The following is from Lydia Sandgren’s debut novel Collected Works. Sandgren is a trained psychologist and lives in Gothenburg, Sweden.
A din of voices rose towards the domed ceiling of the market hall. Coats were unbuttoned, scarves unwrapped, and gloves held in one hand as customers leaned across counters to talk to cashiers. Martin was waiting for his lamb chops to be cut and wrapped when he caught a glimpse of a woman out of the corner of his eye. She was the right height, and her hair was cut in a curly bob, and for a second he felt like he was falling through the floor. Is that—
No, Martin told himself. It never was. He shook his legs one at a time to regain control over them. As soon as the woman turned around, any similarity would be gone. Look, now she’s moving . . .
And her face was a stranger’s, as he’d known it would be. She had sharp eyes and determined creases between her nose and her mouth. She was holding a pair of powder-blue suede gloves and carrying a handbag in the crook of her arm, and was probably about to go home to her family in Askim or Billdal where she would sit down with a glass of wine, feel annoyed at her husband clattering in the kitchen—he was always so loud, no matter how she tried to explain that it hurt her ears, that it was painful—and ask her children about school without listening to their answers.
She met his eyes and he looked away, as though he’d just been looking around and happened to linger on her for no reason. He quickly paid for his lamb chops and hurried outside.
The sun was low in the sky. Martin stood in a ray of golden light with his eyes closed until his pulse slowed. He was going to walk home. That usually helped.
The ice was still thick on the canals and cold winds blustered up and down the city streets. Ploughs had piled dirty snow on street corners and in the parks. The ink-stroke branches of bare trees reached up towards a pale-blue sky. Martin passed Hagabadet, where he regularly submitted to strict regimens on various exercise machines. Every time he stepped through the front door, he remembered what the nineteenth-century building had been like before it was converted into a spa and gym, touched the memory the way you’d touch a talisman. Back then, it had housed an obscure record label you could only reach through an intricate back-door route, to which Gustav had dragged him once to borrow money from some mate of his. Since they were there anyway, they’d been allowed to hang out for a bit, nodding along appreciatively to spiky electronic music and sipping vermouth out of plastic cups. The pools down in the spa section had been empty then, and sometimes improvised theater performances had echoed between the tiled walls.
These days, the courtyards of the Haga neighborhood were fenced off and tidy, the local children wore striped sweaters, and the cobbled streets were filled with people out for a Sunday stroll and tourists eating oversized cinnamon buns. Sprängkullen was a university building now, not an underground nightclub. His only friends who still lived here had stopped smoking weed and become architects. And the only people who frequented Hagabadet were Martin Berg and others who could afford to pay 1,700 kronor a month to run on a treadmill. At first, he’d felt naked and ridiculous in his gym tights and T-shirts made of synthetic materials that claimed to breathe and wick away moisture (where to?). His gym shoes had been immaculate and looked brand new since he’d never worn them outside. He tried not to think about what his 25-year-old self would have thought. After a while, he’d begun to see the beauty of going to the gym. It wasn’t unlike work: the same principles applied. You put in a certain amount of effort, x. That generated a certain result, y. Sometimes, y was just maintaining the status quo—no weight gain, no fall in revenue. It could take quite a bit of work to keep y constant. In fact, keeping y constant was no small feat. In order to increase y, you had to increase x. Annoyingly, the relationship between the two was not linear; in the world outside Hagabadet, you could increase x indefinitely without any effect on y at all. At the gym, the relationship was closer to linear. You sweated on an elliptical for thirty minutes and it had a direct impact on your physique. It was a straightforward fact to cling to in a world where such things were becoming increasingly rare.
And afterwards, there was a pleasant kind of exhaustion. He’d read until Elis came home around ten, slamming the door and barely saying hello. Tired enough not to enter into any kind of discussion, only fleetingly note that his son was heating up lasagna in the microwave and bringing it to his room. Tired enough to fall asleep after turning the lights out. Tired enough to sink into a narcotic darkness until his alarm went off again and pulled him back up to the surface.
The cold air cleared Martin’s head. He’d always enjoyed walking. He’d walked and walked through Paris until he could get around without a map, and over the years he must have walked tens of thousands of miles through Gothenburg. And yet, despite all that walking, there was one street he never found himself on.
Kastellgatan was actually located at the heart of Martin’s walking pattern. He passed Järntorget Square every day. He often walked up Linnégatan or down Övre Husar. Sometimes, he had to get from one of those streets to the other, via Risåsgatan or Majorsgatan, for instance, but no matter what route he chose, he never ended up on Kastellgatan. It had been that way for over a decade, with one glaring exception, that time he accidentally found himself in Cecilia’s old flat.
That was many years ago now, during a period when he’d spent a lot of time with a fairly pleasant graphic designer. She kept dragging him to open houses, possibly to demonstrate her independence. “I’ve been thinking about buying a flat,” she’d say, and Martin could never figure out whether she was trying to communicate something else. Either way, there was always something wrong with the flats they went to see. One was on the ground floor, one had a dark-green kitchen. Too expensive, too small, too new. While she talked to estate agents about pipes and balconies, Martin strolled around other people’s homes, staged to make them look like someone-lives-here-but-not-quite, amusing himself by trying to identify the algorithms of the open house. There were always pots of fresh herbs with the price tag still on in the kitchens. Certain kinds of cushions had always been placed just so on the sofas. A tealight always burned on the bathroom sink.
His presence was, in all honesty, pointless, and consequently he very nearly didn’t accompany her to that particular open house. But then he did because if he ever did say no, it would likely be the first no of many.
“There you are,” said the graphic designer—whose name was Mimmi—when they met up on Skanstorget. She gave him a stressed peck on the cheek and set off up the street. “I just have to double-check the address,” she said. As she rummaged through her handbag, a kind of quiet certainty took root in Martin. It’s going to be number 11.
“Eleven!” Mimmi said and pulled on him to make him move. “What’s the matter with you? It’s not one of the buildings sinking into the mud, is it?”
They climbed the stairs, which spiraled up like the inside of a seashell. There were three doors on each of the six floors. It was a one-in-eighteen chance. His pulse quickened and he heard Mimmi’s voice as if from a great distance: “I think it’s the top floor.”
They reached the final landing, and there it was, Cecilia’s door. It was held open by an estate agent’s sign and a bucket of blue shoe covers.
A young man in a polyester suit appeared and extended his hand, and while Mimmi took care of the social niceties, Martin entered the flat.
Spotlights gleamed overhead and the worn linoleum flooring had been replaced with tiles. Martin popped his head into the bathroom, but of course there wasn’t a trace of the cracked sink or the portrait of Haile Selassie and his inevitable lions. Nothing but white tile. A bowl of limes was sitting on the kitchen counter. The parquet floor in the main room was polished and the walls freshly painted. The bed was covered with a mountain of cushions and a white sofa swelled along the entire wall where Cecilia’s bookcase had once stood.
But the view—it was like a time warp. Tin roofs and chimneys, Skansen Kronan, the river, the cranes.
He stood by the window while Mimmi inspected baseboards and mullions with a critical eye. She broke up with him a few weeks later, because it was “really weird” that he still insisted on wearing his wedding ring. “My therapist says I have to work on my boundaries.”
And he’d thought to himself: This whole thing, it’s just a waste of time anyway.
Excerpted from Collected Works copyright © 2020 by Lydia Sandgren. Translation copyright © 2023 by Agnes Broomé. Published by Astra House. All rights reserved.