from We’ll Just Ride Past
by Ellen Strömberg
introduced and translated by Fiona Graham
Best friends Manda and Malin are in their mid-teens and about to leave middle school. They are at that age when everything seems tantalisingly possible – even a glamorous life in New York – though day-to-day reality in quiet rural Finland remains stubbornly far-removed from their dreams. When the inseparable pair aren’t on their bikes, they’re mostly to be found hanging out at the local recreation ground or their favourite sweetshop-pizza joint. Manda, the narrator, is infatuated with a handsome older boy called John, while the more rebellious Malin has taken a shine to his punk friend Pugg, who fronts their disturbingly named band Slutslayer.
In this extract, Manda and Malin discuss how to set about having a romance and begin to hatch a plot centring on a forthcoming party involving John, Pugg and Manda’s super-cool older sister. They’re not quite bold enough to gatecrash the party, but surely no one can object to their just riding past?
from We’ll Just Ride Past
Malin’s already on the swing when I swerve into the playground. She looks up when the gravel grates under the wheels of my bike.
‘You need to pump up your back tyre,’ she says.
‘I know, it’s been like this since I set off.’
I don’t feel like sitting on the little swing, so I stand behind Malin and give her a push. Her back is warm under the palms of my hands. She’s wearing her big, swanky padded jacket, the one her dad gave her to say sorry. I can only dream of a jacket like that – Mum would just laugh in my face if I even asked.
It’s cold again. Maybe there’ll be snow at the Easter bonfire.
‘So what’s your news?’ I ask, since Malin seems to have forgotten why it was so important for us to meet.
‘Well, it’s not exactly news, but I think I’ve got my romance sorted.’
Jumping off in mid-swing, she turns to face me with a deeply mysterious air.
‘That’s just what you need to do to look mysterious!’ I say.
Malin’s eyes widen and her mystique disappears. Now she just looks her usual self, cheerful and lively. She takes out her mobile and tries to capture her expression in a selfie, but quickly tires. I sit on the swing she’s just left.
‘I’ll tell you next time you do it,’ I say, kicking the swing into motion.
‘At least that gives me some hope – the idea that I might be looking mysterious when I least expect it,’ says Malin, taking her specs off and peering into the camera.
‘Come on, tell me! How come you’ve already got yourself a romance?’
‘I’m efficient,’ says Malin. ‘And he doesn’t know anything about it yet, of course.’
‘That doesn’t count then,’ I say.
‘But it’s fate. Remember that book about punk I took out of the library?’
She’s irritatingly slow to explain, as she always is when she knows I’m curious.
‘So have you found someone in the book to have a romance with?’
‘No, but while I was flicking through it I realised I’ve got to be a punk. I mean, I already am, when you think about it – like, hallo?’
She gestures at her hair, which looks just the same as usual, done up in two big, messy pigtails.
‘D’you listen to punk then?’ I ask doubtfully.
Malin likes quite hardcore music, and she’s always the one who tells me about good new bands, but they’re not usually punky – rock’s more her thing. Or sad stuff.
‘I do now,’ says Malin.
‘OK, so you’re a punk,’ I say. ‘But what about the romance part?’
‘Go on, have a guess!’
She’s jumping up and down on the spot.
‘Dunno… there aren’t any punks round here, are there,’ I say, before it dawns on me.
Malin sees I’ve twigged and nods in slow motion. She’d be a hopeless actor, she hams everything up so much.
‘You can’t be serious,’ I say.
‘Deadly serious,’ says Malin, diving in under the slide, where she sits down.
I don’t want to follow her, but can’t stop myself. She’s sitting there, all giggly, tapping the ground with her feet.
‘But he does drugs, doesn’t he,’ I say, parking myself on the other low bench.
‘That’s just a rumour,’ says Malin. ‘I didn’t think you were the sort to be prejudiced against people just for being a bit different.’
‘A bit different’ – so that’s how she sees Pugg Ekholm. Druggie Pugg, Slutslayer Pugg. You can see clips online from one of their gigs where Pugg swigs out of a bottle of beer and gobs into the crowd. I know my sister knows him, because she said hi to him once in a shop. Dad was there and he said Pugg looked like a scarecrow. I never agree with Dad when he’s being cringily dad-like, but he does have a point: Pugg looks a right mess.
‘But he’s so… dirty,’ I say.
I should think he’s quite whiffy, too. Not like John, who does have a few punky attributes, but still looks clean. Pugg has dreadlocks hanging halfway down his back. And trousers with so many rips that they look more like rags held up by a studded belt, and great big boots.
‘He’s not dirty, that’s just his style! He’s got his own style, and that’s more than you can say for a lot of people!’ says Malin.
‘But he’s kind of…’
I can’t think of anything else to say. I don’t know a whole lot about Pugg, I just thought he was the sort of person we’d hear had murdered somebody in a few years’ time, or something like that.
‘He’s gorgeous,’ says Malin. ‘Look!’
She shows me a photo. I try to see past the hair and all the chains and the clothes, but it’s hard to tell one thing from another and work out what belongs where. More than anything, he looks like a heap of dirty laundry. Though maybe he has beautiful eyes underneath it all, so I say as much to Malin.
‘Of course he does! You can tell from his eyes that he’s actually really nice. That’s the best thing, when someone’s really nice but looks horrible. And they’ve got a girl – from Ukraine, I think – who plays guitar. That shows they’ve got the right attitude to women.’
‘Isn’t the band called Slutslayer?’
‘Yeah, but that’s ironic,’ Malin sighs. ‘Your sister’s mates with him, isn’t she, so he can’t be that terrible? She’s cool. Maybe we should hang out with her more.’
‘She hates me. Anyway, how are you going to have a romance with Pugg? Are you going to introduce him to your parents? Your mum’ll have a heart attack if you come home with Pugg Ekholm!’
‘Are you really that dim? I’m going to have a romance, not bring my new boyfriend home.’
‘What’s the difference?’
‘A romance is a bit off-limits, I think, and exciting and… passionate! A boyfriend’s a guy who plays hockey, someone you kiss and cuddle with on your neatly made bed.’
I don’t know what I want to do with John. A bit of both, maybe. Everything, preferably.
‘Pugg’ll be my summer romance, and later on, when we’re twenty and living in New York, I’ll be able to tell stories about the summer when I was young and had a romance with the only punk in town. I might even write a book about it. No, wait – a film!’
‘But have you ever even spoken to him?’
‘Yes, I have, once! Don’t you remember the time we went to that thing in the park in town? When he came over and talked to us?’
‘You mean when he asked if we’d got a lighter, and then tipped half a bottle of beer over your new shoes?’
‘Exactly! You remember!’
‘But I bet he doesn’t. He was so pissed he could hardly stand up straight! And if I remember correctly, you were terrified and made me leave with you.’
Malin just shakes her head.
‘But he chose to ask me! He’d noticed me and picked me out!’
‘Oh, come on, Malin, give me one reason to think it’s a good idea for you to try to have a romance with Pugg Ekholm.’
‘Because he’s friends with your pizza guy,’ says Malin. ‘They play in the same band.’
‘He plays with John?!’
‘Why are you so surprised? It makes sense when you think about it, doesn’t it?’ says Malin, sighing as if I were slow on the uptake.
She has a look on her mobile and shows me a short video clip, filmed at a party. In the foreground you can see two people with linked arms, drinking something out of huge bottles. One of them has tatty dreads and eyeliner, the other is John.
Like a kids’ TV show
In the following week, Malin and I try to collect some intel on John and Pugg. Where they hang out, who with, what they like. I’ve checked what Malin said, and it’s true, John and Pugg seem to be as thick as thieves. Hardly surprising really, as my sister also seems to know both of them.
Unfortunately, neither of them seem to be very active in any particular place, so it’s quite hard to find out what sort of things they do. But we know that John works at the pizza joint and that both of them play in Slutslayer – though Pugg bellows more than he plays, judging by the video clips we found from their gigs. Malin’s forced me to watch them a billion times, even though the only person you can see is Pugg. Before now, I’d never thought about who was in the line-up behind Pugg in Slutslayer, but it’s John on drums. Now I know he’s there, it’s hard to imagine that I never noticed him before.
One evening Malin sent me a photo she’d photoshopped to make it look as if Pugg was licking her throat. I could see straight away that it was a still from one of the gig vids.
Malin’s changed her look too. She’s always dressed a bit differently from the crowd, but now she’s taken things even further. She’s hacked a pair of jeans to shreds, her pigtails are even wilder, and she’s plastering on the makeup – much more than usual. She’s got long black streaks of kohl around her eyes. It’s a pretty cool look, though it seems a bit daft to me to do all this for Pugg. She’s said herself that she wants him to notice her the next time he sees her, so she needs a punkier style.
We spend more time than usual sitting on the steps up to the sweetshop-pizza joint, but we don’t see John. Which is lucky, because if he heard how Malin talks about Pugg sometimes, he’d probably head for the hills.
‘I want him to see that we’re soulmates. But I’m not doing this just for Pugg,’ she says, rolling her eyes. We’re sitting outside the pizza place for the third time in a week. ‘It feels like I’ve finally found my style. Maybe you should too.’
‘I don’t think I’m a punk,’ I say, looking down at my jeans.
They’re just so bog-standard.
‘No, but you might be something?’
‘I’d be happy enough if I was good-looking,’ I say, leaning back.
I feel a step cutting into my back and sit up straight again.
‘You can be anything at all,’ says Malin.
She’s sticking a load of safety-pins, in a line, down the sleeve of her denim jacket.
‘I’d like to know what John finds attractive,’ I say.
‘But then you’d be changing yourself to suit him,’ says Malin, cursing as she pricks herself on a safety-pin.
‘I didn’t say I was going to change,’ I say. ‘I’d be just the same. But it’d be nice to know.’
I’ve almost forgotten what John looks like. He hasn’t been seen anywhere and there aren’t any new photos of him online.
I haven’t managed to read any more of the book. Instead, I’ve tried listening to some punk hits Malin’s sent me. They weren’t bad, but I wouldn’t say they were that good either. I don’t get why Malin likes them so much. Anyway, we don’t even know if John’s into punk.
I wish I could find out a bit more about him, something new I don’t already know.
‘We can find out where he lives and ride round there,’ says Malin. ‘I reckon that’s the best chance I’ve got of meeting Pugg, too – if you and John get together.’
‘Yeah right, ‘cos that’s really going to happen if we ride past his house! What if he sees us – he’ll think I’m some kind of creepy stalker.’
‘Aren’t you?’ says Malin, sticking another safety-pin into her jacket.
She looks almost like a knight in armour, with all those safety-pins in her sleeves.
‘He doesn’t have to know that,’ I shrug.
‘We just have to find a way to make friends with them first, then they’re sure to fall in love with us,’ Malin declares.
I find that hard to believe, as nobody’s fallen in love with me yet. But I’d be glad if I could just get to speak to John sometime.
‘If only we could go to that party,’ I say.
‘What party?’ says Malin.
‘Someone called Tati’s having a party at Easter,’ I say. ‘My sister’s going and she says John’ll be there.’
‘Tati,’ says Malin, pinching my arm. ‘That’s the girl from Slutslayer. The one from Ukraine I was telling you about! Why didn’t you say anything?’
‘I didn’t know.’
‘Then Pugg’s bound to be going too. We’ve got to go!’
‘My sister would never let me,’ I say. ‘Anyway, we haven’t been invited.’
‘No one gets an invite to a party like that,’ says Malin. ‘This is great! We wanted something to do instead of the Easter bonfire, remember?’
‘Fat chance I’ve got of going with my sister,’ I say.
Even so, I can’t stop myself thinking about what it would be like if I did turn up. ‘Hey, good to see you here,’ John would say, or maybe, ‘Hi, I’ve seen you around, haven’t I?’ Then, by chance, he’d see my book, which I’d have left in my bag. Perhaps he’d offer me a beer and we’d laugh when we bumped into one another. ‘Like to go outside for a bit?’ he’d ask, and I’d nod. Then we’d go for a walk, or maybe sit on a swing in the garden, or just on the steps.
We’d talk, and we’d discover everything we had in common, and the party would go on around us. Maybe someone would come and tug at John’s arm and try to get him to come back inside, but he’d say he was busy, with a discreet gesture in my direction, which I’d pretend not to see.
‘But we can ride over and just check it out,’ says Malin. ‘Come on. I’ve got to meet Pugg!’
‘OK, I’ll think about it. But isn’t that a bit stalkerish too? Standing outside watching someone’s party?’
‘All we’re going to do is ride past! We’re allowed to be out on our bikes, aren’t we? Or is there a law against that too now?’
‘If my sister sees me, she’ll kill me. No kidding.’
‘She won’t see you, she’ll be too pissed to notice anything anyway. You can pretend to be a hallucination or something. Please, please, please, this is the only thing I want for the whole of the rest of my life, and if we don’t go I won’t even have any reason to go on living!’
‘I’m not sure,’ I say, but at just that moment we hear the sound of a moped.
Even before I see the helmet and the jacket, I know it’s him. My heart tells me so, shooting up into my throat so I can’t even swallow. I can’t breathe either, but that doesn’t matter: what I can see gives me everything I need to go on living.
John climbs off the moped and takes his helmet off. The back of his head is so gorgeous. When he turns round it’s just like in the movies; it’s as if there’s electricity crackling around him. He doesn’t notice us, though, just goes inside.
‘Come on,’ says Malin. ‘We’ve got to go in after him. Now’s our chance!’
I follow when she tugs at my arm. Down the steps, round the corner, up the official steps, in through the door and up to the counter where Shelfie’s sitting, blinking.
‘Hi,’ says Malin.
‘Hello there,’ says Shelfie.
‘Er, we were wondering…’
Then John comes out of the kitchen. He’s wearing a black T-shirt that’s dusty with pizza flour and a cap with the shop’s logo. He sees us but pays us no attention.
‘Where have all the aprons gone?’ he asks Shelfie.
His voice runs over me like chilled yogurt. As for me, I feel warm all over like a sandy beach. Malin’s still holding my arm.
‘Don’t ask me,’ says Shelfie, shrugging her shoulders so her breasts jiggle.
I can see John’s noticed. So at least I know he likes breasts. Mind you, so do most guys.
‘What were you wondering about?’ asks Shelfie, turning to Malin again. She gives her a bigger smile than she gives John.
Malin’s grip on my arm gets harder.
John’s still there, filling a paper cup with Coke from the machine. Then he looks at us.
‘It’s about summer jobs,’ I say. ‘We were wondering if there might be any summer jobs going.’
‘Ah, I see. No, sorry, I think we’ve got all the staff we need for the summer,’ says Shelfie, smiling. ‘And John’s here too now.’
‘I see,’ I say.
‘But if you leave your names and phone numbers, we can keep them in case something comes up,’ says Shelfie consolingly.
‘I’m Manda,’ I say.
‘And I’m Malin,’ says Malin quickly.
‘Manda and Malin,’ says John. ‘Sounds like a kids’ TV show.’
He doesn’t say it in a purposely unkind way, but I feel a bit childish anyway.
He takes a swig from the Coke and goes back into the kitchen, disappearing behind the curtain.
‘Don’t mind him, that’s just his way. You can put your phone numbers down here,’ says Shelfie, holding out a pad of white notelets.
‘Oh, we’ll do that later,’ says Malin, leaving the shop with me.
We sit down on the steps again. I stare straight ahead but don’t see the tangled underbrush – or anything at all. Only John’s teeth, John’s hair, John’s cheeks and John’s fingers around the paper cup.
‘OK then, we’ll ride past,’ I say finally. ‘Quickly!’
‘Yessss!’ cries Malin. ‘We’re going to the party!’
Vi ska ju bara cykla förbi
Schildts & Söderströms (Finland), Rabén & Sjögren (Sweden), 2022, 251 pages.
Foreign rights: Helsinki Literary Agency (HLA).
We are grateful to Helsinki Literary Agency for permission to publish this translated extract.
In 2022 Ellen Strömberg’s Vi ska bara cykla förbi won Sweden’s top literary accolade, the August Prize, in the youth category. The novel was also nominated in 2022 for the Finlandia Prize in Children’s and Youth Literature, and the Ad Libris Award. It is currently nominated for the 2023 Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize. Strömberg’s other books are Bli Utan (autumn 2023), Jaga vatten (2018), Klåda (2019) and Maggan året runt (2020). Vi ska bara cykla förbi was reviewed by Sophie Ruthven in SBR 2022:2