The Princess of Burundi

Kjell Eriksson

The princess of Burundi

The first book in the Ann Lindell series, 2006

Translated from the Swedish by Ebba Segerberg

One

The plate trembled, knocking over the glass. The milk flowed out over the waxed tablecloth like a white flower.

Typical-we have almost no milk left, she thought. She quickly righted the glass and wiped up the milk with a dishrag.

“When is Dad coming home?”

She twirled around. Justus was leaning up against the doorpost.

“I don’t know,” she said, throwing the dishrag into the sink.

“What’s for dinner?”

He had a book in his hand, his index finger tucked in to mark the page he was reading. She wanted to ask him what it was, but then she thought of something and walked over to the window.

“Stew,” she said absently. She looked out at the parking lot. It had started to snow again.

Maybe he was working. She knew he had talked to Micke. He always needed extra workers for his snow-removal crew, and it had been coming down for days now. John wasn’t afraid of heights, either.

Berit smiled at the memory of how he had climbed the drainpipe to her balcony long ago. It was only on the second floor, but still. He could have broken his neck if he had fallen. Just like his father, she thought, and her smile faded.

She had been furious with him, but he had just laughed. Then he had scooped her up in a tight embrace, with a strength you would never have thought John’s slender body was capable of.

Later-clearly flattered-she liked to tell the story of his climb and his persistence. It was their earliest and most important shared memory.

Snow removal. A small tractor drove across the parking lot and pushed even more snow up over the heavily laden bushes by the edge of the lot. Harry was the driver. She recognized him by his red cap.

Harry was the one who had set Justus to work, giving him a summer job when no one else was hiring. Lawn mowing, clearing out trash, weeding. Justus complained, but he had been bursting with pride at his first paycheck.

Berit’s gaze followed the snowplow. Snow was falling thickly. The orange signal light revolved on the roof of the tractor. Darkness settled in over the buildings and the parking lot. The light was flung to the far corners of the grounds. Harry was certainly busy. How many hours had he had to work the past few days?

“This weather’s going to send me to the Canary Islands,” he had shouted to her the other day when they met outside the front door.

He had leaned on his shovel and asked her about Justus. He always did.

She turned and meant to say hello from Harry but Justus had already gone.

“What are you doing?” she cried out into the apartment.

“Nothing,” Justus yelled back.

Berit assumed he was sitting in front of the computer. Ever since August, when John had dragged home the boxes, Justus had sat glued to the screen.

“The kid has to have a computer. He’ll be left behind otherwise,” John had said when she complained at the extravagance.

“How much did it cost?”

“I got it cheap,” he had told her, and quickly showed her the receipt from the electronics store when he caught her look. That accusing look, the one he knew so well.

She looked around the kitchen but there was nothing else to be done. Dinner was ready. She went back to the window. He had said he would be back around four and it was close to six now. He usually called if he was delayed, but that had been mostly when he was doing a lot of overtime at the workshop. He had never liked to work late, but his boss, Sagge-Agne Sagander-had a way of asking that made it hard to say no. It always sounded as if the order in question were going to make or break the company.

He had grown more quiet after he was fired. John had never been one to talk much, of course-Berit was the one who supplied the conversation-but he became even less talkative after he was let go.

He had cheered up only this fall. Berit was convinced that it had to do with the fish, the new aquarium he had been talking about for years and that had become a reality at last.

He had needed all that work with the fish tank, had spent a couple of weeks in September on it. Harry had given him a hand with the final assembly. He and Gunilla had come to the grand opening. Berit had thought it silly to inaugurate a fish tank but the party had been a success.

Their closest neighbor, Stellan, had looked in, as had John’s mom, and Lennart had been sober and cheerful. Stellan, who was normally quite reserved, had put an arm around Berit and said something about how cute she looked. John had just smiled, though he usually was sensitive about things like this, especially when he had had a drink or two. But there was no reason to be jealous of Stellan.

Harry had finished clearing the parking lot. The flashing orange signal flung new cascades of light across the path to the laundry facilities and communal rooms. Snow removal. Berit had only a vague idea of what this task involved. Did they still climb up on the roof like in the old days? She could remember the bundled-up men from her childhood with their big shovels and ropes slung in great loops over their shoulders. She could even recall the warning signs they posted in the courtyard and on the street.

Was he over at Lennart’s? Brother Tuck, as John called him. She didn’t like it. It reminded her of the bad old days. She never knew what to make of it: Lennart’s loquacious self-assurance and John’s pressed silence.

Berit was only sixteen when the three of them met. First she got to know John, then Lennart. The brothers appeared inseparable. Lennart, tossing his long black hair off his face, unpredictable in his movements, always on the go, picking nervously, chattering. John, blond, thin-lipped, and with a gentleness about him that had immediately appealed to her. A scar across his left eye created an unexpected contrast with the pale skin in his slightly androgynous face. The scar was from a motorcycle accident. Lennart had been driving.

Berit had been unable to understand how John and Lennart could be brothers. They were so different, both in appearance and in manner. Once she had gone so far as to ask Aina, their mother, about it. It had been toward the end of the crayfish party, but she had only smiled and joked about it.

It didn’t take long for Berit to figure out that the brothers didn’t always make their money in traditional ways. John worked at the workshop off and on, but it seemed to Berit that this was more to keep up appearances, especially with regard to Albin, his father.

John had a criminal bent. Not because he was evil or greedy, but simply because a conventional lifestyle didn’t seem to be quite enough for him. It was something he had in common with many of the people around him, teenagers who appeared well adjusted on the surface but who drifted around the eastern parts of Uppsala most evenings and nights in anxious herds. They picked pockets, snatched purses, stole mopeds and cars, broke into basements, and smashed shopwindows as the spirit moved them.

A few, like John and Lennart, were permanent fixtures. Others came and went, most of them dropping out after six months or a year.

Some took classes at the Boland School in order to become painters, concrete workers, mechanics, or whatever other professions were open to working-class youths in the early seventies. Others took jobs straight out of middle school. None of them continued with more formal academic subjects at the high school level. They had neither the will nor the grades for that.

Most of them lived at home with their parents, who were not always the ideal people to prevent substance abuse, theft, and other illegal activities. They had enough of their own problems and often stood by, quite powerless to do anything to stop their offspring. They were awkward and embarrassed when dealing with the welfare workers, psychologists, and other social officials, confused by the bureaucratic language, their own inadequacies, and their intense sense of shame.

“If I hadn’t had them, it would all have gone to hell,” John had said once.

It was only when he was getting regular work at the factory that he started to move away from life on the streets and the gangs. Regular work, a new sense of being appreciated, decent wages, and then Berit.

Lennart delivered groceries by day and hung out at the pool hall in Sivia at night. John was there too. He was the better player of the two, though that hardly bothered Lennart, who spent most of his time on the flipper machines down below.

That was where Berit met them. She had come with a girl named Anna-Lena, who was in love with a boy who frequented the place.

She fell in love with John at first sight. He snuck around the pool table with the cue in his hand and played with intense concentration, something that appealed to Berit. He rarely said anything.

His hands were slender. She studied his fingers splayed on the green mat, his gaze focused along the stick, serious. It was the seriousness she noticed. And eyelashes. His gaze, the intense gaze.

She wasn’t sure what made her start thinking about the pool hall. It had been years since she had been there. It was probably because she had been thinking about Brother Tuck, and about how John was probably with him. She didn’t wa ...

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