from The Consultant Who Wouldn’t Swim
by Mikael Bergstrand
introduced and translated by Tom Buckle
In Konsulten som inte ville bada (The consultant who wouldn’t swim), Mikael Bergstrand introduces us to Kenneth V. Andersson, a man whose working life consists primarily of travelling around southern Sweden from one struggling company to the next, planning and executing a downsizing of the workforce, one awkward meeting at a time. Kenneth congratulates himself on all aspects of his life, from his high salary and luxury apartment in Malmö, his younger girlfriend, and the lack of any children to curtail his lifestyle to his success in keeping his elderly and ailing father at arm’s length.
Kenneth’s self-assurance crumbles when his girlfriend leaves him, making him reassess the priorities that led him to this juncture in his life. He retreats to the scenic coastal village where he grew up, where he starts to dig up long-hidden secrets about his parents’ relationship and his mother’s death. He also learns about the healing power of the outdoors and starts to accumulate a new circle of friends, including a woman who teaches him the value of not taking oneself too seriously and the possibility of moving on.
This extract is taken from the beginning of the novel, on the day that Kenneth’s life takes an abrupt change.
from The Consultant Who Wouldn’t Swim
It was my dad who asked me to run down to Silverrosen and fetch my mum that Sunday in May. I’m not sure if he was worried that she’d been away for so long, but he didn’t show it. It wasn’t really anything unusual, as she often lingered on the jagged rocks and dried herself in the sun after a swim. However, even as I left the breakfast table I instinctively felt that something was wrong. In recent years, the visits to the rocks with my mum had become few and far between. As a teenager, I took advantage of the weekends to lie in at those times when she usually went for a dip.
I’d never run as fast to Silverrosen as I did on that day. My heart was racing and I had the taste of blood in my mouth.
When I still couldn’t see her upon reaching the murky waters, the fear really gripped me. I continued down the path with the hope of catching sight of her when I passed a letchberry bush that partially obscured my view. I reached the rock formation out of breath and with legs shaking from the exertion, but she wasn’t there. I stumbled onwards over the uneven stone slabs. Her thick, navy-blue dressing gown lay furthest out on the rocks, carefully folded alongside her black clogs with little white geese on them. I looked out in panic at the gently billowing sea but couldn’t see my mum anywhere. She was gone. With all my might I shouted her name, but my desperate cries just passed over the waves and disappeared.
‘This isn’t working anymore. We need to talk.’
I met her serious and slightly sad look with a forced smile, reached out for the wine glass on the coffee table in front of the TV and heard myself say ‘OK’ in an unconcerned voice.
It was an unpleasant turn of events on a Friday that had thus far proceeded as well as anyone could reasonably expect of a rainy winter’s day in Malmö.
My name is Kenneth V. Andersson. The ‘V’ stands for Valdemar. I don’t use it so often. Mostly in business situations, to confer an air of distinction on my otherwise rather ordinary name. Like when you receive a letter from the postcode lottery addressed to you personally on gilt-edged paper.
On that Friday in December, I was woken early by the rain beating hard on the skylight above the bed. We lived in a luxurious penthouse that, apart from the bedroom, bathroom with an inset jacuzzi and a small spare room for rare overnight guests, comprised a single enormous space in Gamla Väster in Malmö. This was the old marine quarter, which had been transformed into the city’s most sought-after district. The view stretched as far as the horizon, with unbroken vistas of the sky in its various forms, depending on the weather, wind and time of day. There was also a large balcony overlooking the courtyard, from which you could look out over the rooftops and see the seagulls screeching and scrapping like a gang of drunken football hooligans.
My partner Cathrine, who was still snoring gently and sweetly in bed when I got up to sort out breakfast, sometimes said that she longed for a typical view where she could see the street below and the cars and people passing by, to help her get her bearings. I felt that what she really missed was being able to spy on the neighbours, although I never said so.
I actually liked the view of the sky from the windows. The sky conveys much more than a busy street. It has its own mysteries and possibilities, both in the daytime and at night. I often used it as a metaphor when talking to employees facing major changes at work or even the sack. I’d got it from a self-help book.
‘Think about the opportunities it can offer you,’ I said. ‘Think how many undiscovered planets there are in the heavens. So many lodestars.’
From time to time, someone would snort upon hearing this, but they would have snorted regardless of what I had said. There’s a certain type of person who snorts far too much. Once they get going they can sound a little like an engine that refuses to start. They stand or sometimes sit there with their arms crossed and a suspicious or hostile look on their face. The signs are not always so obvious, but I pick them up. The tone of voice is an octave too high and the smile a little forced.
I was aware that these snorts were a way of overcoming their fear. Some people were of course scared of me. Just the word consultant could make the knees of employees at a company with a shrinking profit margin shake like a souped-up vibrator. Therefore, I always had to appear sympathetic. And show that I had something to offer that could provide a little encouragement. It is inadvisable to bring up strained metaphors about stars in the sky unless you have first distributed a little sweetener in the form of a severance package or a contribution to ongoing professional development.
‘The coffee’s ready, darling,’ I shouted to Cathrine as I put a couple of slices of sourdough bread in the toaster. I’d already placed butter, avocado, tomato and fresh apple juice on the oval table in the open kitchen. The sweet smell of breakfast wafted through the room. […]
I breathed a little sigh of relief once she’d gone. I usually did. It wasn’t that I wanted to get rid of her, but rather that I liked being on my own. I really enjoyed my own company and didn’t at all mind not having colleagues at work. As a management and efficiency consultant – I preferred not to use the word rationalisation – I lived a free and independent life. My clients were primarily in southern Sweden and consisted of small and medium-sized companies that were getting the lay of the land in order to optimise their organisation. In other words, they wanted to get rid of the dead wood. You wouldn’t believe how many unproductive people there are out there. It’s just a matter of carefully seeking them out, matching them to some appropriate parameters and then capturing them in neat lists in Excel. It’s all confidential, of course. Nothing that’s used openly, but is nonetheless there as absolute truth. This may sound a bit arbitrary and inhumane, but during my years in the profession I’ve learned that clients love data and tables that support their hypothesis. Especially when they’re presented in an Excel file.
When I wasn’t at home, which also acted as my office, I spent my workdays on the road between different jobs in my latest model Audi A8. I was fully aware that, for some left-wing fanatics, a consultant who was meant to efficiently conjure away part of the workforce but drove a luxury car would be too much to take, but some things are non-negotiable. Like driving the latest model Audi A8. Comfort. Status. Safety. Considering that the risk of being seriously injured in a traffic accident is 843 times higher than being caught in the crossfire from gang warfare in Malmö. Recession is an efficiency consultant’s best friend, and the latest model Audi A8 is the result of that friendship.
On that rainy Friday I had just a single meeting booked in, at Swed Mirror Ltd. in Svedala, 15 miles or so outside of Malmö. Svedala is a relatively well-off nothing of a place where the town centre consists of an ugly fountain and a high street with some fairly run-of-the-mill shops. Its proximity to Malmö and the good transport links there maintain the town’s population level, but it has lost its previous status as a magnet for industry. Its residents live and sleep and love and hate and attend evening classes and walk their dogs and enjoy the pleasant surroundings of rolling fields and tender beech trees, but they generally work elsewhere.
Swed Mirror was long an exception. As the name implied, the company manufactured mirrors, and the factory and office lay a little outside of town in a downtrodden industrial estate. Up to a few years ago, business had been going reasonably well, but the weakening of the construction industry had led to such a drop in the domestic demand for quality mirrors and mirrors for sliding cupboard doors that some severe belt-tightening was required. My task was to tighten that belt a couple of notches, which involved squeezing out thirty or so factory workers and ten employees on the administrative side of the business. […]
Holding a plastic cup in one hand and my efficiency folder in the other, I knocked on the door of the head of HR, Johan Wirén, and was quickly invited in.
‘Already here? Welcome! Got yourself a coffee, yeah? Terrible weather today. Should be better over the weekend. Shall we make sure we’re on the same page? Before the meeting?’
It could be considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world that Johan Wirén had been promoted to head of HR from his role in charge of transportation and also avoided ending up on the Excel list of who would be optimised away from Swed Mirror. He probably had something on the boss of the company, as I’d never encountered such an incompetent and awkward individual in a leadership role. Wirén expressed himself in short staccato sentences and blushed deeply every time he met some kind of opposition or generally felt that he was making a fool of himself, which was more often than not. Even though he was only 38 years old, he dressed like a rather slim pensioner in chequered or striped shirts, regular-fit chinos that were held above his thin hips by a tightly drawn belt and black shoes that looked like they were from the army surplus store. It was possible that he was following a new fashion trend of which I wasn’t yet aware, but nonetheless the outfit was an aesthetic meltdown.
‘Harriet Brogren is a loyal long-termer here. Tread softly. With her,’ he said.
I’d put the solution I had found for the lady in question into an imposing document. Sixty-two years old and with more than 30 years at Swed Mirror as a valued secretary, she was now part of the furniture. Even so, I’d settled on my plan for her and explained to Johan Wirén how I intended the conversation to proceed.
‘Excellent. We’ve done. A good job,’ he said with a smile.
I noted with satisfaction that he considered himself party to the decision concerning Harriet’s termination, even though his only input had been to agree to everything I’d suggested. The most important thing wasn’t that the clients were participants in the process, rather that they believed they were.
When we arrived, Harriet Brogren was already seated in the meeting room we had booked. She was clasping her hands together so tightly that her knuckles had turned white. In contrast to Wirén, she was very well dressed in a chic red dress and had her hair up in a bun that was definitely more elegant than frumpish. She had a vague scent of perfume that worried me. I have a range of allergies, including to perfume, and can only be in the same room as a heavily perfumed woman for around ten minutes. I then have to leave to clean out my lungs. However, Harriet’s perfume was quite discreet, so I worked out that I’d probably be able to stand it for up to half an hour without using my inhaler. This last point was vital. Under no circumstances could I display any weakness to Harriet. Although she tried to smile and appear relaxed, her fear and discomfort were written all over her face. Her sweaty handshake reinforced that impression. I looked at her with a gentle smile on my face and said something about the bad weather. Harriet nodded and mumbled, and, after softening her up with a few more platitudes that made her slightly more at ease, I decided to go on the attack.
‘I’ve heard only good things about you from everyone I’ve spoken to at this company, and if it wasn’t for the weak economy Swed Mirror would be not just happy but really quite keen to keep you in your position all the way through to retirement.’
‘It’s true. Really,’ said the head of HR, who had already begun to blush.
‘But we’ve put together a solution for you that’s very generous and gives you the possibility right now of starting to enjoy a more peaceful way of life while nonetheless feeling financially secure,’ I said.
‘Will I be working part-time?’ asked Harriet in a voice that exuded cautious optimism.
I gave her a friendly smile and tilted my head slightly. I’d learned in a book about leadership that this was better than shaking your head, although to be honest that book was one of the most insubstantial that I’d read in the genre.
‘According to this very generous offer, you’ll conclude your employment, winding down slowly within a couple of months.’
I glanced over at Johan Wirén. He nodded and smiled, as red as a tomato. Harriet’s cheeks had also begun to redden.
‘A-a-am I being fired?’ she stuttered.
‘Absolutely not! Before we’re done today we will have reached an agreement. Swed Mirror wants nothing but the best for you, Harriet, and to give you more time with your family.’
That part about ‘reaching an agreement’ was high up on my list. The company hadn’t wanted to give any advance notice about the offers that would be made and already had the fairly easily persuaded head of the local union on board. Everything was prepared for a settlement to be reached. Now it was just about convincing this woman.
‘What does the offer look like, then?’ asked Harriet while replacing a strand of hair that had worked itself loose.
‘It’s extremely favourable and generous to you, and is far beyond what is required of the company. But good workers like you should be duly recompensed. Full pay for six months and an extra bonus this Christmas.’
I smiled warmly and placed my hand gently on Harriet’s shoulder. She flinched a little, which surprised me. I thought I’d won her over.
‘If Jeppson were here now he’d roll over in his grave,’ she mumbled and glared, offended, first at me and then at the head of HR, who even managed to smile back, albeit somewhat apologetically.
Jeppson was the founder of Swed Mirror, Anton Jeppson, who had hired Harriet Brogren long ago. I’d come to learn that even mentioning him at the company was almost like invoking the gods. It was now clear that this wasn’t going to be as simple and painless as I’d first thought. It was time to change tactics.
‘I’ve heard that your husband has just retired. Wouldn’t it be great to finally get to spend more time with him? Johan told me that you two play golf at Bokskogens Golf Club. That’s got to be one of Sweden’s most beautiful courses, don’t you think?’
The injured look on Harriet’s face suddenly vanished. She stared vacantly straight ahead, as if she’d realised that the race had already been run and that the outcome of this conversation had been decided even before it had begun. Tears welled up in her eyes, which I noted with a certain satisfaction. Not because I get off on people crying, not at all, but because a distraught person is easier to deal with than an angry one. However, I was left almost at a loss for words when she next spoke.
‘Lars, my husband, has got cancer. Bone cancer. I’m going to lose him. The doctors give him a year at most.’
When faced with these kinds of dramatic twists, you have to trust your own intuition. I knew that the head of HR wouldn’t contribute anything of value and quickly decided to present the façade of deep compassion that I’d mastered.
‘That’s awful. I’m so sorry,’ I said with a sympathetic voice and carefully placed my hand back on Harriet’s shoulder.
This time she allowed it to remain. Good. I let her cry a little. Some 30 seconds later, I continued.
‘I had no idea, Harriet, and I’m terribly sorry. Of course you’ll want to be with Lars as much as possible,’ I said and passed her a tissue from a box that had been strategically placed on the round table together with the untouched glasses of sparkling water.
Harriet took the tissue, dried her tears and carefully blew her nose. I gently patted her shoulder a couple of times before removing my hand. She smiled at me almost gratefully and briefly nodded, while Johan Wirén mumbled something about a tragedy.
‘Maybe you know that you have the right to go on paid leave for a considerable time in order to care for a loved one at home,’ I said.
Harriet looked at me with tear-filled eyes.
‘Let’s try and resolve this in the best possible way for you and Lars. Johan will help you get in touch with the social insurance people, won’t you?’ I said and looked meaningfully at the bewildered head of HR.
‘Sure. Of course. I will,’ he said after I pointedly raised my eyebrows at him.
I suddenly realized the smell of Harriet’s perfume had grown stronger and more of an irritant, probably because her outburst had raised her body temperature and released more pheromones and esters into the air. It’s pure chemistry when alcohol, hydrolysed in the presence of water and heat, reacts with an acid. I’d read it on Wikipedia. It’s that chemical reaction that causes me trouble. I was forced to wind up the conversation as quickly and smoothly as possible, without appearing insensitive.
‘The company will fulfil all of its responsibilities to you,’ I said and coughed lightly with my hand over my mouth. ‘If you sign this agreement today, the company will make sure that the paid time off for which you are eligible will not in any way affect the six months stipulated in the redundancy agreement. This will give you all the time you need to be with Lars. And if you need professional support, we can arrange a therapist. Johan is also always available, as a friendly ear and source of support.’
This latter offer would be more of a burden than a benefit, but I was keen to involve the head of HR so that he’d feel like an active participant. I knew it would be good for my reference.
Harriet Brogren signed the agreement at about the same time as I started to tear up due to her perfume. It gave the impression that I was really emotionally involved, which was ideal. Sympathetic but not weak.
Konsulten som inte ville bada
Rights: Maria Enberg, Enberg Agency
We are grateful to Enberg Agency for granting permission to publish this translated extract from Konsulten som inte ville bada.
Mikael Bergstrand is a journalist and author from Malmö. His popular feelgood novels have sold over 850,000 copies and been translated into 12 languages. His previous novels Dimma över Darjeeling (Darjeeling mist) and Delhis vackraste händer (Delhi's Most Beautiful Hands) were reviewed in SBR 2013:2 and SBR 2012:1 respectively.
Tom Buckle is a Swedish translator and science editor. After long periods in Sweden, Japan and Spain, he now resides in Wales.