TRANSLATED FROM THE SWEDISH
BY MARLAINE DELARGY
It was March in northern Oland, and the sun was shining on small, dirty-white snowdrifts as they slowly melted on the lawns at the residential home for senior citizens in Marnas. Two blue flags fluttered in the breeze by the car park – the Swedish flag with its yellow cross, and the flag of Oland with its golden stag. Both were flying at half-mast.
A long, black car moved slowly towards the home and stopped in front of the main entrance. Two middle- aged men in thick winter coats climbed out and went around to the boot of the car, where they slid out a metal trolley. They lowered the wheels and set off, pushing it up the wheelchair ramp and in through the glass doors.
The men were undertakers.
Retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson was sitting drinking coffee in the dining room with his fellow residents when they emerged from the lift. He watched them move along the corridor, pushing the trolley in front of them; on top of it lay yellow blankets and broad straps which would be used to secure the body. The men plodded silently past the dining room and continued towards the service lift, which would take them down to the cold store.
The murmur of conversation among the elderly residents had temporarily died away as the trolley passed by, but now it began once more.
A couple of years earlier, Gerlof recalled, everyone in the home had been asked to vote on whether they wanted the undertakers to park at the back of the building and make their way in discreetly through a side door when they came to collect someone who had passed away. Most had voted against the suggestion, Gerlof included.
The old people in the home wanted to see a dead neighbour’s final journey. They wanted to say goodbye.
The person being collected on this cold day was Torsten Axelsson, and he had died in his bed – alone and late at night, as was often the case when death came. The staff on the morning shift had found him, called a doctor to certify the death, then dressed him in his best dark suit. They had fastened a plastic bracelet with his name and ID number around one wrist, and finally they had wound a bandage around Torsten’s head to keep his jaw closed when rigor mortis set in.
Gerlof knew that Torsten had been well aware of exactly what would happen to him after his death. Before he retired he had worked as a churchwarden and gravedigger. One of the many coffins he had buried belonged to a murderer by the name of Nils Kant, but most of the graves Torsten had dug were for ordinary islanders.
He had dug graves in the churchyard all year round, except when there was a great deal of snow and the temperature below zero reached double figures. It had been particularly difficult to dig in the spring, he had explained to Gerlof, because the frost was so slow to leave the ground on Oland. But the physical exertion hadn’t been the worst thing, Torsten had added: he had found it extremely hard to get out of bed on those days when he knew he had to make his way to the churchyard to dig a grave for a child who had passed away.
Now he would soon be lowered into his own grave. In an urn – Torsten wanted to be cremated.
‘I’d rather burn than have my bones left in the ground, to be tossed here and there,’ he had said.
Things were different in the old days, Gerlof thought. When he was young and some relative died, there were no undertakers or funeral directors to take care of the practicalities. In the old days you died in your bed at home, then some relative would make a coffin.
This thought reminded Gerlof of an old family story. As a newly married couple living in a renovated cottage down in Stenvik at the beginning of the twentieth century, Gerlof’s father and mother had been woken one night by strange noises coming from the attic; it had sounded as if someone was hurling around the leftover planks of wood his father stored up there. But when he went up to see what was happening, everything was silent and there was nothing there. His father came down and went back to bed, and the crashing and banging began again. Gerlof’s parents lay there in the darkness listening to the terrifying noises, not daring to move a muscle.
When Gerlof had finished his coffee, the undertakers came back with the trolley. He could see that there was a body on it now, hidden beneath a blanket and secured with the leather straps. They moved silently and quickly towards the door.
When the outside door closed, Gerlof pushed back his chair.
‘Time to go,’ he said to his companions.
He got slowly to his feet with the help of his stick. He gritted his teeth against the rheumatic pains in his legs and went into the corridor, heading for the supervisor’s office.
For a few weeks now Gerlof had been thinking something over, ever since his birthday, when he suddenly realized he would be eighty-five in just a couple of years. Time was passing so quickly – a year now that he was old was like a week when he was young. Today, following Torsten’s death, Gerlof had made up his mind.
He knocked tentatively on the supervisor’s door, and pushed it open when Boel answered. She was sitting at the computer, filling in some kind of report. Gerlof stood in the doorway, saying nothing. Eventually she looked up.
‘All right, Gerlof?’
‘What is it? Is there some kind of problem?’
He took a deep breath. ‘I have to get away from here.’
Boel started to shake her head. ‘Gerlof …’
‘I’ve already made up my mind,’ he broke in.
‘I’m going to tell you a story …’ Gerlof noticed Boel raising her eyes wearily to the ceiling, but he carried on anyway. ‘My father and mother got married in 1910. They took over an old croft where no one had lived for several years. On that first night when they went to bed, they heard strange noises from the attic … It sounded as if somebody was sorting through the planks of wood my father had stored up there. They could find no explanation for the noise, but the following morning a neighbour called round.’ Gerlof paused for effect, then went on: ‘The neighbour told them that his brother had died over on his farm the previous evening. Then he asked if they could spare him some wood to make a coffin. My father let him go up into the attic alone to choose some planks, and as my parents sat there in the kitchen listening to the banging and crashing from above, they recognized the noise … It was exactly the same as they had heard the previous night.’
Silence fell in the room.
‘And?’ said Boel.
‘It was a sign. A sign of impending death.’
‘Well, that was a very nice story, Gerlof … But what exactly is your point?’
He sighed. ‘The point,’ he said, ‘is that if I stay here, it’ll be my coffin they’re making next. I’ve already heard the planks of wood being moved around. And the rattle of the trolley as it comes to collect the body.’
Boel appeared to give up. ‘So what are you intending to do, then? Where will you go?’
‘Home,’ said Gerlof. ‘Home to my cottage.’