from Like the dogs in Lafayette Park
by Anneli Jordahl
Introduced and translated by Kate Lambert
In Som hundarna i Lafayette Park (Like the Dogs in Lafayette Park), Anneli Jordahl introduces us to Jeanette Nilsson, who grew up in a foster home in northern Sweden and worked as a carer in an old people’s home. Now in her sixties, Jeanette lives alone apart from a dog called Boris, named after her dead husband who was killed in an accident at work.
This extract, told in Jeanette’s distinctive voice, is from early in the novel and describes the first year after Boris’ death, in which Jeanette starts keeping a ‘death book’ of work-related fatalities. In an attempt to distract her mother from obsessing about industrial accidents, Jeanette's daughter Fanny then sends her a video about Angela Davis and the Black Panther movement. In the second section of the novel Jeanette bravely travels to a conference in San Francisco where Angela Davis is speaking, while the third section takes place after her return home to Sweden.
from Like the dogs in Lafayette Park
They sent Boris’ jeans, his worn belt, his leather jacket, his red-spotted shirt and his wallet back to me in a plastic bag. There were two photos in the wallet, that one of Fanny in her student cap with her hair all matted in dreadlocks and that dreadful ring in her nose like a bull, and a serious one of me in my thirties, back when Boris used to call me his French girl. He said I looked like Fanny Ardant in Never on a Sunday.
Then all the lights went out.
Hardly remember what happened the first year, just that they told me they’d launched a preliminary investigation into a health and safety offence and involuntary manslaughter. Though it was days after the accident before the police turned up to find evidence.
Fanny screamed down the phone when I rang and told her. Do your exam first, and then come home, I said. I took a few days off work, couldn’t stand it, went back to work, gritted my teeth and got on with it, came home and lay on the sofa. Got hooked on a soap about a woman working as a nanny in New York for a rich bloke on Park Avenue. Lovely girl, that actress in her colourful clothes. She was my friend in need. Now I look back, I’m grateful. I found her very consoling at the time, talking down her nose. She was there for me when my only aim for each day was to make it through alive until it was time to go to bed again.
Now though? What’s it like now?
It carries on. You can’t say more than that.
When Fanny came home, dumping a plastic bag of textbooks out in the porch, I could see how much she’d changed. She’d only been at library school a term, and she was glowing with learning and had got at least five centimetres taller. Her face was blank like she hadn’t really taken it in, and she was squinting with tiredness. Unsteady on her feet, like me, as if our muscles had just given up. We huddled together but didn’t hug, scared that a cuddle would let out all the weakness and helplessness, paralysing us, dragging us both under.
I hadn’t managed to buy food. The last thing I wanted was other people, their sympathetic faces, their awkward words – or their silence. We made do with yoghurt, crispbread, spreadable cheese and popcorn. We’ll talk about the funeral in the morning, I said. Fanny nodded. They were gabbling away on the radio news. Didn’t hear a thing they were going on about. We went to bed at eight. Fanny wanted to sleep in my bed with me and I let her. Even took sleeping tablets, though I’m scared to death of getting addicted. I only took them when work used to get to me and I’d lay there wide awake three nights in a row. You’ve got to sleep when it gets that bad or you’re a danger to the old people’s lives.
But that was back then.
Now the blackness has turned into grey. It is what it is.
The dog is the only thing that brightens up the loneliness.
Just after it happened I stopped using matches, candles or tea lights. Stopped smoking, couldn’t stand the red glow. Or get the smell of burned flesh out of my nose. I’m over it now though. I like lighting my candles on the breakfast table. The flames are warming, calming. Have a ciggy with my coffee.
The dog gobbles up his boiled ham and dry food like there’s no tomorrow. Then he’ll come and sit nicely next to me, licking his mouth and begging, his brown eyes gazing at my sandwich. No way, mate, you’ve had yours.
When Boris burned up, Fanny gave me a puppy that I named after him. I was raging at first. Sending me a pet without asking. I’d never been that bothered about Boris’ hunting hounds sitting out there in their pen all day. I like animals at a distance – Fanny knows that – but not in my house, or in my bloody bed. The puppy was adorable, true, but it peed and crapped in the house, clawed my trouser legs and ruined my best black jeans. When he jumped onto the bed and bit me on the nose with his sharp teeth, right into the cartilage, I rang Fanny and yelled down the line: If this dog gets run over, I’ll be the last to mourn it.
But we got closer as time went on. There’s a restless little devil inside me that won’t sit still, but when the puppy jumped up and fell asleep on my lap I’d find I hadn’t budged from the spot for an hour.
I read the morning paper nodding off with boredom so the words merge into a meaningless blur. An aging rock star with a beer belly is a celebrity now because he made pancakes on the television. A researcher has found that children who had a disadvantaged childhood have worse health as adults.
But my daughter has a sturdy body and strong teeth at least, and so far she hasn’t been in hospital for anything other than an abortion.
The Infrastructure Minister is ‘taking responsibility’ and ‘sorting out’ the railways. Lying cow. As if anyone goes by train these days without crossing themselves first. Faulty carriages. Faulty signals. Faults on the line. How many Swedish Railways staff land up in the nuthouse from the constant stress of finding alternative routes for passengers after hours of delays? How many have been crippled or killed working on the track?
Find myself staring at a big spread by a foreign correspondent with a photo of a chap taken side-on. Dark wavy hair, a tidy beard, a sad but tough look in his eyes. A construction worker, one of many who helped to build Sochi for the Olympics. Got paid the first month, then he was accused of stealing and taken to the police station. ‘Raped me with a crowbar.’ Was forced to sign a piece of paper saying he gave up his right to the pay he was due from his employer. The fat cats stuffed their pockets with the money and the people lowest in the pecking order went without.
I cut out the good-looking chap, although he isn’t dead, and stick him in, write down his name and put his fate into words.
Can’t get the details of the crowbar rape out of my head for the rest of the day.
My husband was good-looking too. At least when he’d just had a haircut and a shave and reluctantly put on his blue-and-white striped Breton top for me. It was the real thing, too. A birthday present. Bought in Arcachon. I stroked his clean-shaven, silky cheek. He looked like a lad though his blond curls had gone grey. He pulled at the neckband, thought it was uncomfortable, that it made him look daft.
Boris burned up and there was a three-line news agency announcement in the paper. It’s what usually happens. They write loads about the dangerous lives of foreign workers. But what when it’s one of our own?
The other day there was this announcement under the heading News in Brief:
A forty-nine-year-old worker in a rolling mill died in Smedjebacken on Wednesday night. The man fell onto hot steel. Reason unknown.
The worker gets a whole page in my Death Book, at least.
If the literature lecturer that Fanny got all silly about – ‘He’s so inspiring!’ – had died at work, just think of the fuss there’d be! There’d have been headlines in the evening paper and in-depth analysis round the clock on the television and radio news. People would have been appalled and maybe spent a moment or two feeling empathetic.
But a steelworker?
I cut out all the dead, stick them in the book, write the date they died and how the accident happened. I also try to find out their age and where they died. Ideally I’d want to put in the names of their widows and the fatherless children.
‘You have to accept a certain amount of wastage,’ Boris said sarcastically. He got grumpier and grumpier the older he got. They say women get bitter with age but let me tell you, men going round muttering and being depressed is harder to put up with. Women go through horrendous things and still keep on going on rage and willpower, while men sit on a log droning on and on about how people are idiots and I don’t want to go to any bloody dance. They don’t know which woman they want to live with and drink too much beer. Feel even more crap the next day.
Though Boris hardly drank anything other than French wine. Preferably Bordeaux.
I’ve never said any of this to Fanny, about how her father’s apathy blighted my life. I don’t think she noticed it much because when you live in a brooding atmosphere, it drives you to get all chirpy. There’s a voice in your head whispering it’ll all be fine, everything will sort itself out in the end, one day... I counted up his good sides, repeated them like a mantra. His boyish enthusiasm that could light up the world, a film he liked, a wine that tasted amazing as it rushed down your throat, a day at work when he felt like Superman.
Fanny said I turned him into Jesus just because he died in an accident. Well it might sound that way, I do miss him, miss the company, my reindeer casserole will never be as good as his was. But… but your dad wasn’t the best bloke God ever created, let’s put it that way. I’ll spare you the details. Or maybe I won’t. We’ll have to see.
Other details I don’t intend to spare anyone.
10 January. Fifty-eight-year-old plumber fell ten metres while climbing onto a roof to turn the water off. West Götaland.
28 January. Sixty-five-year-old digger driver run over by a runaway tractor. West Götaland.
Every morning I go and look at the Swedish Work Environment Authority website to see if there’s been another one. The dead are young and inexperienced or old and worn-out. Backache made Boris tired and whingy. Every day he talked about retiring. Six years to go. Please let them pass quickly.
I flick through the Death Book every day. First there’s Boris, that photo I took on Bornholm. He looks like he did when he was young, with that seductive smile of his. The details of his death still scare the hell out of me. Quickly turn the pages. Imagine I can hear a low murmuring, a Gospel choir.
The collection of cuttings grows with every passing year. Maybe it can be an archive for posterity – if the house doesn’t burn down. More than fifty dead a year or two ago, a record-low thirty-four last year. There was a recession and I guess not as many dangerous jobs. But construction workers who know the score say there’s a lot of cases that go unreported: ‘There were at least forty-five of us.’ Only the ones that didn’t make it into the statistics were foreign, often from Poland. Polish construction workers who survive go back home with broken backs. Not a sniff of insurance.
When Fanny and Erik come to visit, she looks worriedly at me. There’s a wrinkle at the base of her nose and a condescending smile in the corner of her mouth and I swear I heard my future son-in-law whisper: ‘The old girl’s lost the plot, she’s totally fucked up.’ Erik uses bad language, he comes from a posh family, they’ve all been to university, the whole lot of them, but clearly he wants to show he’s a man of the people. I’d say ‘your mother’ myself and think it’s important to be polite. People in the village where we lived used to make fun of me and say I was talking posh. Though I can’t keep it up when I lose my rag, start mouthing off.
When I try to explain to the kids, yes I say kids because they look like downy-cheeked babies though they’re twenty-eight and will probably soon be having children of their own – to think she’s already got a job, well at least a trial, as a librarian, my sensible, clever daughter – when I tell them some people’s lives are worth less, they just look at me and say the same hopeless thing again:
‘We know, mother. We agree with you, but it was an accident. He fell, and anyway it was a very, very long time ago.’
It all goes quiet. Fanny is holding her wine glass and twisting her foot round and round. Erik puts a protective arm round her as if she was made of china, fragile in the face of a pig-headed mother who isn’t capable of babbling soothing drivel about the weather and the price of electricity and whether it’s better for you to fry things in coconut oil than olive oil. There’s a long silence broken by a whine from Boris on the sofa. He’s dreaming, giving little whimpers and waving his legs in the air. Erik snorts. Fanny looks at the sofa as if she’s half asleep, and I have the choice of smoothing things over or totally wrecking the evening. I go for the second option.
I sit up straight and say:
‘We don’t know. We don’t actually know what happened or whether Boris died due to negligence or if someone’s responsible for his death. Five years is a long time for you, you’re young, but to me it’s like it was yesterday.’
I try to catch Fanny’s eye:
‘I’m talking about your own father, Fanny.’
‘Mum, please,’ she groans. She looks blankly at me and Erik strokes her back in his annoyingly protective way. If he hadn’t looked so daft, I might have stopped there. But now I make the issue wider than just Boris in the hope of getting them to see my point.
‘Did you hear about that young lad at Nordkalk who was cleaning a lime kiln and died from the corrosive steam?’
‘Mum, we’ve seen the picture, you show us it every time we come,’ says Fanny, with that tense, awkward tone in her voice that she gets when she’s embarrassed in front of Erik and thinks I should tone it down and discuss their progress on the housing ladder instead. It’s all about the housing ladder these days when you live in Stockholm. Up in the north they slap their thighs and smirk at the thought of it.
‘No, no, this is a book about people who have died at work. It’s all new, you haven’t seen this one.’
And then I almost tip the chair over in my eagerness to get the book of cuttings from my desk. I flip through to the photo spread and come and stand between Erik and Fanny. He has to take his arm away from Fanny’s back.
‘This one! This is the one who survived. He was on the television not long ago because he’s the face of the union’s Zero Tolerance campaign against work-related accidents. Must be a brave lad. I mean, sitting there in front of the cameras with fifty-five percent burns.’
I show them the photos of the boy before and after the accident and the way it left him with crocodile skin, as if he belonged to some tribe in the rainforest who tattoo their whole bodies in some kind of manhood ritual. Erik looks quickly at the pictures and wrinkles his thin-skinned, posh, sensitive face. Fanny silently turns the pages and puts the book down, looks beggingly at me.
‘How about some coffee?’ I ask.
‘Yes please,’ they both say in unison, obviously relieved that I’ve stopped poisoning the conversation.
‘I’ve made crème brûlée.’
‘Lovely!’ they say brightly. I get up, pick up the dinner plates, and in the middle of the living room floor I stop, turn round and say:
‘When he was in hospital, his girlfriend only had one little uninjured part of his body where she could kiss him. Guess what it was.’
Erik looks irritated. Fanny looks like she’s given up.
‘One of his big toes.’
I’d bet that Erik is screwing his nose up because he thinks kissing someone’s toe is distasteful. I want to get away from the looks on their faces and take my time making the coffee, heating the milk and getting the desserts out of the fridge. Boris, who has woken up now, pads beside me begging for leftovers. I carry the tray in, stay standing and continue:
‘In the whole county of Norrbotten there was only one police officer who investigated work-related accidents. They didn’t launch an internal inquiry after the explosion, no witnesses were interviewed. There’s not much hope of getting hold of the subcontractors after all this time. It’s all very familiar. The same thing happened when Boris died.’
Fanny interrupts me, putting up a hand to say that’s enough. I see the palm of her hand but I’m not a dog so I carry on more loudly, more forcefully, feeling like I’ve got to get this said before I die. I talk quickly, handing out the desserts, serving the coffee:
‘The recruitment firms and the subcontractors blamed each other. Do you get what a nightmare it turns into for the families? They’ll run out of time to bring a case soon, too. Their measly five years are up. Poor parents, no justice for them.’
I sit down and look at them both:
‘It’s like crimes against workers don’t count. And how could I risk suing them anyway? What if I ended up having to pay the legal costs?’
Fanny and Erik are silent. Two statues sat there in front of me.
‘Eat up!’ I say.
Som hundarna i Lafayette Park
Nostedts, 2016, 267 pages
Foreign rights: Catherine Mörk, Norstedts Agency
We are grateful to the agent and author for permission to publish this translated extract.
Anneli Jordahl is an author and a literary critic. She has written several works of non-fiction and critically acclaimed novels.
Kate Lambert has a degree in Swedish and history and a master’s in translation. After working as an English teacher in northern Finland and as an assistant lecturer in translation, she now translates from Swedish and Finnish, particularly appreciating texts that use historical research skills.