by Jenny Jägerfeld
translated by Susan Beard
Jenny Jägerfeld is a psychologist who has worked with children and teenagers. She is also an author of fiction and has published two novels for adults and three for children and young adults.
In 2017 Jägerfeld was awarded the Astrid Lindgren Prize; the judges commended her sensitive and perceptive writing about major issues in life and her beautiful, easy-flowing prose. In Comedy Queen she tackles a dramatic and painful situation with the bold energy and humour for which she has become renowned. It deals with one of the most devastating events to affect a child – a mother’s suicide – and is the story of twelve-year-old Sasha’s survival technique.
The following extract is from the beginning of the book.
My mum once said there are people who have funny bones. I always thought that meant funny all the way through to their skeleton, like they’re literally made of fun, but Mum meant they were born funny. This kind of person can tell any rubbishy old joke and still make people laugh. It doesn’t even have to be a joke. They can say: Can you pass the milk? and people start sniggering because they say it such an unbelievably hilarious way.
Then there are the other kind, Mum said. The ones who can learn to be funny. Who can literally collect funny stuff and learn how to turn it into a joke, and just practise, practise, practise. And with all this practice they find out what makes people laugh and so they do it even more.
Then there’s a third kind and they aren’t funny at all, however hard they try. (I think my teacher Cecilia is quite possibly in that category.)
I SO want to have funny bones. I want to be someone who’s funny without even trying, who just stands up in the classroom and says:
‘You know what, my dad took me to an art gallery and it was about as exciting as picking your nose.’
And Cecilia and the class are like:
They literally double over and have to hold their stomachs. They’re laughing so much it hurts. Between the fits of laughter they somehow manage to say:
‘Shut UP Sasha … we can’t take any more!’
But actually they want me to carry on and so I do, I carry on, and even their laughing isn’t making me laugh, and I’m like standing there with the world’s worst poker face and I say:
‘So we were standing there, right, looking at this painting and it looks like someone has just tripped and SLOPPED a tin of paint over the canvas, I mean, literally happened to kick over a tin when he was like on his way to the toilet! But my dad’s like: “Really? It looks more as if he wants to tell us how he’s struggling to be an ARTIST.”’
And boom! Everyone EXPLODES with laughter. They fall off their chairs, Cecilia too, and they can’t talk, they just roll around on the floor, screaming hysterically.
Unfortunately, I suspect my bones aren’t, you know, super funny. To be honest, I probably wasn’t born funny. But looking at it positively I don’t think I belong to the third kind either, the ones who aren’t funny at all. I absolutely do make people laugh when I say things (I’ll start working out what, exactly). So that means I most likely belong to the second kind. The people who can actually learn.
But I WANT to have funny bones. I WILL be one of those people. My plan is to swap my half-boring bones for funny bones one at a time! And I’m nothing if not goal-orientated. All right, I know Dad thinks I’m goal-orientated in the wrong direction. Like I’ve got the wrong goal, basically. That I should take school more seriously. I mean, at this precise moment he’s wandering round and round the kitchen muttering that I’m not learning enough about the earth’s crust and its innermost core. Sorry, but I don’t think that feels important. Off the top of my head I can’t imagine a situation where my life depends on how much I know about the different layers of the earth. And if so: Hello? Google!
On the other hand, my life actually does depend on having funny bones. I’m not even exaggerating. It’s true. I just won’t survive otherwise.
Like a Clown Designed It
Cecilia stands at the front of the classroom talking about the earth’s crust in a voice that sounds like even she is totally SHOCKED at how insanely interesting this all is.
‘The earth’s crust is between five and seventy kilometres thick!’
On the white screen beside her is a cross-section of the earth. Right in the middle is a kind of white blob and then there are different layers of orange and red. On the outside is the earth’s crust. The earth looks pretty comical to me, like one of those multi-coloured super jet balls. A little scary to think we’re living on a planet that looks like a clown could have designed it. I try to think up a joke.
‘Oh, how nice to have a glass of juice and a plate of earth crusts spread with butter!’
Hmm. SCAB crusts might be funnier? But then people would say: ‘Eeuw! Disgusting!’ and you’d rather not be a person people said ‘Eeuw’ to.
Marta is sitting beside me, drawing on a sheet of paper Cecilia handed out. Marta is called Mattie by literally everybody except me.
Even Cecilia calls her that. But to me she’s Marta, because that kind of rhymes with heart. And Marta has the biggest heart of anyone I know. I lean over to have a look and her curly blonde hair tickles my chin. She’s turned the earth into a little old man with a hat and a moustache and one of those single glasses type things that hang from a chain. What’s it called? Monaco? Manacle? Mon oncle. My uncle?! Something like that. Coming out of the man’s mouth is a speech bubble that says:
‘I’m a little old earthling.’
I smile at Marta because it is actually quite funny. She giggles back. She’s got such a sweet giggle. She sounds exactly like a little kid that’s being tickled. I whisper to her:
‘I’ve just thought of something.’
‘Oh, what?’ Marta whispers back.
‘I’m going to be a comedian. A stand-up!’
Marta can’t answer because suddenly Cecilia is standing right by our desks.
‘Listen up, Sasha Rein and Mattie Sjöld!’
We look up at her. There is a dramatic pause.
‘Did you know that in certain places there are only FIVE KILOMETRES between our feet and what is known as the earth’s mantle,’ Cecilia says, looking at us with bulging eyes and a gaping mouth, like a presenter on children’s TV. ‘How many kilometres, Sasha and Mattie?’
‘Five kilometres,’ we say obediently, at the same time.
In a way it’s good to have a teacher who shows an interest. Bosse, who we had in fourth grade, mostly sat looking miserable and playing with his phone. Bosse’s idea of teaching was to put on a film about some random subject, sneak out of the room ‘to get some papers’ and then not come back until the lesson was over. Bosse went off sick last autumn and then we got Cecilia. I like Cecilia. Some of our class (by that I mean Tyra) get irritated because she’s always wearing the same clothes. A white or grey T-shirt. Blue jeans that people (by that I mean Tyra) think are too tight. A typical Tyra comment, spoken while she’s chewing gum with her mouth open and obsessively fiddling with her long brown hair: ‘Like, literally, how hard can it be to buy trousers in the right size? Or does she think bulging flesh is a good look?’
Excuse me, but who cares what Cecilia wears? She’s not teaching with her arse, is she?
Tyra is my classmate, although that’s an idiotic word because she isn’t my mate. I know many people have the same problem. But what can we say? Class enemy? No, that’s a bit too strong, we must find a neutral word for it! Class being? Class person? Tyra is my class person. Not brilliant, but it will have to do.
Anyway, Dad thinks Cecilia seems ‘sound’. And she can actually get people to shut up. That wasn’t exactly Bosse’s field of expertise, you might say.
Cecilia smacks the pointer against the white screen and the whole earth wobbles. Nisse jumps.
‘Do you know how far five kilometres is?’ She waits for an answer. ‘Well, five kilometres is FIVE THOUSAND METRES. That’s about as far from here to FRUÄNGEN.’
Unclear to me exactly where Fruängen is, but whatever.
My class mates, or class people, stare at her like they’re hypnotised. Cecilia has that effect on people.
‘The mantle is SEVERAL THOUSAND degrees hot! Imagine, here, just under our feet, is a floating mass several thousand degrees hot!’
Cecilia taps the floor with her Croc, which makes all of us stare down at the beige lino. Nisse even lifts his feet up. It’s like some boiling hot mantle is going to come bubbling up any minute.
‘HOW many degrees, Nisse?’
She waves the pointer at him, looking like a sword fighter challenging someone to a duel. Except Nisse hasn’t got a sword. Or an answer either, it seems.
‘Umm, a lot?’ Nisse says, uncertainly.
‘Yes! Many THOUSAND, in fact!’
When for a split-second Cecilia turns to face the globe, Marta shoves a note under my nose. She’s drawn a smiley face with the words: ‘You’ll be the best comedian ever!’
That makes me happy. And I hope she’s right.
I zone out and stare through the window at the tree directly outside. Bare, skinny branches covered in a thin layer of snow. I’ve got more important things to think about than the earth’s stupid crust. If I’m going to cultivate funny bones then I’ll have to concentrate. Work hard and methodically. What is funny, exactly? One way of making up jokes could be by thinking of different funny subjects and writing down whatever comes into your head.
I stare at the sheet of paper with the cross section of the earth. Turn it over and write:
FUNNY/ ANNOYING THINGS:
When Marta asked why people wanted those enormous hamster beards and I was like, what? And in the end it turned out she meant HIPSTER beards.
When my earphones get tangled up.
When people talk non-stop through a film: ‘Who’s he? What’s she doing?’ and I’m like ‘Please! Watch the film and you’ll find out!’
Everything everyone does on social media. Like posting amazing photos of themselves and then writing how ugly they are, just to fish for compliments (Tyra). Or #hashtag #totally#illogical#stuff. Or when they write something ‘meaningful’ like: ‘I’m so sad. No-one would understand . . . not about this.’ And I’m like: ‘Shit! What happened?’ and they’re like: ‘Oh, nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Oh, really? WELL DON’T THEN!!’ (That’s why I’ve given up social media. Except for YouTube, that is. I do actually have to watch clips of stand-up routines.)
When Dad comes in and chats about something and I’m like, ‘Okay, yeah, yeah’ and then he goes out and doesn’t shut the door and I have to yell at him ‘Shut the door!’ and he comes back and pulls the door almost but not quite closed and I’m like ‘Aarghh! What did I say?’
When Mum is …
I stop in the middle of the sentence. Lift the pen from the page. Because I was going to write ‘When Mum is in a bad mood and wants me to speak German with her and won’t even answer me when I don’t.’
That’s what I was planning to write. But I don’t. Because I don’t have to get annoyed by that any more. I wish, I really wish I could get annoyed by her again. I wish it so much my heart almost breaks. I’d speak German all the time even though I’m such rubbish at it. I’d never do anything else if only it would bring her back. Ich wurde immer deutsch sprechen.
For a few nanoseconds at a time I forget she’s dead. Like now. The seconds it took to write ‘When Mum is . . .’.
Of course, it’s brilliant that I don’t think of her all the time. But later, when I do remember, the darkness fills my chest. The darkness that’s like a bottomless pit, stretching out in all directions. It’s like pieces of my heart fall down into it. Fall in and disappear. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get them back. If my heart will ever be whole.
I rub the words out. I rub out ‘When Mum is . . .’. I rub so hard I make a hole in the paper.
The Art of Patting a Rabbit
I walk home through Aspudden Park. Marta and I usually walk together but on Tuesdays she has banjo, believe it or not. Of all the instruments in the universe, she chooses the BANJO. But like, who am I to judge? Once she said she loves her banjo better than she loves her little brother, but I don’t quite believe that. It was after what she calls the great BANJO TRAUMA, when he happened to smear peanut butter all over the banjo, so she was probably influenced by that, at a guess. After that she started calling him the banjo bandit. She keeps her banjo in a shiny black case with gold-coloured clips and lined with green velvet. I reckon not even the King’s crown is kept in a more beautiful case.
The air is clear and cold, and the sun is so low in the sky that I’m dazzled by its golden white light. The trees are still bare and there are huge patches of snow here and there. If I’ve got time I usually say hello to the rabbits in the park. Petting animals always makes me feel so incredibly happy and calm and my heart goes kind of soft. Okay, not ALL animals. I don’t think I’d be either happy or calm if I petted a crocodile or a poisonous scorpion, but you get the picture.
The rabbits live in four small enclosures with four rabbits in each. There’s one unbelievably sweet and cuddly rabbit I call Cookie Dough, although its real name is Pistachio. Pistachio nuts are green so I’m not sure what they were thinking of. Cookie Dough isn’t green. No, she looks like she’s made of fluffy ice cream with chunks of biscuit in it. Not only that, she’s insanely sweet because she’s half lop-eared or Aries rabbit and half something else, maybe Gotland rabbit, and that means one of her ears hangs down like a lop-eared rabbit, and one sticks right up in the air! I recognise myself in Cookie Dough because I’m also half Aries, in a manner of speaking. I was born at 3 minutes to twelve on the night of 20 March, exactly on the cusp of the star signs Pisces and Aries. But luckily my ears don’t hang down or stick up but are relatively normal human ears, I’d like to add.
When I get to the enclosure I spot Cookie Dough straight away. She’s sitting there munching a little piece of straw. Her thick, white rabbit teeth are moving frantically. I don’t suppose she has a dad who keeps telling her to eat SLOOOOWLY, like certain other people. (NOTE: I mean me.)
‘Hello, Cookie Dough,’ I say, and she stops chewing and looks up at me.
And maybe it’s only my imagination, but every time I call her Cookie Dough I think she looks kind of grateful. Like she’s saying: ‘At last! At last someone who gets that I’m not GREEN!’
I climb over the fence and crouch down about half a metre away from her. The other rabbits nervously hop under some rocks, but not her. She stays where she is and carries on munching her little straw. One centimetre at a time disappears into her mouth. Her pale pink nose wrinkles when she sniffs the air. I take off my mitten and carefully reach out my hand. Cookie Dough smells it as if she was a dog. Then I gently stroke her cookie-dough-patchy fur. She’s so soft you can barely believe it, softer than the inside of Marta’s banjo case. Not many people know the right way to stroke a rabbit. Rabbits often get scared and run off. The secret is not to make any sudden moves, but instead move your hand very, very slowly. Because even though rabbits move fast themselves, they’re not keen when others do it. Slowly I reach out for another piece of straw, which I hold out to Cookie Dough.
‘Come here, sweetie,’ I say. And she hops closer and sits near my leg. Two cute little hops that make her cotton-wool tail bob up in the air. Leaning my weight on my hand I gradually, gradually sit down crossed-legged. I feel the cold ground through my jeans, feel the patch of snow, and I know I’m going to get wet, but I don’t care. Cookie Dough is sitting right next to my leg, warming it with her chubby little rabbit body. She is my friend. I’ve told her things I’ve never told Marta. There are limits to what a best friend can understand. I know it’s highly debatable how much Cookie Dough actually understands, but she’s the world’s best listener. I wonder if it’s because she’s got such long ears. I keep stroking her, over and over. Dad says it must be lovely being an animal because they can’t worry about things that happened in the past or feel anxious about the future. But, excuse me, how exactly does he know that? Cookie Dough might be feeling incredibly anxious because her best friend Hazel is hanging out with Cashew, and she’s worried sick about who she’s going to hop about with this afternoon.
Cookie Dough’s mum also lived in Aspudden Park, so one of the people who work here told me. But suddenly one morning two years ago she was found just lying there, stone cold dead on the ground. They don’t really know why she died. She was totally healthy and not especially old. But probably she’d been scared to death by a fox or something. It didn’t actually hurt her, she didn’t have any injuries. She just saw it and got so scared that her heart stopped beating. Sometimes I think my mum was scared to death. Not by a fox or anything. More by life.
I can feel Cookie Dough’s tiny heart through her fur. It’s beating so incredibly fast. I want that heart to beat forever. I whisper in her ear, the way I usually do:
‘Darling little Cookie, promise me you’ll live until next time I come? You can promise me that, can’t you?’
But then she suddenly hops off to the little house where the other rabbits are all cuddled up together. I get up quickly and that scares them. Theyscuttle about and bump into each other inside their small house.
‘But you MUST promise! You must!’
Cookie Dough doesn’t even look at me. She turns her bum and that fluffy bobble of a tail towards me. It’s like she thinks she doesn’t have to promise anything.
I write in the snow with my finger:
Then I rub it out with the palm of my hand. The snow is smooth again. I write:
Rub it out again. Write:
Rub it out, write:
I rub it all out and stand up. I leave and don’t look back.
Rabén & Sjögren, 2018
Rights: Lotta Jämtsved Millberg, Grand Agency
We extend our thanks to the Grand Agency for permission to publish this translated extract from Comedy Queen.
Shortlisted for the Swedish Children’s Radio Book Prize 2018.
Susan Beard is a freelance translator from Swedish and lives in Brighton.