The following is from Therese Bohman’s novel, The Other Woman. Therese Bohman is an editor of the magazine Axess and a columnist for Expressen, writing about literature, art, culture, and fashion. Her debut novel, Drowned, was published by Other Press in 2012. She lives in Sweden.
November has settled over Norrköping, the town has been shrouded in mist all through the fall. The linden trees lining the avenues are a blaze of yellow, the air is mild but the morning is bitterly cold as I walk to the bus stop down by the station, cutting across the forecourt of the Östgöta Theater and reading the inscription above the main entrance: proclaim centuries of sorrow, proclaim centuries of joy.
The floors at home are cold, the whole apartment is cold because the landlord doesn’t seem to have got the heat working yet, the radiators are barely lukewarm and the place is so drafty. I live on the ground floor and there are no blinds in the room that serves as both my living room and bedroom, facing onto the street. Perhaps they were broken by someone who lived here before me. Instead I have stuck baking parchment on the inside of the lower half of the windows, letting in the light but preventing people passing by from seeing in. Before I did that I woke up one morning to find a man staring in at me, his face floating outside the window like a pink balloon. He walked away as soon as he realized I had seen him, but he might have been standing there for a long time, watching me as I slept. I couldn’t shake off the idea, it was both unpleasant and titillating: perhaps he’s not the only one, I thought. Perhaps he’s heard about me from an acquaintance, perhaps they take turns, these men who come and watch me while I sleep, arriving as soon as it grows light and hoping that I will kick off the covers just a little bit more.
Then the feeling of distaste took over and I went and bought the baking parchment, taping it carefully to the glass, making sure it came up high enough so that no one would be able to see in, I even went outside to check that there were no gaps.
* * * *
On the days when I am working my alarm clock rings at R six-thirty. The asphalt outside my window is a deep black, it is a wet fall, there is mist in the air in the mornings, the smell of dampness, it comes from the harbor, or perhaps all the way from the sea.
The monotony of my morning routine is soporific, bordering on dreamlike: the bus which is always late, crawling through suburbs still shrouded in mist, following the route I have traveled so often that I have begun to recognize the license plates of the cars parked in their usual spots, the local stores with their misspelled signs offering cheap tobacco.
The woman from the Red Cross who stands in the hospital foyer with her collection box is always there before I arrive in the mornings, I nod to her, thinking that I ought to give her some money one of these days when I have change, just as I think every single morning. I switch off the alarm in the empty cafeteria, unlock the changing rooms, put on my uniform.
Those of us who work in the kitchen and the cafeteria wear the same style of blouse as the junior nurses: square, V-necked, loose, and with no attempt to actually fit the wearer, they kind of stick out from the chest, making you look enormous even if you only have a small bust. The white pants are meant for male hospital staff, but they suit me perfectly if I choose a small size, they are straight cut and fit snugly over my hips. Wearing the unattractive uniform was something I found very difficult at first, but I have ways of dealing with it: fake tan on my arms so that I don’t look so pale, a few drops of perfume at the base of my throat so that I can dip my head and inhale the fragrance when the smell of food and washing up becomes too intrusive, and pretty underwear which I sometimes allow a glimpse of through the white, shapeless blouse, a hint of lace around my breasts. I think it looks sexy rather than vulgar, it is only a suggestion, a reminder that I am more than the situation in which I find myself when I am wearing my ugly uniform.
I clock in and switch on all the lights, unlock the doors and the elevators, turn off the large warming cabinet which has been on all night, I throw away the leftover trays containing roast Falun sausage and mashed potatoes. There is nothing wrong with roast sausage and mashed potatoes, my mother used to serve it up when I lived at home and it was always delicious, but nothing really tastes good from the kitchens here, nothing is seasoned properly. Everything tastes like baby food, the sausage is sliced too thickly, the mashed potato is somehow chewy.
Magdalena arrives as I am dropping the trays into the big black garbage sack.
“What’s that?” she says.
“That’s disgusting — lazy jerks. Were you working yesterday?”
“I haven’t been in for a week. They never call me. Do they call you?”
“I’ve had a few shifts this week.”
“They rang me this morning, Siv is out sick again.”
She ties an apron around her waist and begins to run water into the serving counters. When Magdalena is working she is in charge, even though she is employed only on an hourly basis just like me; I let her get on with it. She has worked here for a long time under the same appalling conditions, nobody is interested in employing her on a full contract, she is always scheming, always gossiping. Today she tells me that one of the cooks down in the kitchen has stolen money from petty cash, it’s a secret of course, Magdalena has promised not to pass it on, her expression is challenging as she looks at me.
We take a break when we have put out everything that needs to be put out and I have washed several crates of wineglasses and a huge pile of plates — feathery strands of dill stuck to a greasy film of mayonnaise— from some event, some group that had borrowed our crockery and glassware. We always sit at the same table, right next to the window with a view over the enormous parking lot in front of the entrance to Norrköping Hospital. I often think that there should be a beautiful park out there instead, a peaceful place for patients to stroll when they want to escape the corridors for a while, or some greenery for them to rest their eyes on, but there are only bus stops, parking bays for cabs, a constant stream of people coming and going, being picked up and dropped off as the rain hangs in the air. Magdalena takes a prawn baguette out of the chill counter.
“Want to share?”
I shake my head and choose a cheese roll, badly wrapped in plastic.
“It’s chicken casserole with pineapple today,” Magdalena says enthusiastically, I envy her ability to summon up enthusiasm in this job. “I’m going to take a portion home for Anders, he loves it.”
Then the trolleys arrive with the dish of the day, chicken casserole in huge containers and an unimaginative vegetarian stew. I cook rice in the big steamer and we portion out the food, a scoop of rice with chicken in a sweet-and-sour sauce ladled on top, then we put on the lids and stack the trays in the warming cabinet. As midday approaches the customers begin to arrive: hospital staff and a few family members, we are running out of chicken casserole. I call down to the kitchen for more supplies.
“Does the casserole contain peanuts?” one of the junior nurses asks.
“I don’t think so,” I say, “I can easily call up and check, just to be on the safe side.”
“It might be a good idea to have a list of ingredients on display somewhere,” she says, looking at her colleague, who nods and rolls her eyes, as if to say you can’t expect something like that here.
“I’m sure more people would like to know.”
There is a strict hierarchy within the hospital, I understood that on my very first day. The junior nurses want to avoid being at the bottom of the food chain at all costs, so they feel the need to assert their superiority over the catering staff, who wear the same clothes as them but simply shovel food onto plates. The doctors have a completely different attitude, they are secure in their position, they are always pleasant in a slightly distant way, patient, polite. Some of them are stylish, impressive in their white coats with name badges stating their title, I amuse myself by flirting with one or two of them, being a little more helpful, a little more cheerful.
Occasionally I have wondered what it would be like to have an affair with one of them, particularly the tall handsome consultant who comes in for lunch all too rarely. I have thought about where we would meet, imagined him at home with me, even if the idea of him in my tiny apartment among my things is an unlikely scenario. I picture him sitting on my sofa, we are drinking a glass of wine, chatting. Perhaps we are discussing literature, which turns out to be a shared passion. I think of him as an educated man, interested in art and literature and politics, he is well traveled, well read, well bred, he would stand in front of the bookcase examining my books, impressed by what he sees. I wonder what he thinks of me, if anything at all. Does he assume I am like the other casual staff in the kitchen and the cafeteria? A young mom, perhaps, who has studied food technology at school and is now working temporarily in the hospital cafeteria as a way into a whole life spent in school canteens and mass catering, with an aching back and shoulders.
I mention him to Emelie when we meet up for a coffee in the evening. My whole body is weary, but if I don’t do anything in the evenings, I feel as if my job is taking over my life, and that makes me miserable, so I usually say yes if Emelie suggests getting together.
“Oh please,” she says. “How old is he? Fifty?”
“Something like that.”
“Could you really do that kind of thing? Seriously?”
I shrug my shoulders, although I know perfectly well that I could. That is exactly the kind of thing you have to do if you want to write, particularly if you live in a town like Norrköping. If nothing is happening, then you have to make sure something does happen, so that you have something to write about. I wouldn’t say it, because I think it sounds pompous, and I’m afraid Emelie will look at me with an expression that says, Who do you think you are? In spite of the fact that I have never thought I am anything special, I choose to keep quiet.
“Is he married?” she asks.
“No idea, it’s never occurred to me to find out.”
Emelie is drinking some kind of beige coffee mixture in a large glass through a straw, the wind is howling outside, it gets dark early at this time of year. The café is full of students, just like the town, the whole of Norrköping is full of students these days, the windows facing out onto the square steam up with the warmth of their bodies, their group projects and their gossip over cup after cup of the disgusting coffee you get everywhere here. I walk home along Kungsgatan, stop off in the minimarket where oranges are on special. Perhaps I am suffering from a vitamin deficiency, perhaps that is why I am so tired. Or scurvy, my teeth will soon drop out. I run my tongue along the inside of my teeth, perhaps they feel a little loose.
I buy three oranges. They are grotesquely large, the biggest oranges I have ever seen. The sidewalks are dark with the dampness, my legs are aching. My calves grow stiff and taut from standing on the hard concrete floor all day long, I lie down on the bed as soon as I get home, I pile up the pillows and the duvet at the foot of the bed and lie on my back with my feet raised. I can feel the blood being released from my feet, flowing through my legs, I have pins and needles in my calves. As I reach for the book at the top of the stack on my bedside table my cell phone vibrates with a text from Emelie: “Have just decided to go to bar tonight, want to come?” I reply that I am too tired, while at the same time I feel slightly uncomfortable that I have turned down an invitation. It’s always the same: if I say yes, I end up thinking that I would rather have stayed home, because I rarely enjoy myself with Emelie’s friends, and if I say no I feel as if I’m being boring.
Baudelaire writes about loneliness, I underline almost every word. A feeling of being condemned to eternal loneliness, and yet a burning appetite for life. Would he have gone along to the student bar in Norrköping? That could never be enough for someone with a burning appetite for life, but he might have thought it was better than nothing.
From THE OTHER WOMAN. Used with permission of Other Press. Copyright © 2016 by Therese Bohman.