The subway car was packed and she had to stand from Slussen to Őstermalmstorg, crammed between people who all seemed to be sweating. The whole car stank. The trains were still running according to the summer schedule, which meant half as many departures as usual, in spite of the fact that most vacationers were back in the city by now. It was the end of August, the heat still heavy and sticky in Stockholm. It had been an unusually warm summer.
The few people who alighted at the University station formed an orderly line on the long escalator heading up toward the daylight; most of them were suntanned teenagers, possibly there to find their way around before the start of the semester in a few days’ time.
They get younger every year, she thought—as she did every August/September. At first glance she wouldn’t even have said that some of them were old enough for high school. But now they would be studying at the University of Stockholm, possibly in her own department. She glanced along the path leading toward the blue buildings; it was hard to tell. In their summer clothes, all students looked the same.
The department was everything the subway wasn’t: cool and quiet. A printer was chugging away farther down the corridor, and the faint smell of paper and stuffy rooms hovered in the air. She was very happy here in spite of the total lack of glamour, in spite of the fact that the corridors with their flat-woven plastic rugs made the place look like just about any public facility—a community center in a small town, an elementary school, a clinic. The exterior of the ivy-covered brick building was beautiful; it was one of the few impressive structures on the campus. And she loved the nameplate on her door, “Karolina Andersson, Professor of Art,” even though she didn’t really like her own name. It was a boring name, a typical 1970s name without the slightest hint of mystery, easily forgotten, but at least the title lifted it somewhat. One day she would probably get used to “Professor of Art,” but she wasn’t there yet.
The air quality in her room was poor, and she randomly turned the air-conditioning dial, or maybe it was the heating; she had never understood how it worked. Then she opened the window instead. She had a view of the Natural History Museum, and she never tired of looking at it. It was a long time since she
had been in there—at least ten years, possibly fifteen. Or even twenty. The speed with which time passed often frightened her. The years since she left school and moved away from home felt like a moment compared with her childhood and teens, which seemed to have gone on for an eternity.
When she was working on the weekend she would often gaze out at the procession of families heading from the subway station to the entrance of the museum, full of enthusiasm at the prospect of seeing films about the universe or the Antarctic, skeletons of whales, models of dinosaurs, stuffed animals. Actually, it was probably more like twenty-five years since she had been in there. She really ought to go. Tomorrow, perhaps. The rooms were bound to be pleasantly cool.
She spent a few hours going through her mail and checking her messages, which mostly consisted of information about various activities, guest lectures, invitations to apply for research funding. Luncheon vouchers for the Faculty Club, where she never ate. The agenda for the first board meeting of the new semester. And a message from one of her PhD students, sloppily written and sent late the previous night.
She stretched and stood up to go and get a coffee. An indolent atmosphere pervaded the entire building, a late summer drowsiness, which within days would be supplanted by activity and stress. She loved being here when the department was deserted. She had spent most of the Easter break at her desk, absorbed in her work. It was a good memory.
Peter Tallfalk was in the staff room waiting for the machine to finish producing a cup of coffee. Peter was also a professor, and Tallfalk was a name he had adopted when he got married a few years ago. Karolina thought it was an amusing name, with its pretensions to distinguished elegance even though it made him sound like a character from a children’s book. Mr. Tallfalk.
But Peter was nice; of all her colleagues, he was the one she liked best. He was in his sixties and his particular focus was iconology in the successors of Panofsky, which seemed strangely old-fashioned among all the more contemporary research projects currently ongoing within the department. Peter had a rare passion for graphics, primarily from the Renaissance. His appearance was rather mousy, but in a nice way; more rodent than falcon.
He seemed pleased to see her.
“How was your summer?” he asked as Karolina pressed a button on the machine.
“Okay.” She hesitated briefly. “I’ve been busy with the move most of the time.”
He nodded sympathetically. “Of course. All sorted?”
“I wouldn’t say that exactly, but I’ve unpacked everything. And redecorated, so at least there’s a kind of superficial order.”
She pulled a face while he continued to exude sympathy.
She had moved from a large three-room apartment in Vasastan to a small two-room place in Södermalm. At the same time she had gone from eleven years of living with a partner to life as a singleton, and she knew it was going to take a while to get used to that. She had, however, quickly grown accustomed to the pitying looks that said: “Women in their forties don’t dump their partner.
You’ve really made a mess of things now.”
“We’re late bloomers, you and I,” Peter said. “Like all the best people.”
She smiled, touched at his kindness.
“You must come over for a drink one evening,” he went on.
“It’s still possible to sit out, and we’re planning on doing just that right through the fall. We’ve installed infrared heating. Well, I say we—I got someone in to do it. I don’t have a handy bone in my body.”
Karolina thought the apartment still had a slightly strange odor, as if she hadn’t yet made her mark. An acrid smell lingered in the rooms; she thought it might be the cheap detergent used by the cleaning company.
Otherwise she was happy here, in a passive kind of way. It was a beautiful apartment, even though it was pretty shabby, and in an area she wouldn’t have chosen if she had actually had a choice.
Unfortunately the purchase had had to be expedited quickly, and in June, when there wasn’t a great deal on the market. She had wanted to move fast. The block was at the end of Folkungagatan, just where it begins to slope down toward the Stadsgard intersection and the Finland ferries, a Södermalm appendix, slightly run-down, with one of the inner city’s few remaining petrol stations diagonally opposite. The living room was noisy, with its old windows overlooking the street; they rattled when there was a lot of traffic, and when trucks from the ferries chose to make their way into the city via Folkungagatan.
“Great potential,” the property details had said; she knew perfectly well that this could mean almost the same as “in need of significant renovation” in broker-speak. The building had passed into the hands of a tenants’ association just a few years earlier. The previous owner was an elderly lady who had since passed away, and she had decided not to go in for the hysterical refurbishment which most people of Karolina’s generation had opted for. This apartment bore clear signs of its past; the paint was scuffed on cupboards and door frames, the creaking parquet flooring needed repolishing, and the bathroom floor was covered by a grubby plastic mat that looked as if it had been put down in the eighties, and was long overdue for replacement.
But Karolina liked her new home. It had soon begun to feel like an oasis, a space of her own, maybe somewhere she could make a fresh start, even if that was still some way beyond the horizon. For the moment it was a good location for a period of aimless confusion.
She had repainted the walls during a hot week in July. Every room had been decorated with nondescript, pale wallpaper with a discreet pattern; it didn’t particularly bother her, but there were stains here and there that made it look grubby, and it was probably one of the reasons for the comparatively cheap selling price.
She did a fairly slapdash job, sanding down and filling holes in a halfhearted way, wearing only a T-shirt and panties because it was almost thirty degrees Celsius outside, and it was impossible to create a draft indoors. The air in the city was undisturbed for weeks during the summer, hot days and tropical nights. She slapped two coats of Stockholm white on top of her poor preparatory work, then left the windows wide-open all evening while she sat in the little island of furniture in the middle of the living room, drinking chilled white wine and watching the moths attack the expensive candles she had bought in the hope that they would neutralize the smell of paint, which gave her a nagging headache.
“Get yourself a cat,” one of her colleagues had said when she moved in, but she refused, even though she actually liked cats. She didn’t want to be a single woman with a cat, it was too tragically predictable. “I’d prefer a lover,” she had replied, and they had both laughed, even though she was perfectly serious.