There was something about her that made some people say she didn’t look like a nurse, and she could never figure out if this was a compliment or an insult. She had long, dark hair and a pair of green eyes that sometimes gave the impression that she was about to burst out laughing. She wasn’t; that was just the way she looked, as if she had been born with a smile in her eyes.
She went down the stairs, which creaked beneath her feet. The house --a fairly small, yellow wooden villa built in 1911, with leaded windows, shiny old parquet floors, and a garden that could have been bigger --was her place on this earth, she realized that the first time she saw it.
The kitchen window was open to the still spring evening. The smell coming through the window was more summer than spring. Summer wasn’t supposed to arrive for several weeks, but the heat had come early and not wanted to leave. Now it was just hanging there, heavy and completely still. She was grateful for it, needed it, enjoyed being able to have her windows and doors open --being able to move freely between outside and in.
There was the sound of a moped in the distance, a thrush was singing in a tree --other birds too, but she didn’t know their names.
Sophie got out the china and set the table for two, with the best plates, nicest cutlery, and the finest glasses, avoiding the workaday as best she could. She knew she would be eating alone, seeing as Albert ate when he was hungry, which seldom coincided with her timing. She heard his steps on the stairs --sneakers on old oak wood; a bit too heavy, a bit too hard --Albert wasn’t bothered by the noise he was making. She smiled at him as he came into the kitchen; he smiled back boyishly, yanked open the fridge door, and stood there for far too long, staring at the contents.
“Shut the fridge, Albert.”
He stood where he was; she ate for a while, idly leafing through a newspaper, then she looked up, said the same thing again, this time with a hint of irritation in her voice.
“I can’t move . . . ,” he whispered theatrically.
She laughed, not so much at his dry sense of humor but more because he was just funny, which made her happy . . . proud, even.
“How was your day?” she asked.
She could see he was close to laughter. She recognized the signs, he always thought his own jokes were funny. Albert took a bottle of mineral water from the fridge, slammed the door, and jumped up onto the kitchen counter. The carbon dioxide hissed as he unscrewed the top.
“Everyone’s mad,” he said, taking a sip. Albert started to tell her about his day in small fragments as they occurred to him. She listened and smiled as he made fun of the teachers and other people. She could see he enjoyed being amusing, then suddenly he was done. Sophie could never figure out when this was going to happen; he would just stop, as if he had gotten fed up with himself and his sense of humor. And she felt like reaching out to him to ask him to stay, carry on being funny, carry on being human, friendly, and mean at the same time. But that wasn’t how it worked. She’d tried before and it had gone wrong, so she let him go.
He disappeared into the hall. A short silence; maybe he was changing his shoes.
“You owe me a thousand kronor,” he said.
“The cleaning lady came today.”
“Don’t say ‘cleaning lady.’”
She heard the zip of his jacket.
“So what should I say?”
She didn’t know. He was on his way out through the door.
“Kiss, kiss, Mom,” he said, his tone suddenly gentle.
The door closed and she could hear his steps on the gravel path outside the open window.
“Give me a ring if you’re going to be late,” she called.
Sophie went on as normal. She cleared the table, tidied up, watched some television, called a friend and talked about nothing --and the evening passed. She went up to bed and tried to read some of the book on her bedside table, about a woman who had found a new life helping the street children of Bucharest. The book was dull; the woman was pretentious and Sophie had nothing in common with her. She closed the book and fell asleep alone in her bed as usual.
Eight hours later, and the time was quarter past six in the morning. Sophie got up, showered, wiped the bathroom mirror, which revealed hidden words when it steamed up: Albert, AIK, and a load of other illegible things that he wrote with his finger while he was brushing his teeth. She had told him to stop doing it, but he didn’t seem to care, and in some ways she rather liked that.
She ate a light breakfast on her feet as she read the front page of the morning paper. It would soon be time to leave for work. She shouted up to Albert three times that it was time to get up, then fifteen minutes later she was sitting on her bicycle and letting the mild morning air wake her up.
He went by the name of Jeans. They seriously believed that was his name. They’d laughed and pointed to their trousers. Jeans!
But his name was Jens, and he was sitting at a table in a hut in the jungle in Paraguay together with three Russians. The boss’s name was Dmitry, a lanky guy in his thirties, his face still looked like a child’s --a child whose parents were cousins. His colleagues, Gosha and Vitaly, were the same age --and their parents may have been siblings. They kept laughing without showing any sign of pleasure, their eyes wide, half-open mouths letting on that they didn’t really understand anything at all.
Dmitry was mixing a batch of dry martinis in a plastic container. He tipped in some olives and shook it around, poured it into some rinsed-out coffee mugs, spilling it, then proposed a toast in Russian. His friends roared; they all drank the martinis, which had an undertone of diesel.
Jens didn’t like them, not a single one. They were repulsive: dishonest, rude, twitchy. . . . He tried to not show his distaste but it shone through; he’d always been bad at hiding his feelings.
“Let’s take a look at the goods,” he said.
The Russians lit up like children on Christmas morning. He went out of the shed toward the jeep that was parked in the middle of the dusty, poorly lit yard.
He had no idea why the Russians had come all the way to Paraguay to look at the goods. Normally someone ordered something from him, he delivered, got paid, never met the customer. But this time it was different, as if the whole business of buying arms was a big deal for them, something fun, an adventure in itself. He had no idea what they were involved in either, and he didn’t want to know. It didn’t matter; they were there to look at their purchases, test the weapons, snort some cocaine, fuck some whores, and pay Jens the second of three installments.
He had brought one MP7 and one Steyr AUG with him. The rest were packed away in a warehouse by the harbor in Ciudad del Este awaiting shipment.
The Russians grabbed the guns and pretended to shoot one another. Hands up . . . hands up! They were shrieking with laughter, jerking about. Dmitry had a white smear of coke in his stubble.
Gosha and Vitaly were arguing over the MP7, pulling and tugging at the gun, punching each other hard in the head with their fists. Dmitry separated them, brought out the container of dry martinis.
Jens watched from a distance. The Russians would get out of hand, the Paraguayans would come back with some whores as a gesture of goodwill. The Russians would get even more wired and drunk and then they’d start firing live rounds. He knew what was going to happen and he couldn’t do anything to stop it, and it would all be terrible. He wanted to leave, but he had to stay until sunrise, stay alert and sober, to take his money whenever Dmitry decided it was time to hand it over.
“Jeans! Where the fuck is the ammo?”
Jens pointed to the jeep. The Russians ran over, tore open the doors, and began searching. Jens put his hand in his pocket, he only had one piece of nicotine gum left. It was two months since he had stopped using chewing tobacco, and three years since he stopped smoking. And now he was in the jungle twenty-five miles from Ciudad del Este. The nicotine synapses in his brain were screaming for attention. He pulled out the last piece of gum, chewed hard on it, looked over at the Russians with ill-concealed disgust, and realized that he was about to start smoking again.
Once she was at the hospital, she worked. There was rarely time for anything else, and besides, she didn’t enjoy drinking coffee with her colleagues; it felt uncomfortable. She wasn’t shy, but maybe there was something missing, preventing her from socializing over coffee. She was mainly there for the patients’ sake, not because of any particular piety or a specific desire to look after other people. She worked at the hospital so she could talk to them, spend time with them. They were there because they were ill, which meant that they were basically themselves. Open, human, and honest. And that made her feel safe and functional. That was what she wanted, that was what kept her coming. Patients rarely talked nonsense, except when they were getting better, and that’s when she left them, and they her. Maybe that was why Sophie had chosen this as her career in the first place.
Did she wallow in other people’s misfortune? Possibly, but it didn’t really feel to her as if that was what she was doing. It felt more like she was dependent. Dependent on other people’s honesty, dependent on their openness, dependent on the chance to see glimpses of people’s inner selves shine through every now and then. And when that happened, those patients would often become her favorites on the ward. Her favorites were almost always imposing characters. “Imposing” was the word she used. And when they appeared before her, she would stop and think, impressed, maybe, and filled with an indefinable sense of hope. Straight-backed people who dared to face life with a smile, the ones who were imposing on the inside: she had always been able to see them, right from the very first glance, without being able to explain how or why. As if these few people let their souls blossom, as if they chose the very best over what was merely good, as if they dared to see all sides of themselves, even the shady, hidden aspects.
She was walking down the corridor carrying a tray, heading for Hector Guzman in Room 11. He had come in three days earlier after being knocked down on a pedestrian crossing in the city center. His right leg was broken below the knee. The doctors thought they’d discovered something wrong with his spleen, so he was being kept in for observation. Hector was in his mid-forties, good-looking without being handsome, large without being fat. He was Spanish, but she thought she could see hints of something Nordic in his features. His hair was fairly dark, with a few lighter hints. His nose, cheekbones, and chin were sharp and his skin verged on the sandy brown. He spoke fluent Swedish and he was imposing --perhaps because of the observant eyes that lit up his face, possibly because of the lightness of his movements even though he was a large man. Or possibly because of the natural indifference that made him smile every time she went in to him --as if he knew that she knew, which she did, and that made her smile back at him.
He pretended to be absorbed in a book as he sat up in bed with his reading glasses on his nose. He was always doing things like that when she was with him, pretending not to see her, pretending to be busy.
She sorted out the pills and put them in little plastic cups, then handed him one. He took it without looking up from his book, tipped the pills into his mouth, accepted a glass of water, and swallowed them, all without taking his eyes from the book. She gave him the second dose and he did the same with that.
“Always just as tasty,” he said quietly, then looked up. “You’re wearing different earrings today, Sophie.”
She caught herself about to raise one hand to her ear.
“I might be,” she said.
“No, not might be, you are. They suit you.”
She headed for the door and pulled it open.
“Can I have some juice? If that’s OK?”
“It’s OK,” Sophie said.
In the doorway she bumped into the man who had introduced himself as Hector’s cousin. He wasn’t like Hector --thin but muscular, black-haired, taller than average, with alert blue eyes that seemed to notice everything going on around him. The cousin nodded to her curtly. He said something to Hector in Spanish, Hector said something back, and they both started to laugh. Sophie got the feeling that she was part of the joke, and forgot about the juice.
Gunilla Strandberg was sitting in the corridor holding a bunch of flowers, watching the nurse come out of Hector Guzman’s room. Gunilla studied her as she came toward her. Was that happiness she could see? The sort of happiness that a person doesn’t themselves know about? The woman went past her. On her left breast pocket was the little pin that showed that she was a “Sophia Sister” --a graduate of Sophiahemmet University College. Beside the pin was a name badge. Gunilla had time to make out the name Sophie.
She watched Sophie go. The woman’s face was beautiful. Beautiful in the way that privilege bestowed: narrow, discreet . . . and fresh. The nurse moved easily, as if she let each foot merely graze the floor before taking the next step. It was an attractive way of walking, Gunilla thought. She watched until Sophie disappeared into another patient’s room.
Gunilla was left thinking, her thoughts based on emotional equations. She looked once more in the direction where Sophie had just disappeared, then toward Room 11, in which Hector Guzman lay. There was something there. An energy . . . an emphasized form of something invisible to the naked eye. Something that woman, Sophie, had brought out of the room with her.