Excerpt from Henning Mankell’s Novel AFTER THE FIRE…
(Translated by Marlaine Delargy)
I watched as one boat after another disappeared, the sounds of the different engines gradually dying away.
I knew who each person was out here in the archipelago. There are two dominant families: the Hanssons and the Westerlunds. Many of them are sworn enemies who meet up only at funerals or when there is a fire or a tragedy at sea. At such times all animosity is set aside, only to be resurrected as soon as normal circumstances resume.
I will never be a part of the community in which they live despite all those long-running feuds. My grandfather came from one of the smaller families out here, the Lundbergs, and they always managed to steer clear of any conflict. In addition, he married a woman who came from the distant shores of Åland.
My origins lie here in the islands, and yet I do not belong. I am a runaway doctor who hid in the home I inherited. My medical expertise is an undoubted advantage, but I will never be a true islander.
Besides, everyone knows that I am a winter bather. Every morning I open up the hole I have made in the ice and take a dip. This is regarded with deep suspicion by the permanent residents. Most of them think I’m crazy.
Thanks to Jansson I knew that people were puzzled by the life I led. What did I do, out here all alone on my island? I didn’t fish, I wasn’t a part of the local history association or any other organisation. I didn’t hunt, nor did I appear to have any interest in repairing my dilapidated boathouse or the jetty, which had been badly affected by the ice over the past few winters.
So, as I said, the few remaining permanent residents out here regarded me with a certain measure of distrust. The summer visitors, however, who heard about the retired doctor, thought how fortunate I was to be able to retire to the tranquillity of the archipelago and escape the noise and chaos of the city.
The previous year an impressive motor launch had moored at my jetty. I went down to chase the unwanted visitors away, but a man and a woman carried ashore a crying child who had erupted in a rash. They had heard about the doctor living on the island and were obviously very worried, so I opened up my boathouse clinic. The child was placed on the bench next to the area where my grandfather’s fishing nets still hung, and I was soon able to establish that it was nothing more than a harmless nettle rash. I asked a few questions and concluded that the child had had an allergic reaction after eating freshly picked strawberries.
I went up to my kitchen and fetched a non-prescription anti- histamine. They wanted to pay me of course, but I refused. I stood on the jetty and watched as their ostentatious pleasure craft disappeared behind höga tryholmen.
I always keep a good store of medication for my own private use, and several oxygen cylinders. I am no hypochondriac, but I do want access to drugs when necessary. I don’t want to risk waking up one night to find that I am having a heart attack without being able to administer at least the same treatment as I would receive in an ambulance.
I believe that other doctors are just as afraid of dying as I am. Today I look back and regret the decision I made when I was fifteen years old to enter the medical profession. Today I find it easier to understand my father, a permanently exhausted waiter; he looked at me with displeasure and asked if I seriously thought that hacking away at other people’s bodies was a satisfactory choice in life.
At the time I told him I was convinced that I was doing the right thing, but I never revealed that I didn’t think I had any chance whatsoever of gaining the qualifications to train as a doctor. When I succeeded, much to my own astonishment, I couldn’t go back on my word.
That’s the truth: I became a doctor because I had told my father that was what I was going to do. If he had died before I completed my training, I would have given up immediately.
I can’t imagine what I would have done with my life instead; I would probably have moved out here at an earlier stage, but I have no idea how I would have earned a living.
The last boats disappeared into the morning mist. The sea, the islands, greyer than ever. Only Jansson and I were left. The stinking ruin was still smoking, the odd flame flaring up from the collapsed oak beams. I pulled my raincoat more tightly over my pyjamas and walked around the remains of my house. One of the apple trees my grandfather had planted was a charred skeleton; it looked like something from a theatre set. The intense heat had melted a metal water butt, and the grass was burned to a crisp.
I felt an almost irresistible desire to scream, but as long as Jansson stubbornly hung around, I couldn’t do it. Nor did I have the strength to get rid of him. Whatever happened, I realised that I was going to need his help.
I rejoined him.
‘Can you do something for me?’ I said. ‘I need a mobile phone. I left mine in the house, so it’s gone.’
‘I’ve got a spare one at home that you can borrow,’ Jansson replied.
‘Just until I manage to get a new one.’
Obviously I needed the phone as soon as possible, so Jansson went down to his boat. it’s one of the last in the archipelago that has a so-called hot bulb engine, which has to be started with a blowtorch. he had a faster boat when he used to deliver the post, but the day after he retired he sold it and started using the old wooden boat he had inherited from his father. I have heard every- thing about that boat, including how it was built in a little boatyard in Västervik in 1923 and still has its original engine.
I stayed where I was, beside the smoking ruin. I heard Jansson spin the flywheel. he stuck his head out of the wheelhouse hatch as he waved goodbye.
Everything was quiet in the aftermath of the storm. there was a crow sitting in a tree contemplating the ruin. I picked up a stone and threw it at the bird, which flapped away on weary wings.
Then I went over to the caravan. I sat down on the bed and was overwhelmed by sorrow and pain, by a despair that I could feel all the way down to my toes. it made me hot, like a fever. I let out a yell so loud that the walls of the caravan seemed to bulge outwards. I began to weep. I hadn’t cried like that since I was a child. I lay down and stared at the damp patch on the ceiling, which to my eyes now resembled a foetus. the whole of my childhood had been shot through with an ever-present fear of being abandoned. At night I would sometimes wake and tiptoe into my parents’ room just to check that they hadn’t gone off and left me behind. if I couldn’t hear them breathing I was terrified that they had died. I would put my face as close to theirs as possible until I was sure I could feel their breath.
There was no reason for my fear of being left alone. My mother regarded it as her life’s work to make sure I was always clean and nicely dressed, while my father believed that a good upbringing was the key to success in life. He was rarely at home because he was always working as a waiter in various restaurants. However, whenever he did have time off or was unemployed because he had been sacked for some perceived insolence towards the maître d’, he would open up his very own training academy for me. I would have to open the door between our kitchen and the cramped living room and pretend to show a lady in ahead of me. He would set the table for a fine dinner—perhaps even the Nobel dinner—with countless glasses and knives and forks so that I could learn the etiquette of eating and drinking while at the same time conversing with the elegant ladies sitting on either side of me. Now and again I would be faced with the winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, or the Swedish foreign minister, or the even more distinguished prime minister.
It was a terrifying game. I was pleased when he praised me but constantly worried about doing something wrong in the world into which he led me. There was always an invisible venomous snake lurking among the glasses and cutlery.
My father had actually worked as a waiter at the Nobel dinner on one occasion. his station had been down at the end of the furthest table, which meant he had never been anywhere near the prize-winners or royal guests. But he wanted me to learn how to behave in situations that might arise in life, however unlikely.
I don’t remember him playing with me when I was a child. What I do remember, however, is that he taught me how to do up my own tie and how to knot a cravat before I was ten years old. I also learned how to fold serviettes into a whole array of artistic shapes.
I must have fallen asleep eventually. It’s not unusual for me to seek refuge in sleep when I have suffered some kind of trauma. I can drop off at any time of the day, wherever I happen to be. it’s as if I force myself to sleep, in the same way I used to search for hiding places when I was a child. I set up secret dens among the bins and heaps of coal in the yards behind the apartment blocks where we lived. I would seek out thickets of undergrowth among the trees. Throughout my life I have left a series of undiscovered hiding places behind me. But none of these hiding places has ever been as perfect as sleep.
I woke up shivering. I had left my watch on the bedside table in the house, so that was gone. I went outside and looked at the ruin, which was still smoking. The odd ragged cloud was scudding across the sky; judging by the position of the sun, I guessed it was somewhere between ten and eleven o’clock.
I went down to the boathouse and carefully opened the black-painted door, because the hinges are in poor shape. If I pull too hard, the door comes off completely. There was a pair of dungarees and an old sweater hanging on a hook inside; among the tins of paint I also found a pair of thick socks that my grandmother had knitted for me many years ago. They had been far too big at the time, but now they were a perfect fit. I searched among the spent batteries and rusty tools until I found a woolly hat advertising a television set that had been sold in the 1960s. Always the very best picture it said in barely legible letters.
The mice had been at work—it looked as if it had been peppered with pellets from a shotgun. I pulled it on and went back outside.
I had just closed the door when I spotted a paper bag on the jetty. It contained a mobile phone, some underwear and a packet of sandwiches. Jansson must have come back while I was asleep. he had also left a note on a torn-off piece of a brown envelope.
Phone charged. Keep it. Underpants clean.
Next to the bag stood a wellington boot for the right foot. Mine were green, but this one was black. It was also larger because Jansson has big feet.
There was another note inside the boot.
Sorry, haven’t got green.
I wondered briefly why he hadn’t brought the other half of the black pair, but Jansson operates according to a logic I have never understood.
I took the bag and the boot back to the caravan. Jansson’s flimsy underpants were far too big, but there was something deeply touching about the fact that he had brought them.
I kept my pyjama jacket on as a shirt and pulled on the dungarees and the sweater. I found some paper bags in a drawer, screwed them up and used them to pad out the black wellington boot then sat on the bed and ate a couple of Jansson’s sandwiches; I needed the strength to decide what I was going to do.
A person who has lost everything doesn’t have much time. Or perhaps the reverse is true. I didn’t know.
I heard the sound of an approaching boat. I could tell it wasn’t Jansson; after all the years I have spent living out here, I have learned to identify different types of engine and individual boats. I listened as the vessel came closer and closer, and identified it as one of the coastguard’s smaller boats, a fast thirty-foot aluminium launch equipped with two Volvo diesel engines.
I put down the sandwiches, put on my holey hat and went out- side. the blue-painted boat swung around the headland before I had reached the jetty.
There were three people on board. to my surprise, a young woman was at the helm. She was wearing the coastguard uniform, her blonde hair spilling out from beneath her cap. It was the first time I had seen a woman working on a patrol boat.
She looked alarmingly young, little more than a teenager in fact.
The man standing legs wide apart in the prow, holding the mooring rope, was called Alexandersson. He was about ten years younger than me and the direct opposite of me in physical terms: short and overweight. He was also short-sighted and his hair was thinning.
He was a police officer. A few years ago, after a spate of break-ins at closed-up summer cottages early in the spring, he had called on all the permanent residents to see if we might have noticed anything suspicious. They never found out who was responsible, but Alexandersson and I got on very well. I had no idea whether he knew anything about my past, but after his first visit I thought he could have been the brother I never had.
He owned a little summer cottage on one of the small skerries, which were known as Bräkorna. Whenever he came to see me, we would have a cup of coffee, talk about our health, then discuss the wind and the weather. Neither of us had any reason to get into more serious issues. We would quite happily sit in silence for long periods of time, listening to the birds or the wind soughing in the treetops.
Alexandersson had been married for many years, and his children were grown up. then all of a sudden his wife left him. I have no idea why; I never asked. I sensed a deep sorrow within him. Perhaps I recognised myself in his grief? Yet another of those questions I am incapable of answering.
Alexandersson landed clumsily on the jetty. He looped the rope around one of the bollards before shaking my hand. A man I had never seen before came out on deck and also jumped ashore. He had seemed unsure of how to behave on a boat that was never completely still. He shook my hand and informed me that his name was Robert Lundin and that he was a fire investigation officer. I couldn’t place his accent right away, but I suspected that he came from somewhere up in Norrland, away from the coast.
The young woman had switched off the engine and made fast the stern mooring rope. She came over and nodded to me. She really was very young.
‘Alma Hamrén,’ she said. ‘I’m very sorry about your house.’
I nodded in return, suddenly on the verge of tears. Alexandersson realised what was happening.
‘Shall we go and take a look?’ he said.
Alma Hamrén stayed with the boat; she was composing a text message, her nimble fingers flying. No one commented on my odd wellington boots. I couldn’t even tell whether they had noticed; surely they must have done? Smoke was still rising from various spots in the ruins of my house.
‘Do you have any idea how the fire might have started?’ Alexandersson asked.
I explained that there had been no candles burning, and the stove had gone out by the time I went to bed. I had been asleep for less than two hours when I woke to find the whole house ablaze. I also told him that the wiring had been renewed, and that I couldn’t see any logical explanation as to why the fire had broken out.
Lundin remained in the background, listening. he didn’t ask any questions. I realised it was his job to establish the cause of the fire; I hoped he would succeed. I wanted to know what lay behind this disaster.
Alexandersson and Lundin began to walk around among the debris. I kept my distance, observing their slow progress. Occasionally one of them bent down; they reminded me of watchful animals.
I suddenly felt dizzy and had to lean on the old water pump for support. Alexandersson noticed that I wasn’t feeling well and gave me a searching look. I shook my head and went over to the caravan. I sat down on the steps and made an effort to breathe deeply. After a few minutes I stood up; the dizziness had passed. I set off back to the site of the fire, but stopped as I rounded the corner of the caravan and saw the two men standing among the sooty remains of the roof timbers. they were talking; I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but I immediately had the feeling that they were deliberately speaking quietly, as if they didn’t want anyone else to hear.
From time to time Alexandersson glanced in my direction, but I was still hidden by the greenery surrounding the caravan. I knew, even though I didn’t know. they were discussing the cause of the fire. Saying there were no external factors. Wondering whether I could have started it myself. I held my breath, trying to make sense of it. Could they really believe that I was capable of such a thing? Or was it just that they had to consider every possibility, no matter how bizarre? I stayed where I was until they resumed their slow, meticulous examination of the site. from time to time Lundin took photographs.
I pushed aside the low branches and went to rejoin the men. ‘how’s it going?’ I asked.
‘It takes time,’ Alexandersson replied. ‘It’s difficult.’
‘Very difficult,’ Lundin agreed. ‘There’s nothing obvious.’
The young woman called Alma Hamrén was sitting on the bench where I usually examined Jansson when he turned up with his imaginary aches and pains; she was still busy with her phone. They carried on working for a couple of hours, then said they would probably be back later in the day. I told them I might not be here; I had to go over to the mainland to do some shopping.
I stood on the jetty until the boat had disappeared beyond the headland, then I went back to the remains of the house. They had placed some of the items they had found on a small sheet of plastic. There were fragments of electrical cables, some half-melted fuses from the fuse box, and at the edge of the sheet I saw something I vaguely recognised. When I bent down to take a closer look, I realised what it was. It was one of the buckles from the shoes that Giaconelli, the Italian shoemaker, had made for me some years ago.
At that moment I understood that I really had lost everything. Nothing remained of my seventy-year life.