through the snow in his socks to fetch the clog. He glares at it, as if he feels it should be ashamed of itself for not having a better sense of aim. Then he pulls himself together and goes on his inspection tour.

  Just because he’s dying today doesn’t mean that the vandals should be given free rein.

  When he comes back to his house, he pushes his way through the snow and opens the door to the shed. It smells of mineral spirits and mold in there, exactly as it should in a shed. He steps over the Saab’s summer tires and moves the jars of unsorted screws out of the way. Squeezes past the workbench, careful not to knock over the jars of mineral spirits with brushes in them. Lifts aside the garden chairs and the globe barbecue. Puts away the rim wrench and snatches up the snow shovel. Weighs it a bit in his hand, the way one might do with a two-handed sword. Stands there in silence, scrutinizing it.

  When he comes out of the shed with the shovel, the cat is sitting in the snow again, right outside his house. Ove glares in amazement at its audacity. Its fur is thawing out, dripping. Or what remains of its fur. There are more bald patches than fur on that creature. It also has a long scar running along one eye, down across its nose. If cats have nine lives, this one is quite clearly working its way through at least the seventh or eighth of them.

  “Clear off,” says Ove.

  The cat gives him a judgmental stare, as if it’s sitting on the decision-making side of the desk at a job interview.

  Ove grips the shovel, scoops up some snow, and throws it at the cat, which jumps out of the way and glares indignantly at him. Spits out a bit of snow. Snorts. Then turns around and pads off again, around the corner of Ove’s shed.

  Ove puts his snow shovel to work. It takes him fifteen minutes to free up the paving between the house and the shed. He works with care. Straight lines, even edges. People don’t shovel snow that way anymore. Nowadays they just clear a way, they use snowblowers and all sorts of things. Any old method will do, scattering snow all over the place. As if that was the only thing that mattered in life: pushing one’s way forward.

  When he’s done, he leans for a moment against the shovel in a snowdrift on the little pathway. Balances his body weight on it and watches the sun rising over the sleeping houses. He’s been awake for most of the night, thinking of ways to die. He has even drawn some diagrams and charts to clarify the various methods. After carefully weighing up the pros and cons, he’s accepted that what he’s doing today has to be the best of bad alternatives. Admittedly he doesn’t like the fact that the Saab will be left in neutral and use up a lot of expensive gas for no good reason afterwards, but it’s simply a factor that he’ll have to accept in order to get it done.

  He puts the snow shovel back in the shed and goes into the house. Puts on his good navy suit again. It will get stained and foul-smelling by the end of all this, but Ove has decided that his wife just has to go along with it, at least when he gets there.

  He has his breakfast and listens to the radio. Washes up and wipes down the counter. Then goes around the house checking the radiators. Turns off all lights. Checks that the coffee percolator is unplugged. Puts on the blue jacket over his suit, then the clogs, and goes back into the shed; he returns with a long, rolled-up plastic tube. Locks the shed and the front door, tugs three times at each door handle. Then goes down the little pathway between the houses.

  The white Škoda comes from the left and takes him by such surprise that he almost collapses in a snowdrift by the shed. Ove runs down the pathway in pursuit, shaking his fist.

  “Can’t you read, you bloody idiot!” he roars.

  The driver, a slim man with a cigarette in his hand, seems to have heard him. When the Škoda turns off by the bike shed, their eyes meet through the side window. The man looks directly at Ove and rolls down his window. Lifts his eyebrows, disinterested.

  “Motor vehicles prohibited!” Ove repeats, pointing at the sign where the very same message is written. He walks towards the Škoda with clenched fists.

  The man hangs his left arm out of the window and unhurriedly taps the ash off his cigarette. His blue eyes are completely unmoved. He looks at Ove as one looks at an animal behind a fence. Devoid of aggression, totally indifferent. As if Ove were something the man might wipe off with a damp cloth.

  “Read the si—” says Ove harshly as he gets closer, but the man has already rolled up his window.

  Ove yells at the Škoda but the man ignores him. He doesn’t even pull away with a wheel spin and screaming tires; he simply rolls off towards the garages and then onward to the main road, as if Ove’s gesticulation was of no more consequence than a broken streetlight.

  Ove stands rooted to the spot, so worked up that his fists are trembling. When the Škoda has disappeared he turns around and walks back between the houses, so hurried that he almost stumbles over his own legs. Outside Rune and Anita’s house, where the white Škoda has quite clearly been parked, are two cigarette butts on the ground. Ove picks them up as if they were clues in a high-level criminal case.

  “Hello, Ove,” he hears Anita say, cautiously, behind him.

  Ove turns towards her. She is standing on the step, wrapped in a gray cardigan. It looks as if it’s trying to grab hold of her body, like two hands clutching a wet bar of soap.

  “Yeah, yeah. Hello,” answers Ove.

  “He was from the council,” she says, with a nod in the direction in which the Škoda drove off.

  “Vehicles are prohibited in this area,” says Ove.

  She nods cautiously, again.

  “He said he has special permission from the council to drive to the house.”

  “He doesn’t have ANY bloody—” Ove begins, then stops himself and clamps his jaws around the words.

  Anita’s lips are trembling.

  “They want to take Rune away from me,” she says.

  Ove nods without answering. He is still holdin
g the plastic tube in his hand. He pushes his other clenched fist into his pocket. For a moment he thinks about saying something, but then he looks down, turns around, and leaves. He’s already gone several yards when he realizes that he has the cigarette butts in his pocket, but by then it’s too late to do anything about it.

  Blond Weed is standing in the street. Mutt starts barking hysterically as soon as it catches sight of Ove. The door to the house behind them is open and Ove assumes they are standing there waiting for that thing known as Anders. Mutt has something like fur in its mouth; its owner grins with satisfaction. Ove stares at her as he goes past; she doesn’t avert her eyes. Her grin gets even broader, as if she’s grinning at Ove’s expense.

  When he passes between his house and that of the Lanky One and Pregnant Woman, he sees the Lanky One standing in the doorway.

  “Hi there, Ove!” he calls out inanely.

  Ove sees his ladder leaning up against the Lanky One’s house. The Lanky One waves cheerfully. Apparently he’s got up early today, or at least early by the standard of IT consultants. Ove can see that he’s holding a blunt silver dinner knife in one hand. And he realizes he’s most likely intending to use it to lever the jammed upstairs window. Ove’s ladder, which the Lanky One is clearly about to scale, has been shoved at an angle into a deep snowdrift.

  “Have a good day!”

  “Yeah, yeah,” answers Ove without turning around as he trudges past.

  Mutt is outside that Anders thing’s house, barking furiously. Out of the corner of his eye, Ove sees the Weed still standing there with a scorching smile in his direction. It disturbs Ove. He doesn’t quite know the reason for it, but he feels a disturbance in his bones.

  As he walks up between the houses, past the bicycle shed, and into the parking area, he reluctantly admits to himself that he’s walking around looking for the cat, but he can’t seem to find it anywhere.

  He opens his garage door, unlocks the Saab, and then stands there, his hands in his pockets, for what must be in excess of a half hour. He doesn’t quite know why he’s doing it, he just feels that something like this requires some kind of sanctified silence before one heads off.

  He considers whether the paintwork of the Saab will become terribly dirty as a result of this. He supposes so. It’s a pity and a shame, he realizes, but not much can be done about it. He gives the tires a couple of evaluating kicks. They’re in fine order, they really are. Good for at least another three winters, he estimates, judging by his last kick. Which quickly reminds him about the letter in the inside pocket of his jacket, so he fishes it out to check whether he has remembered to leave instructions about the summer tires. Yes, he has. It’s written here under “Saab + Accessories.” “Summer tires in the shed,” and then clear instructions that even a genuine moron could understand about where the rim bolts can be found in the trunk. Ove slides the letter back into the envelope and puts it in the inside pocket of his jacket.

  He glances over his shoulder into the parking area. Not because he’s bothered about that damned cat, obviously. He just hopes nothing’s happened to it, because then there’ll be hell to pay from Ove’s wife, he’s quite sure about that. He just doesn’t want a ticking-off because of the damned cat. That’s all.

  The sirens of an approaching ambulance can be heard in the distance, but he barely takes any notice. Just gets into the driver’s seat and starts the engine. Opens the back electric window a couple of inches. Gets out of the car. Closes the garage door. Fixes the plastic tube tightly over the exhaust pipe. Watches the exhaust fumes slowly bubbling out of the other end of the tube. Then feeds the tube through the open back window. Gets into the car. Closes the door. Adjusts the wing mirrors. Fine-tunes the radio one step forward and one step back. Leans back in the seat. Closes his eyes. Feels the thick exhaust smoke, cubic inch by cubic inch, filling the garage and his lungs.

  It wasn’t supposed to be like this. You work and pay off the mortgage and pay taxes and do what you should. You marry. For better or for worse until death do us part, wasn’t that what they agreed? Ove remembers quite clearly that it was. And she wasn’t supposed to be the first one to die. Wasn’t it bloody well understood that it was his death they were talking about? Well, wasn’t it?

  Ove hears a banging at the garage door. Ignores it. Straightens the creases of his trousers. Looks at himself in the rearview mirror. Wonders whether perhaps he should have put on a tie. She always liked it when he wore a tie. She looked at him then as the most handsome man in the world. He wonders if she will look at him now. If she’ll be ashamed of him turning up in the afterlife unemployed and wearing a dirty suit. Will she think he’s an idiot who can’t even hold down an honest job without being phased out, just because his knowledge has been found wanting on account of some computer? Will she still look at him the way she used to, like a man who can be relied on? A man who can take responsibility for things and fix a water heater if necessary. Will she like him as much now that he’s just an old person with no purpose in the world?

  There’s more frenetic banging at the garage door. Ove stares sourly at it. More banging. Ove thinks to himself that it’s enough now.

  “That will do!” he roars and opens the door of the Saab so abruptly that the plastic tube is dislodged from between the window and the molding and falls onto the concrete floor. Clouds of exhaust fumes pour out in all directions.

  The Pregnant Foreign Woman should probably have learned by now not to stand so close to doors when Ove is on the other side. But this time she can’t avoid getting the garage door right in her face when Ove throws it open violently.

  Ove sees her and freezes. She’s holding her nose. Looking at him with that distinct expression of someone who just had a garage door slammed into her nose. The exhaust fumes come pouring out of the garage in a dense cloud, covering half of the parking area in a thick, noxious mist.

  “I . . . you have to bloo— you have to watch out when the door’s being opened. . . .” Ove manages to say.

  “What are you doing?” the Pregnant One manages to bite back at him, while watching the Saab with its engine idling and the exhaust spewing out of the mouth of the plastic tube on the floor.

  “Me? . . . nothing,” says Ove indignantly, looking as if he’d prefer to shut the garage door again.

  Thick red drops are forming in her nostrils. She covers her face with one hand and waves at him with the other.

  “I need a lift to the hospital,” she says, tilting her head back.

  Ove looks skeptical. “What the hell? Pull yourself together. It’s just a nosebleed.”

  She swears in something Ove assumes is Farsi and clamps the bridge of her nose hard between her thumb and index finger. Then she shakes her head impatiently, dripping blood all over her jacket.

  “Not because of the nosebleed!”

  Ove’s a bit puzzled by that. Puts his hands in his pockets.

  “No, no. Well then.”

  She groans.

  “Patrick fell off the ladder.”

  She leans her head back, so that Ove stands there talking to the underside of her chin.

  “Who’s Patrick?” Ove asks the chin.

  “My husband,” the chin answers.

  “The Lanky One?” asks Ove.

  “That’s him, yeah,” says the chin.

  “And he fell off the ladder?” Ove clarifies.

  “Yes. When he was opening the window.”

  “Right. What a bloody surprise; you could see that one coming from a mile away. . . .”

  The chin disappears and the large brown eyes reappear.

  They don’t look entirely pleased.

  “Are we going to have a debate about this or what?”

  Ove scratches his head, slightly bothered.

  “No, no . . . but can’t you drive yourself? In that little Japanese sewing machine you arrived in the other day?” he tries to protest.

  “I don’t have a driver’s license,” she replies, mopping blood from her lip.
br />   “What do you mean you don’t have a driver’s license?” asks Ove, as if her words are utterly inexplicable to him.

  Again she sighs impatiently.

  “Look, I don’t have a driver’s license and that’s all, what’s the problem?”

  “How old are you?” Ove asks, almost fascinated now.

  “Thirty,” she says impatiently.

  “Thirty?! And no driver’s license? Is there something wrong with you?”

  She groans, holding one hand over her nose and snapping her fingers with irritation in front of Ove’s face.

  “Focus a bit, Ove! The hospital! You have to drive us to the hospital!”

  Ove looks almost offended.

  “What do you mean, ‘us’? You’ll have to call an ambulance if the person you’re married to can’t open a window without falling off a ladder—”

  “I already did! They’ve taken him to the hospital. But there was no space for me in the ambulance. And now because of the snow, every taxi in town is occupied and the buses are getting bogged down everywhere!”

  Scattered streams of blood are running down one of her cheeks. Ove clamps his jaws so hard that he starts gnashing his teeth.

  “You can’t trust bloody buses. The drivers are always drunks,” he says quietly, his chin at an angle that might make someone believe he was trying to hide his words on the inside of his shirt collar.

  Maybe she notices the way his mood shifts as soon as she mentions the word “bus.” Maybe not. Anyway, she nods, as if this in some way clinches it.

  “Right, then. So you have to drive us.”

  Ove makes a courageous attempt to point threateningly at her. But to his own dismay he feels it’s not as convincing as he might have hoped.

  “There are no have-tos around here. I’m not some bloody mobility service!” he manages to say at last.

  But she just squeezes her index finger and thumb even harder around the bridge of her nose. And nods, as if she has not in any way listened to what he just said. She waves, with irritation, towards the garage and the plastic tube on the floor spewing out exhaust fumes thicker and thicker against the ceiling.

  “I don’t have time to fuss about this anymore. Get things ready so we can leave. I’ll go and get the children.”

  “The CHILDREN???” Ove shouts after her, without getting any kind of answer.

  She’s already swanned off on those tiny feet that look wholly undersized for that large pregnant bump, disappearing around the corner of the bicycle shed and down towards the houses.

  Ove stays where he is, as if waiting for someone to catch up with her and tell her that actually Ove had not finished talking. But no one does. He tucks his fists into his belt and throws a glance at the tube on the floor. It’s actually not his responsibility if people can’t manage to stay on the ladders they borrow from him—that’s his own view.

  But of course he can’t avoid thinking about what his wife would have told him to do under the circumstances, if she’d been here. And of course it’s not so difficult to work it out, Ove realizes. Sadly enough.

  At long last he walks up to the car and pokes off the tube from the exhaust pipe with his shoe. Gets into the Saab. Checks his mirrors. Puts it into first and pulls out into the parking area. Not that he cares particularly about how the Pregnant Foreign Woman gets to the hospital. But Ove knows very well that there’ll be no end of nagging from his wife if the last thing Ove does in this life is to give a pregnant woman a nosebleed and then abandon her to take the bus.

  And if the gas is going to be used up anyway, he may as well give her a lift there and back. Maybe then that woman will leave me in peace, thinks Ove.

  But of course she doesn’t.



  People always said Ove and Ove’s wife were like night and day. Ove realized full well, of course, that he was the night. It didn’t matter to him. On the other hand it always amused his wife when someone said it, because she could then point out while giggling that people only thought Ove was the night because he was too mean to turn on the sun.

  He never understood why she chose him. She loved only abstract things like music and books and strange words. Ove was a man entirely filled with tangible things. He liked screwdrivers and oil filters. He went through life with his hands firmly shoved into his pockets. She danced.

  “You only need one ray of light to chase all the shadows away,” she said to him once, when he asked her why she had to be so upbeat the whole time.

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