from Bad People
by Kjell Johansson
Translated by Neil Betteridge
When David, a retired school janitor, suffers a breakdown at his old workplace, he reluctantly agrees to speak to the school psychologist, Lotti. Over a series of visits to David’s home – the formerly ramshackle suburban villa that David grew up in – Lotti teases out some of the details of his past.
Told from David’s sharp-eyed, thoughtful perspective, Dåligt folk (Bad People) looks back over a childhood lived on the edges of society, under the care of a kind but struggling mother, and a brutal travelling-salesman stepfather (also his paternal uncle). In an environment often characterised by shame, exclusion and fear, David retreats inwards – and upwards, to the attic, his one safe space. Still, the grim realities of his upbringing will have echoes throughout David's adult life.
Solidarity with those whom society often overlooks has been a common thread running through Kjell Johansson’s work – most notably in his celebrated novel trilogy De utsatta (The Vulnerable) – and in Dåligt folk he returns to many of the same spaces and themes. The novel is a moving work filled with memorable characters, recounted with compassion, warmth and even humour.
This extract comes from near the start of the novel, shortly after the death of David’s father. When his mother’s struggle with depression becomes too much for her to cope with, David is temporarily taken into care.
from Bad People
In the end, nothing could disperse the darkness surrounding Mum. She didn’t proclaim her grief, she didn’t dress in sackcloth and ashes like in the Bible, and she didn’t tear out her hair; she just brushed it in silence, brushed and brushed it in front of the mirror while staring at the woman with the dark mourning eyes. She grew increasingly listless, increasingly tired, increasingly sickly in body and soul, and finally totally removed from the world.
An ambulance arrived and Mum was taken to Långbro Hospital.
‘Blubbering won’t help,’ said Uncle. ‘What am I going to do with you now?’ he didn’t say. But he said he’d sell me. He said that while walking towards Nyboda children’s home, where I was supposed to stay until Mum recovered.
‘I don’t want to be sold,’ I said and felt my eyes welling up.
‘I was just joking,’ said Uncle.
It hadn’t seemed that implausible to me – Uncle was a businessman, bought and sold anything and everything. He sold watches and clothes and textiles, tools and household utensils, he sold paintings by unknown masters; he sold everything, nothing was too small for him to trade. It would be easier to list the things he didn’t trade in. He’d pack his bags and take the tram to wherever he had to go, to both shops and private individuals, or he’d load up his bike and cycle off, sometimes so far that he’d be away overnight.
Uncle would sell everything he got his hands on, so it wasn’t surprising that I didn’t immediately get the joke. I wonder how much he’d have got for me, I thought.
Nyboda was an institution that took in children whose parents were incapable of caring for them, because they’d died or because they were sick like Mum, because they couldn’t cope with their children or because they’d lost custody of them. Nyboda was big. There were buildings for infants and for school kids. Over two hundred children lived there, some temporarily, others more permanently.
Some never got to return home and were adopted, lined up for inspection and scrutinised by the prospective parents. I wondered if they had to pay to take one away, because then what Uncle said would have made some sense, even if it didn’t apply to me. The pretty little girls went first, I suppose they fetched the highest price.
Most of us who were destined to return home constantly longed for that day, but there were also those who wanted to stay. They felt they’d never had it so good as at the home.
There’s a lot about my stay at Nyboda that I don’t remember, don’t want to remember. How long was I there for? Was it six months, a year? I don’t recall and I don’t have many vivid memories of my time at the home or any of the children, most of whom have remained faceless and nameless. The two that have stuck in my mind were my bed neighbours. The one next to the door was called Bror. He was an unusually pale little boy, with almost pure white hair, white eyebrows and white eyelashes. He was poorly. ‘I’m dying,’ he said already on the first evening. I didn’t know what to say. He smiled.
The boy on my other side was called Ronny. He was a slightly older lad, who had spent more time in the home than anyone else in the dorm. This he took as proof that he was the one who knew most about everything concerning Nyboda, and more besides, for that matter. He was cocksure in his manner and would meet contradiction with contempt, and his fists if necessary. He’d tell newcomers what awaited them at the institution, not out of kindness but because it tickled him to see my and other new arrivals’ terrified faces.
‘You know nothing,’ he said to me. ‘You’ve got no idea what’ll happen if you don’t toe the line. But I’m telling you, you just have to talk during dinner to get walloped, and if the food is so disgusting you throw up,they make you eat your own sick.’
He looked pleased when I said I didn’t want to be at Nyboda.
‘You have to,’ he said. ‘You’ll never get away. Well, unless someone wants to adopt you. Some kids are so stupid that they imagine things’ll be better, but they just become slaves in the foster home and have it even worse than here. But I know a trick to get out of it. If you cough and get all snotty and make yourself really disgusting, you won’t get chosen.’
‘I’m going to run away.’
‘Go ahead and try. They’ll soon catch you and then they’ll chuck you in an ice-cold shower and lock you up in a room without windows, and you’ll have to sit there for days without food. They’re that cruel. You’re stuck here for good, you’re going to die here.’
I couldn’t sleep that night. I lay awake, fretting, thinking that Mum might never get well and would die like Dad. One by one the others fell asleep in the dorm. It felt horrible to be the only one left awake.I said my Our Father, but it didn’t help me get to sleep. The worst thing was that I was scared to sleep too, scared of the nightmares that would come and of never waking up again. The fear of not being able to get to sleep, the fear of sleeping – it stalked me during my time at the children’s home.
I was always the last to drop off and the first to wake, early in the morning. I’d then lie still and wait. What I did for the rest of the day I don’t remember much of.
There were demons there at the home, Ronny was right. They were surly, they snapped and threatened, pulled hair and slapped faces. But there were angels too, with bright smiles and kind words. They would perch on the edge of the bed and comfort the sad, even my pale dorm-mate Bror, who wasn’t sad despite his imminent death.
I kept out of sight of the demons and clung to the angels. With time, I would also steer clear of them too, because I sensed that their kindness was conditional, that they demanded something in return. I grew suspicious of them, felt that at any moment they could reveal a different face to the benevolent mask they hid behind. The ones I came to trust were the indifferent, the ones who did what they were employed to do, neither more nor less. They didn’t care about me, didn’t fish for gratitude, they left me alone.
One day Bror was gone, the boy who was going to die had died. One of the angels carried away his bedding.‘There’s no need to be afraid,’ she said and smiled at me. ‘You can’t catch death.’
Why did she say that? It hadn’t occurred to me that death was something you could catch. Now I thought of Dad who died and of Mum who was sick and could die, too. Uncle could also die, but would that make any difference to me? He never visited me, even though he lived closer than anyone else who had a child at Nyboda.
Most of those due a visit were elated, they were happy and proud, felt superior to us others whom no one visited. They didn’t seem to notice how awkward their visitors often felt, how they stole glances at their watches, hoping that time would soon be up. The dissembled, they chattered merrily, they kissed and hugged and promised them when taking their leave that soon, very soon, their time at the children’s home would be over. It was a promise that was seldom kept.
One evening. I waited until everyone had gone to sleep. I got up as quietly as I could, dressed and snuck out. It was dark. I tried to convince myself that the darkness was on my side. No one could see me, especially if I kept off the road. Yet I was still scared; something, anything, could be lurking behind trees and bushes. The grass was moist, and my feet got wet. It was chilly and I was cold. But home wasn’t far away and before long I could see the house in the distance. The lights were on upstairs. I walked towards the light.
I stood outside the garden under cover of a spruce tree and peered up at our house. It was run-down, the paint was flaking, the walls were infested and home to all manner of insects, and at the bottom the planking was so rotten that chunks would come loose at the slightest touch. The house had no central heating and on cold winter days the tiled stoves were not enough to keep the place warm. It was draughty and the curtains fluttered at the windows. It was damp, and in the spring the cellar floor would fill with water and the damp would creep up and make the kitchen floor so slippery you had to take great care when walking on it. When the water subsided, a white stripe would show how high it had reached. Our house was called Crow Castle, and we in it were known as crows, later rats after I stupidly told kids at school that we had rats in the house.
Bad people live there, is what passers-by obviously thought, judging by the look in their eyes. But we were no worse than others in the area. We were hard up, but so were many families; and we didn’t differ that much from them in appearance or conduct either.
Lundström was the possible exception. He was tall and unnaturally thin, bony and bent-backed; his skin was as grey as ash, his hair was straggly, his beard patchy and he looked much older than he was. His clothes were brown: his cap, scarf, coat, jumper, trousers and shoes. But not his socks. He always had thick grey socks in his shoes.
Lundström stuck out, but I think that rather than Lundström it was the house itself that earned us a dubious reputation. Dark and gloomy, it stood on the steep slope down to Årstaviken in its lonely spot in the forest, secluded – beyond, so to speak. But whatever the house looked like and however it was looked upon and talked about, it was my home and where I wanted to be – not at Nyboda.
I walked across the garden, climbed the twelve steps onto the decking, jumping over the seventh as usual, reached the top and tried the front door. It was locked but opened suddenly and there stood Uncle. ‘You? What are you doing here?’ he said.
He ushered me in and up the stairs onto the upper floor. ‘Wind your neck in,’ he said to Lundström, who had cracked open the door to his hovel. Me he placed on a chair in the kitchen and walked off into the living room. I heard him talk on the phone. He sounded cross, said something about how they ought to run a tighter ship and not let the kids run away willy-nilly. ‘You can forget that,’ he said. ‘You’ll have come and get the boy yourselves.’
‘I don’t want to be at Nyboda, I’m going to die there,’ I said.
‘No, you won’t, David. You won’t do that at all.’
I was soon back at Nyboda.
‘Don’t you think I heard you?’ said Ronny the next morning.‘What did I tell you? If you think you can run away from here, you’re a bloody idiot.’
‘Don’t swear,’ I said.
‘Bollocks to you,’ he said then, and launched into a lengthy harangue containing Fuck and Wank and Shit and Piss and Arse and Dick… He laughed. ‘Look at this,’ he said and removed a rubber band from around his wrist and wrapped it round his index finger. ‘You have to take it off in time or your finger will drop off. Want to give it a try?’
I shook my head.
‘Just don’t tie it round your dick, at least not when you go to sleep,’cause it can’t sit there for too long. If you forget to take it off and fall asleep, by the time you wake up your dick will have dropped off and you’ll be a girl.’
I must have looked doubtful, because he showed me his index finger. It had turned bluish-black. He laughed, chuffed to see my alarmed expression.
Ronny liked telling stories about how the children at the home were treated. ‘Just wait till you start school,’ he said.‘You’ll get aggro from the others in the class and get blamed for everything and you’ll get the worst grades because you’re useless. You’re worth less than piss in a pot.’
He got a kick out of scaring me, and scared I got. Was I never going to get out of here?
One day I was sitting a little way from the entrance, doing absolutely nothing. In the distance a familiar-looking couple, a woman and a man, approached. It was Mum and Uncle! I bounded towards them, cavorted around them, leapt and danced, fell to the ground in front of them and rolled onto my back, whooping. One of the demons had emerged and come bustling over. She pulled me onto my feet and then turned to Mum and Uncle. ‘The parents?’ she asked in an exasperated voice. ‘We have a rule here that one must call to notify us of an intended visit.’
‘We live so nearby, we just wanted...’
‘We have to get my things,’ I said.
‘You’re to stay a little longer,’ said Uncle. ‘Kristina needs a little peace and quiet for the time being.’
‘Aren’t I going home?’
‘Not just yet. Soon.’
I ran off. I stood at a distance, watching Mum and Uncle talking to the demon before leaving.
Stupidly, I told Ronny what had happened.
‘They don’t want to take you home,’ he said.
‘They do, too.’
‘So why didn’t they let you go with them?’
‘Mum needs to get a bit more rest.’
‘So can’t she do that when you’re at home? It’s as I said, you’ll never get away from here.’
That evening, when everyone but me was asleep, one of the angels came and sat on the edge of my bed.
‘Are you sad?’ she asked softly. She stroked my hair. ‘You poor little thing,’ she said.
‘There’s nothing poor about me!’
‘Don’t shout, you’ll wake the others.’
I fell silent, not wishing to wake Ronny in particular. I hated him, I wished I had a hammer to bash his head in with, or a knife to stick in his chest.
‘There’s not the slightest thing poor about me,’ I sobbed.
‘Try to get some sleep now, David. I’ll come and look in on you shortly,’ said the angel and stroked my hair again before leaving the dorm.
Although I was tired I didn’t fall asleep. In the bed beside mine, Ronny was breathing heavily; the bed in which the dead kid had lain was still empty. ‘I don’t want to die,’ I whispered to myself. ‘I don’t want to die.’
‘You won’t,’ a voice said. ‘There’s no need to be afraid.’
On the bed closest to the door sat a boy of my own age, one who was even paler than the one who’d died, transparent almost.
‘Who are you?’ I asked.
‘My name’s Bror.’
‘Aren’t you dead?’
‘Do I look like a dead body?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘We can be friends. Do you want to?’
I nodded. ‘I’m David.’
‘How can you...’
I heard footsteps. It was the angel returning.
‘Haven’t you got to sleep yet?’
I looked around me. ‘There was a boy here,’ I said. ‘He was called Bror.’
‘Is that so?’ she said and smiled at me. ‘I’ll sit here with you until you’re fast asleep.’
I wanted to imagine that she was being kind to me without an ulterior motive.
It would be a long time before I went home. Mum had been discharged from hospital but it had apparently taken a long time for her to recover her strength. But one day she came to collect me.
‘You’ll soon be back,’ said Ronny and walked out of the room. I glimpsed him behind the corner of the house, where he was standing watching us leaving Nyboda. Bror was there too, and he followed right behind Mum and me on that joyous day.
Mum had a new hairdo and was wearing clothes I didn’t recognise. She had changed but I couldn’t put my finger on how. At first we were awkward with each other but that feeling gradually abated. Mum was well, I was happy.
Weyler förlag, 2021, 227 pages
Foreign rights: Magdalena Hedlund, Hedlund Literary Agency
We are grateful to the agent and publisher for permission to publish this translated extract.
Kjell Johansson has received numerous accolades in Sweden and the Nordic countries. He was nominated for the August and Nordic literary prizes in 1998 for Huset vid Flon (The House by the Dam), and later awards include the Trade Union Council’s Ivar Lo prize and Samfundet De Nio’s Stina Aronson prize (2007).
Neil Betteridge is a translator and subtitler working from Swedish to English.