Acts of Infidelity

I’ve lost my appetite.’
‘My, what a shame.’
Olof thought for a moment and said:
‘I’m thinking we should meet up now and again in the future and see what happens. With me, you could have the whole package.’
This bold act of courtship seemed to delight him. But because she wanted him to hold her arm, she held her tongue. People feared love, as she’d read in the works of the great bards, because it bears the germ of supreme delight and so too the germ of the gravest losses. ‘You wrote that play and liked what I did with the role. Olof was holding his cutlery straight up, ready to tuck in, but not quite, not before he said what he had to say. Olof was fifteen minutes late. Soon they were walking from Djurgården towards the city along Strandvägen, arm-in-arm on Olof’s initiative. Ester counted on being able to light them for Olof in the afternoon. It was a Thursday and the wait at Blå Porten was unusually short. She didn’t want to see anything beautiful today, not even beauty nestled in a sodden-grey November. When they’d made it over the crossing at Kungsträdgårdsgatan Olof said that conversing with Ester was remarkably fun and stimulating, it was like talking to a man. Assume they mean what they say.’ Lotta was cautious and clever, but Ester believed that hardly anything would come of a budding romance if you were cautious, clever, and took people at their word because it was then that language was used deceptively in order to avoid making difficult decisions and to evade love. It’s not really for me. She went numb, silent, still and cold. The boundary to intimacy is asserted by industry. Plenty of people, most in suits and dresses, were on the move. It wasn’t the scenic route. For long stretches in my life, I’ve done other things, had respectable jobs, and actually, I’ve always wanted to get away from it.’
He gripped her arm a little tighter so she would move even closer to him. The Greek one. She had no interest in meeting up ‘now and again in the future’ and seeing ‘what happens’. He was speaking with a confidence that stemmed from practised courage:
‘I think you’ve pulled a Pygmalion.’
Ester didn’t understand, but knew it was a dig. If Ester had taken him at his word here, she would have been spared considerable time and effort, likewise she would have missed out on many wondrous moments. ‘Which is a rather strange occupation,’ he said. In her apartment, which she’d lived in for five years yet still hadn’t furnished properly because she’d always been about to leave, hindered only by the fact that she didn’t have anywhere to go, she spent the morning putting fresh sheets on the bed and, on the kitchen table, an oilcloth from the Ten Swedish Designers group which she’d bought the day before on Götgatan. ‘What’s strange?’
‘Acting: such a strange profession. ‘I’ve read Shaw’s play, yes.’
‘I mean the Pygmalion myth. Olof didn’t want the same thing she did. It was one of those days when nothing seemed to be moving, all was still. The first thing he’d said when they’d met at quarter past twelve was:
‘I don’t have all day.’
Ester had thought they had all day as well as the rest of their lives now that they’d finally had the chance to see each other properly, and this is precisely what he sensed and wished to stave off, that much was clear. Today’s conversation had to mean farewell. It wasn’t any more unusual than him making a living by becoming someone else and having to summon the energy for that time and time again, night after night. ‘The artist must have thought Wallenberg had become a monument in himself,’ Ester said, ‘and so he didn’t want the monument for him to be monumental.’
Olof asked how she had the energy to have ideas about everything all the time. ‘Is this some sort of Aristotelian deduction?’
‘What’s that?’
‘Everyone with whom you can have an exciting conversation is a man. He had fulfilled his task and was now in better spirits. Ester accepted it. He gave her a peck on the lips and took the next bus to Södermalm. It was late November and forever dark. About the man who made a sculpture and fell in love with the sculpture.’
‘So you don’t think my feelings have anything to do with you?’
‘They have very little to do with me.’
Olof began eating with delight unbefitting the situation. It’s simpler and more practical. There were reasons unrelated to fact for praise and criticism. Olof’s world couldn’t possibly be so banal as to have been entirely lacking in interesting conversations with women. But when they’d reached Tegelbacken, he was more relaxed about this scheduled meeting. I can have an exciting conversation with Ester Nilsson, therefore Ester Nilsson is a man.’
Olof grimaced. She could tell that the question wasn’t a question at all, but a poison dart, if shot with a smile. As long as he existed, everything else was cast in shadow. Most of all you liked the role. Faced with Ester’s silent but apparent dismay, he changed his mind and they bought their ferry tickets. She didn’t like that he wanted to shoot such things at her and answered dryly that it came naturally to her and was how she earned her living, she had to have the energy. Ester was determined not to mention the delay, but saw that his movements were tinged with unease. Scheduling an appointment after a date was the best fortification against the person who always wanted more. ‘Not especially.’
‘No?’
‘No. They’d decided to meet at noon at the Djurgård ferry. They ordered fried herring with mashed potatoes and lingonberries and sat at a table in the middle of the restaurant, where they couldn’t be overheard.  
 
 

Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson (translated by Saskia Vogel) is published by Picador on 17th May at £14.99 His lateness and the frequent mentions of his wife during the crossing, as well as his discordant arrival, were thereby explained. Ester searched his face for something that would dignify such cruel words. ‘Is it good?’ he asked her. Now the light had to be put out. He seemed to be gearing up for something. Perhaps he was gripped by the thought of all that lay before him; this was a big step to take. Olof and Ester crossed Raoul Wallenberg Square with its scattered sculpture group. The question demanded a far-reaching and risky act of interpretation, work to which Ester was always willing to subject herself. Decisions don’t always have to be made right away.’
Not again, Ester thought, never again, I’m going to get right up and go. Rolling in from the town hall, the bus was under the viaduct when he took Ester’s hand and said:
‘Should I catch the next one instead?’
‘I don’t know. Translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel 
The day when everything would begin was upon her. When people felt an intense desire, they might insist otherwise. And as he did, Ester had the time to think that the way he was holding his cutlery was childlike and charming. Olof had made sure to be otherwise engaged at three. That which disappears can’t help but seem a little attractive once it has loosed its grip on you. It was two thirty. Further down the hill, she’d found three beautiful art deco lamps which were now on the windowsills. Their food had a greasy shine. The weight had been lifted from Olof’s shoulders and placed on Ester’s. At the stroke of twelve she was on the quay, waiting in the grey mist. Olof stayed at the bus stop and ran his stubble across her cheek, his lips searched for her closed mouth. Anticipation made it difficult for Ester to swallow. Although she’d often praised his performance that autumn, it didn’t mean that praise was based in fact and should be repeated as fact. Walking home along Vasagatan, Kungsbron and Fleminggatan up towards Fridhemsplan, Ester felt weary. Deliberating by the bus and   pressing his lips to hers in parting were nothing to cling to. They were practically alone on the crossing to Djurgården and during those few minutes Olof mentioned his wife several times. This compelled Olof to clarify:
‘You’ve fallen in love with a character of your own creation.’
She was deeply disheartened by the suggestion that she was unable to keep track of herself and her feelings. Olof had given her a clear answer. Should you?’
Ester just wanted to go home and get on with dying. Don’t interpret. ‘I’m afraid that’s how I’ve been conditioned, even though it sounds skewed when put so plainly.’
‘You need to do something about that. He looked at her. You fell in love with your own character.’
From inside her vacuum Ester noted that it took a not altogether attractive arrogance to suggest she liked what he’d done with the role. She stayed put and finished her meal. They were approaching Dramaten National Theatre, their bodies close, when Olof stated:
‘Leaving my wife isn’t on the cards.’
This was exactly what married people said when someone else had shaken their foundations, Ester thought. The trick was knowing when they meant what they were saying and were saying it to be clear and honourable, and when they meant the opposite. It was never a question of a diffuse and tempered searchlight, no, she directed her slim, harsh light beam with appalling precision only to burn a hole in the object with the full destructive power of her longing. Ester said she liked it and spoke of the controversy the choice of work had caused in the 1990s. This was only fleeting lust and a result of his fear of losing the attention of a lover. The bus came and went. ‘Talking to you is so much fun.’
As their ‘talking’ had just been defined in opposition to erotic love, these words did not sit well with Ester. They agreed on the life-affirming quality of a work that is able to offend through form alone, and that this often happened when the form, as here, was its content. Though it would have been shorter from Tegelbacken, she didn’t take the picturesque walk along the Karlberg Canal or Hantverkargatan. Upon arrival the first thing he said was that they didn’t have to go all the way to Blå Porten, they could go to a simpler lunch spot nearby in Old Town so it wouldn’t take as long. ‘Why would I do something as strange as falling for a character I wrote? In line with Grevgatan, Ester stopped and embraced him, and he reciprocated, while saying he shouldn’t be doing this. She was of a mind to ask if he should really be taking her arm, for there was a risk she would begin to perceive a chasm between his words and his actions and would place her trust in actions. As she walked, she thought her problem was that she always pawned her life’s meaning for the man she’d chosen. They walked along Arsenalsgatan towards Kungsträdgården Park. Ester had a girlfriend called Lotta who often asserted that one should ‘Take people at their word. It attested to something deficient in his relations with his wife, which was good, but also to a deficiency in perspective. She must not let herself begin the process of interpretation. When he noticed it was getting Ester down and causing her to disengage, he stopped calling the wife by name, but it continued to weigh on her during the short walk from the ferry to the restaurant through drifts of maple leaves. Then all thoughts of charm ceased. The role you played wasn’t even particularly sympathetic.’
‘You know “Pygmalion”?’ Olof asked.