It was five to six in the morning when Ove and the cat met for the first time. The cat instantly disliked Ove exceedingly. The feeling was very much reciprocated.
Ove had, as usual, got up ten minutes earlier. He could not make head nor tail of people who overslept and blamed it on the alarm clock not ringing. Ove had never owned an alarm clock in his entire life. He woke up at quarter to six and that was when he got up.
Every morning for the almost four decades they had lived in this house, Ove had put on the coffee percolator, using exactly the same amount of coffee as any other morning, and then drunk a cup with his wife. One measure for each cup, and one extra for the jug – no more, no less. People didn’t know how to do that any more, brew some proper coffee. In the same way as nowadays nobody could write with a pen. Because now it was all computers and espresso machines. And where was the world going if people couldn’t even write or brew a bit of coffee?
While his proper cup of coffee was brewing, he put on his navy blue trousers and jacket, stepped into his wooden clogs, and shoved his hands in his pockets in that particular way of a middle-aged man who expects the worthless world outside to disappoint him.
Then he made his morning inspection of the street. The surrounding terraced houses lay in silence and darkness as he walked out of the door, and there wasn’t a soul in sight. Might have known, thought Ove. In this street no one took the trouble to get up any earlier than they had to. Nowadays, it was just self-employed people and other disreputable sorts living here.
The cat sat with a nonchalant expression in the middle of the footpath that ran between the houses. It had half a tail and only one ear. Patches of fur were missing here and there as if someone had pulled it out in handfuls. Not a very impressive feline.
Ove stomped forward. The cat stood up. Ove stopped. They stood there measuring up to each other for a few moments, like two potential troublemakers in a small-town bar. Ove considered throwing one of his clogs at it. The cat looked as if it regretted not bringing its own clogs to lob back.
“Scram!” Ove bellowed, so abruptly that the cat jumped back. It briefly scrutinised the fifty-nine-year-old man and his clogs, then turned and lolloped off. Ove could have sworn it rolled its eyes before clearing out.
“Pest,” he thought, glancing at his watch. Two minutes to six. Time to get going or the bloody cat would have succeeded in delaying the entire inspection. Fine state of affairs that would be.
He began marching along the footpath between the houses. He stopped by the traffic sign informing motorists that they were prohibited from entering the residential area. He gave the metal pole a firm kick. Not that it was wonky or anything, but it’s always best to check. Ove is the sort of man who checks the status of all things by giving them a good kick.
He walked across the parking area and strolled back and forth along all the garages to make sure none of them had been burgled in the night or set on fire by gangs of vandals. Such things had never happened round here, but then Ove had never skipped one of his inspections either. He tugged three times at the door handle of his own garage, where his Saab was parked. Just like any other morning.
After this, he detoured through the guest parking area, where cars could only be left for up to twenty-four hours. Carefully he noted down all the registration numbers in the little pad he kept in his jacket pocket, and then compared these to the registrations he had noted down the day before. On occasions when the same registration numbers turned up in Ove’s notepad, Ove would go home and call the Vehicle Licensing Authority to retrieve the vehicle owner’s details, after which he’d call up the latter and inform him that he was a useless bloody imbecile who couldn’t even read signs. Ove didn’t really care who was parked in the guest parking area, of course. But it was a question of principle. If it said twenty-four hours on the sign, that’s how long you were allowed to stay. What would it be like if everyone just parked wherever they liked? It would be chaos. There’d be cars bloody everywhere.
‘It’ll be good for you to slow down a bit,’” they’d drawled. Slow down? What did they know about waking up on a Tuesday and no longer having a purpose?”
Today, thankfully, there weren’t any unauthorised cars in the guest parking, and Ove was able to proceed to the next part of his daily inspection: the bin room. Not that it was really his responsibility, mind. He had steadfastly opposed from the very beginning the nonsense steamrollered through by the recently arrived Jeep-brigade that household rubbish “had to be separated”. Having said that, once the decision was made to sort the rubbish, someone had to ensure that it was actually being done. Not that anyone had asked Ove to do it, but if men like Ove didn’t take the initiative there’d be anarchy. There’d be bags of rubbish all over the place.
He kicked the bins a bit, swore, and fished out a jar from the glass recycling, mumbled something about “incompetents” as he unscrewed its metal lid. He dropped the jar back into glass recycling, and the metal lid into the metal recycling bin.
Back when Ove was the chairman of the Residents’ Association, he’d pushed hard to have surveillance cameras installed so they could monitor the bin room and stop people turfing out unauthorised rubbish. To Ove’s great annoyance, his proposal was voted out. The neighbours felt “slightly uneasy” about it; plus they felt it would be a headache archiving all the video tapes. This, in spite of Ove repeatedly arguing that those with honest intentions had nothing to fear from the truth.
“Won’t it be nice to slow down a bit?” they said to Ove yesterday at work. While explaining that there was a lack of employment prospects and so they were “retiring the older generation”. A third of a century in the same workplace, and that’s how they refer to Ove. Suddenly he’s a bloody “generation”. Because nowadays people are all thirty-one and wear too-tight trousers and no longer drink normal coffee. And don’t want to take responsibility. A shed-load of men with elaborate beards, changing jobs and changing wives and changing their car makes. Just like that. Whenever they feel like it.
He came into his office on the Monday and they said they hadn’t wanted to tell him on Friday as it would have “ruined his weekend”.
“It’ll be good for you to slow down a bit,” they’d drawled.
Slow down? What did they know about waking up on a Tuesday and no longer having a purpose? With their Internets and their espresso coffees, what did they know about taking a bit of responsibility for things?
Ove gives her the plants. Two of them. Of course there weren’t supposed to be two of them. But somewhere along the line there has to be a limit. It was a question of principle, Ove explains to her. That’s why he got two flowers in the end.
“Things don’t work when you’re not at home,” he mutters, and kicks a bit at the frozen ground.
His wife doesn’t answer.
“There’ll be snow tonight,” says Ove.
They said on the news there wouldn’t be snow, but, as Ove often points out, whatever they predict is bound not to happen. He tells her this; she doesn’t answer. He puts his hands in his pockets and gives her a brief nod.
“It’s not natural rattling around the house on my own all day when you’re not here. It’s no way to live. That’s all I have to say.”
She doesn’t reply to that either.
He nods and kicks the ground again. He can’t understand people who long to retire. How can anyone spend their whole life longing for the day when they become superfluous? Wandering about, a burden on society, what sort of man would ever wish for that? Staying at home, waiting to die. Or even worse: waiting for them to come and fetch you and put you in a home. Being dependent on other people to get to the toilet. Ove can’t think of anything worse. His wife often teases him, says he’s the only man she knows who’d rather be laid out in a coffin than travel in a mobility service van. And she may have a point there.
Ove had risen at quarter to six. Made coffee for his wife and himself, went round checking the radiators to make sure she hadn’t sneakily turned them up. They were all unchanged from yesterday, but he turned them down a little more just to be on the safe side. Then he took his jacket from the hook in the hall, the only hook of all six that wasn’t burgeoning with her clothes, and set off for his inspection. It had started getting cold, he noticed. Almost time to change his navy autumn jacket for his navy winter jacket.
He always knows when it’s about to snow because his wife starts nagging about turning up the heat in the bedroom. Lunacy, Ove reaffirms every year. Why should the power company directors feather their nests because of a bit of seasonality? Turning up the heat five degrees costs thousands of crowns per year. He knows because he’s calculated it himself. So every winter he drags down an old diesel generator from the attic that he swopped at a jumble sale for a gramophone. He’s connected this to a fan heater he bought at a sale for thirty-nine crowns. Once the generator has charged up the fan heater, it runs for thirty minutes on the little battery Ove has hooked it up to, and his wife keeps it on her side of the bed. She can run it a couple of times before they go to bed, but only a couple – no need to be lavish about it (“Diesel isn’t free, you know”). And Ove’s wife does what she always does: nods and agrees that Ove is probably right. Then she goes round all winter sneakily turning up the radiators. Every year the same bloody thing.
Ove kicks the ground again. He’s considering telling her about the cat. If you can even call that mangy, half-bald creature a cat. It was sitting there again when he came back from his inspection, practically right outside their front door. He pointed at it and shouted so loudly that his voice echoed between the houses.
The cat just sat there, looking at Ove. Then it stood up elaborately, as if making a point of demonstrating that it wasn’t leaving because of Ove, but rather because there were better things to do, and disappeared round the corner.
Ove decides not to mention the cat to her. He assumes she’ll only be disgruntled with him for driving it away. If she was in charge the whole house would be full of tramps, whether of the furred variety or not.
He’s wearing his navy suit and has done up the top button of the white shirt. She tells him to leave the top button undone if he’s not wearing a tie; he protests that he’s not some urchin who’s renting out deckchairs, before defiantly buttoning it up. He’s got his dented old wristwatch on, the one that his dad inherited from his father when he was nineteen, the one that was passed on to Ove after his sixteenth birthday, a few days after his father died.
Ove’s wife likes that suit. She always says he looks so handsome in it. Like any sensible person, Ove is obviously of the opinion that only posers wear their best suits on weekdays. But this morning he decided to make an exception. He even put on his black going-out shoes and polished them with a responsible amount of boot shine.
As he took his autumn jacket from the hook in the hall before he went out, he threw a thoughtful eye on his wife’s collection of coats. He wondered how such a small human being could have so many winter coats. “You almost expect if you stepped through this lot you’d find yourself in Narnia,” a friend of Ove’s wife had once joked. Ove didn’t have a clue what she was talking about, but he did agree there were a hell of a lot of coats.
He moved on from the supermarket and stepped into the florist’s. And there it didn’t take long for a ‘rumble’ to start up, as Ove’s wife would have described it. Or a ‘discussion’ as Ove always insisted on calling it. Ove put down a coupon on the counter on which it said: “2 plants for 50 crowns”. Given that Ove only wanted one plant, he explained to the shop assistant, with all rhyme and reason on his side, he should be able to buy it for 25 crowns. Because that was half of 50. However, the assistant, a brain-dead SMS-tapping nineteen-year-old, would not go along with it. She maintained that a single flower cost 39 crowns and “2 for 50” only applied if one bought two. The manager had to be summoned. It took Ove fifteen minutes to make him see sense and agree that Ove was right.
Or, to be honest about it, the manager mumbled something that sounded a little like “bloody old sod” into his hand and hammered 25 crowns so hard into the till that anyone would have thought it was the machine’s fault. It made no difference to Ove. He knew these retailers were always trying to screw you out of money, and no one screwed Ove and got away with it. Ove put his debit card on the counter. The manager allowed himself the slightest of smiles, then nodded dismissively and pointed at a sign that read: “Card purchases of less than 50 crowns carry a surcharge of 3 crowns.”
He stands there, slowly twisting the wedding ring on his finger. As if looking for something else to say. He still finds it painfully difficult being the one to take charge of a conversation. That was always something she took care of.”
Now Ove is standing in front of his wife with two plants. Because it was a question of principle.
“There was no way I was going to pay three crowns,” rails Ove, his eyes looking down into the gravel.
Ove’s wife often quarrels with Ove because he’s always arguing about everything.
But Ove isn’t bloody arguing. He just thinks right is right. Is that such an unreasonable attitude to life?
He raises his eyes and looks at her.
‘I suppose you’re annoyed I didn’t come yesterday like I promised,’ he mumbles.
She doesn’t answer. He kicks the frozen ground. Sort of looking for words. Clears his throat briefly once again.
“Nothing works when you’re not at home.”
She doesn’t answer. Ove fingers the plants.
“I’m tired of it, just rattling round the house all day while you’re away.”
She doesn’t answer that either. He nods. Holds up the plants so she can see them.
“They’re pink. The ones you like. They said in the shop they’re perennials but that’s not what they’re bloody called. Apparently they die in this kind of cold, they also said that in the shop but only so they could sell me a load of other shit.”
He looks as if he’s waiting for her approval.
“The new neighbours put saffron in their rice and carry-on like that; they’re foreigners,” he says in a low voice.
A new silence.
He stands there, slowly twisting the wedding ring on his finger. As if looking for something else to say. He still finds it painfully difficult being the one to take charge of a conversation. That was always something she took care of. He usually just answered. This is a new situation for them both. Finally Ove squats, digs up the plant he brought last week and carefully puts it in a plastic bag. He turns the frozen soil carefully before putting in the new plants.
“They’ve bumped up the electricity prices again,” he informs her as he gets to his feet.
He looks at her for a long time. Finally he puts his hand carefully on the big boulder and caresses it tenderly from side to side, as if touching her cheek.
“I miss you,” he whispers.
It’s been six months since she died. But Ove still inspects the whole house twice a day to feel the radiators and check that she hasn’t sneakily turned up the heating.
From A Man Called Ove, translated by Henning Koch.
Fredrik Backman is a well-known blogger and columnist in Sweden. His debut novel’s protagonist was born on his blog, which became an overnight success when his entry, ‘Personal message to stressed blond woman in Volkswagen’, about reckless driving and parental love, became the most linked entry on Facebook, with 600,000 shares. A Man Called Ove has been a number 1 bestseller across Scandinavia and is published in the UK by Sceptre. Read more.