17

THEY WERE SERVED COFFEE, CHEESE ROLLS, AND THREE KINDS OF cookies. The rooms were full of Christmas decorations, an excess of them. The children had been given free rein. Angela recognized Elsa’s paintings because Elsa had shown them to her before. There were lines and circles that could symbolize most things. Or just represent them. Not everything was symbolic.

There was a smell of candle wax and hot punch. Parents were circulating and discussing the Christmas atmosphere that had arrived here about three weeks early.

There were no children present this evening. No overtime for them, Angela thought. Elsa can relax at home with Erik. Rolling the ball across the floor until he’s too stiff to stand up again. No, it wasn’t that bad. But obviously, being a father at forty is not the same as being a father at twenty-five.

She looked around. She was at a sort of middle age when it came to parenting, not too young and not too old. Waiting until you were thirty before having a child was no big deal nowadays. Lots of women waited. But she wouldn’t have wanted to wait any longer. Nevertheless, Erik had waited until she couldn’t take it any longer. And she hadn’t taken it any longer. No more waiting.

The future was not over. Just wait and see, Erik.

They assembled in the big hall. The nursery-school manager welcomed them to the annual Christmas get-together. This nursery school is a bit special, she said. Inner-city dwellers and inner-city children.

Angela could see the house by the sea in her mind’s eye. An avenue, trees on all sides, gravel paths, and a kitchen garden.

The future was not over.

But the apartment at Vasaplatsen wasn’t something you just got rid of. At the moment it seemed to be the best place for Elsa. Big, shiny floors. They were easy to roll a ball over.

It was afterward, when there were fewer parents still present, that the matter came up. Lots of them had been thinking about it all evening, the staff as well of course, but one of them said:

“We didn’t really know how to bring it up.”

“Which nursery school was it?” somebody asked.

“Hepatica.”

“Where’s that?”

“In ?ngg?rden.”

“But that’s not very far from here.”

“They were in Slottskogen.”

“It’s terrible.”

“Yes, awful.”

“Has anything like this happened before?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“How’s the boy?”

“I don’t know.”

Angela listened, but said nothing. She had seen the boy the evening it happened, and then again today. One day later. Simon. His parents. His father had said “fuck” at one point, maybe a couple of times.

Angela was sitting on the edge of the group, next to the window, on a chair that was intended for a much shorter and younger person. A street lamp illuminated the swings and the slide. Car headlights lit up the street down the slope. She thought about the hole in the fence. Had it really been mended?

She could see the church tower in the park on the other side of the street; that was lit up as well.

A woman sat down on the other little chair.

“Who knows if we’ll be able to stand up again,” she said.

“I’m afraid to try,” said Angela.

“Lena Sk?ld,” said the woman, reaching out her right hand.

“Angela Hoffman.”

Angela had never met Lena Sk?ld before. It was usually Erik who took Elsa to the nursery school, and collected her. But come to think of it, she did recognize her after all. And she thought she could remember what her child looked like. A girl with dark hair.

“I’m Ellen’s mom,” said Lena Sk?ld.

“I’m Elsa’s mom,” said Angela.

“Yes, of course.” She picked up her cup. “We-Ellen and me-haven’t been here for very long.” She took a sip of coffee. “We used to go to a different nursery school before.”

“I think I can remember what Ellen looks like,” said Angela.

“She’s in the picture behind you.”

Angela turned to look at the little photograph behind her, stuck onto a bigger sheet of paper. The girl was standing on a beach, laughing out to sea. It was windy. The photograph was framed by all the colors of the rainbow. Arrows with the girl’s name pointed at the picture. A little exhibitionist.

“She wanted to make it clear that she was the one in that picture and nobody else,” said Lena Sk?ld with a smile.

“She’s got plenty of self-confidence,” said Angela.

“Hmm… I don’t know about that.” She took another sip of coffee. “We’ll find out about that eventually, I suppose.” She looked at Angela. “I’m a single parent.” She put down her cup and smiled.

Angela nodded. Through the window she could see people leaving the nursery school on their way home. She checked her watch.

“Yes, I suppose it’s time to make a move,” said Lena Sk?ld. “If we can stand up.” She made an effort with her legs. “Eh, I failed at the first attempt.”

“I don’t think I’m even going to try,” said Angela.

Lena Sk?ld also stayed put, looking through the window in which her face was mirrored.

“I keep thinking about what we were talking about earlier,” she said.

“About the boy who, er, disappeared?” said Angela.

“Yes.” She looked as if she wanted to say more, and Angela waited.

“Something odd happened to me not long ago. Or rather, to Ellen.” She looked at Angela. “It feels almost creepy. Yes, it definitely does. What with what happened to the boy and all that. But I mean this incident with Ellen. Given the rest of it.”

What on earth is she talking about? Angela wondered.

“It was very strange,” said Lena Sk?ld. “What happened to Ellen. She came home and, well, I suppose you could say she told a story. About how she’d met somebody while her group was on an outing.”

“What do you mean, met somebody?”

“A man. A mister, as she called him. She said she met this mister and sat with him for a while. In a car. If I understood it correctly they were sitting in a car.”

“That’s what she told you?”

“That’s how I understood it, at least,” said Lena Sk?ld. “And there was another thing. Something disappeared that day.”

“What was it?” Angela asked.

“A little silver charm that she had in her overall pocket. It vanished. The police asked me to check if there was anything missing, and it was that charm.”

“The police?”

“That evening when Ellen came home, I mean, when she said she’d met somebody, I called the police about it.”

“The police where?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you call the local police station, or the communications center?”

“I don’t know what it’s called. I looked up a number in the phone book and got through to a call center, and they passed me on to another number.” She put her cup down on the floor. “It was a police station close to where I live.”

“Your local station,” said Angela.

“Yes.” She looked at Angela. “You seem to know about these things. Are you a police officer?”

“No.”

“I think they said it was the Majorna and Linn?staden police.”

“What else did they say?”

“The man I spoke to wrote down what I said. At least, it sounded like he did. And then he said that stuff about me checking to see if anything was missing and I did and I phoned back to tell him about the charm.”

“Have they been in touch with you again? The police, I mean?”

“No.”

“How’s Ellen?”

“Same as ever. I expect it was just her imagination.” She looked around the playroom, which was neat and tidy. All the toys were in big boxes along the walls. There were Christmas drawings all over the walls.

There was still a smell of candle wax and hot punch, in anticipation of Christmas. There was a sound of voices from the other rooms, but fewer now. “But when you hear what happened to that poor boy, it makes you wonder.”

Angela said nothing.

“What do you think?” asked Lena Sk?ld.

“Have you tried talking to Ellen about it again?”

“Yes, several times.”

“What does she say?”

“More or less the same thing. I’ve been thinking about that. She doesn’t seem to have forgotten about it. It’s the same little story. Or maybe it’s just a… fairy story. A fantasy.”

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