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A Week in Winter (Chapter Sixteen)

'And do you have somebody else in London?' He knew he sounded like a seven-year-old.

'Yes, I have a warm, kind, funny man called William. We laugh a lot together. I hope as the years go on you will get to know him and to like him. But for your father's sake, just remember what I said about smartening yourself up. It will make your whole life much simpler.'

He turned his head away so that she would not see his distress. His mother was going off to London with a man called William who made her laugh. And what was she talking about as she left? Clothes. Bloody clothes. He felt his world had turned sideways and everything had slipped out of focus.

His mother and father hadn't grown apart. They had had a dinner party last Friday. Papa had raised a glass to her across the table. 'To my beautiful wife,' he had said. And all the time he knew she was going to leave with this William.

It couldn't be true, could it?

His mother stood there, afraid to touch him in case he shrugged her off, shook her away. 'I love you, Anders. You may find that hard to believe, but I do. And your father does too. Very much. He doesn't show it but it's there; great pride and great love.'

'They are different things, pride and love,' Anders said. 'Was he proud of you too, or did he love you?' Anders looked at her properly for the first time.

'He was proud that I kept my side of the bargain. I ran the house well; I was a satisfactory escort to him at all those interminable dinners; I was a good hostess. I gave him a son. I think he was pleased with me, yes.'

'But love?'

'I don't know, Anders. I don't think he ever loved anything except his firm and you.'

'He never sounds as if he loves me. He is always so distant.'

'That's his way. He will always be like that. But I have been there for all of your life and he does love you. He just can't express it.'

'If he had expressed it for you, would you have stayed?'

'That's not a real question. It's like wishing that a square was a circle,' she said. And because he believed her, Anders held his hands out to her and she sobbed in his arms for a long time.

It all moved very swiftly after that.

Gunilla Almkvist packed her clothes, as Fru Karlsson sniffed in disapproval, but left all her jewellery behind. A cover story was devised. She had been offered this post in London working for a satellite broadcasting station. It would be criminal to let the opportunity pass. Anders was going off to university; her husband was fully supportive of the move. That way there would be no accusations about a runaway wife, a failed marriage. None of the oxygen of gossip, which would be so relished and yet so out of place at Almkvist's.

Patrik Almkvist seemed courteous and grateful. He never discussed the matter with his only child. He looked pleased that Anders had had his hair properly cut and that he'd been measured for a good suit.

He spent more and more time at the office.

The night before Anders' mother left, the three of them went out to dinner together. Patrik raised his glass to his wife. 'May you find all you are looking for in London,' he said.

Anders stared at them in disbelief. Twenty years of life together, two decades of hope and dreams ending, and his parents were still acting out a role. Was this what everyone did? He had a feeling at that moment that he would never fall in love. It was all for the poets and the love songs and the dreamers. It wasn't what people did in real life.

Next day, he set off for Gothenburg and university. His new life had begun.

He had only been there a week when he met Erika, a textile and design student. She came straight over to him at a party and asked him to dance.

Later, he asked her why she had approached him that night.

'You looked smart, that's all. Not scruffy,' she said.

Anders was very disappointed. 'Does that sort of thing matter?' he asked.

'It matters that you care enough about yourself and about the people you meet to present yourself well. That's all. I'm tired of scruffy people,' she said.

They were an item from then on, it seemed. Erika loved to cook but only when she wanted to and what she wanted to. But she loved to have people to her apartment, and when she found out that Anders could play the nyckelharpa she was appalled that he hadn't brought it with him to university. So the very next time he went home she insisted that he bring it back with him. And then she set about organising jam sessions at her place, and she would make the most delicious suppers.

Erika was small and funny and thought that women's rights and fashion were not incompatible. She loved to dress up for any occasion, and astonished Anders when she was the most attractive and stylish woman in the room. They made each other laugh, and quite soon became inseparable.

It was just before Easter time that she told him she would never marry him because she thought marriage was a kind of enslavement, but she would love him all of her life. She said she needed to explain this to him at once lest there be any grey areas.

Anders was startled. He hadn't asked her to marry him. But it all looked good, so he went along with it.

Erika asked him home to meet her parents.

Her father ran a tiny restaurant; her mother was a taxi driver. They welcomed Anders warmly, and he envied the kind of family life they all had. Her sister and brother, twins aged twelve, joined in everything and argued cheerfully with their parents about every subject from pocket money to breast implants, from God to the royal family  –  subjects that had never been discussed in the Almkvist household. The twins asked Erika when would she be going to meet Anders' family. Before he could answer, Erika said quickly that there was no hurry. She was an acquired taste, she explained. It would take longer for people to welcome her in.

'What's an acquired taste?' her brother asked.

'Look it up,' Erika teased.

Later, Anders said, 'I would be happy for you to come and stay at my father's house.'

'No way. I don't want to give the man a heart attack. But I might go with you and stay at your mother's in London, though.'

'I'm not sure if that would be a good idea . . .'

'You just don't want to meet William and think of him sleeping with your mother, that's all.'

'Not true,' he said and then, because he couldn't keep up the lie, 'Well, I suppose it's a little true.'

'Let's see if we can get to London. I'll try and find a project, and we can improve our English and see London and check out your new stepfather at the same time.'

It was April when they finally made the visit to London. The daffodils were out in all the parks and gardens and everything seemed alive and sparkling. Gunilla and William were living in an elegant house in a beautiful square quite close to the Imperial War Museum; from there, it was only a few minutes' walk to the River Thames and all the history and pageantry London was famous for. It was the first time they had seen the city and all the richness and bustle. The crowds and the noise were daunting at first, but they dived in with enthusiasm, determined to make the most of every moment.

Gunilla was relaxed and delighted to see them. If she had any doubts about Erika's suitability as the partner of the next head of Almkvist's, she did not even hint at them. William was very welcoming and took three days off work from his television production company to show the young visitors the real London. The first stop was the London Eye, from where they could see for miles in every direction. He had looked up a few of the folk-music clubs in the city so they could take off on their own for an evening if they wanted to. To Anders' delight, William had even found out that there would be nyckelharpa playing at a Scandi session in a pub not far away in Bermondsey.

Anders found that it was easier to talk to his mother than it had ever been. No longer was she complaining about how he looked. In fact, she was full of admiration.

'Erika is just delightful,' she told Anders. 'Have you taken her to meet your father yet?'

'Not yet. You know . . .'

If his mother did know, she didn't say so.

'Don't leave it too long. Take Erika to meet him soon. She's lovely.'

'But you know how snobby he is, how much he cares about what people do, and are. You've forgotten what he's like. She stands up for herself. She hates big business. She can't bear the kind of people he deals with all day.'

'She will be much too polite to let any of that show.'

Anders wished he could believe her.

Gunilla wanted to know about the office. Did Anders go in there much when he went home?

'I haven't been home much really,' he admitted.

'You should go and keep an eye on your territory, your inheritance,' she said. 'Your father would like that.'

'He never asks me or suggests it.'

'You never offer, you never visit,' she answered.

When they got back to Sweden, Anders telephoned his father. The conversation was formal: it was as if Patrik Almkvist was talking to a casual acquaintance. In as far as Anders could understand, his father sounded pleased that he was coming home for the summer and hoped to work in the office.

'Somewhere that I can't do too much damage,' Anders suggested.

'Everyone will go out of their way to help you,' his father promised.

And so it was. Anders noticed, with some embarrassment, that people in the firm did go out of their way to help and encourage him. They spoke to him with a respect that was quite disproportionate for a student. He was definitely the young prince-in-waiting. No one wanted to cross him. He was the future.

Even his two cousins, Mats and Klara, were anxious to show him how much they were pulling their weight. They kept giving him an update on all they had done so far and how well they were handling their own areas. They tried hard to understand what interested young Anders. He didn't seem to want expensive meals in top restaurants; he wasn't concerned with business gossip; he didn't even want to know of rivals' failures.

He was a mystery.

His father, too, seemed to have problems working out where Anders' interests lay. He asked courteous questions about life at university. Whether the teachers had business experience as well as academic records.

He asked nothing about whether Anders had other interests or a love life, whether he still loved music, still played the nyckelharpa or even who his friends were. In the evenings, they sat in the apartment in ostermalm and talked about the office and the various clients that had been seen during the day. They ate at Patrik's favourite restaurant some evenings; otherwise they had supper at home sitting at the dining table and eating cold meats and cheese laid out by the silent and disapproving Fru Karlsson. The more his father talked, the less Anders knew about him. The man had no life apart from the one that was lived in the Almkvist office.

Anders had promised his mother that he would make an effort to break his father's reserve but it was proving even harder than he had thought. He tried to speak about Erika.

'I have this girlfriend, Father. She's a fellow student.'

'That's good,' his father nodded vaguely and approvingly as if Anders had said that he had updated his laptop.

'I've been to stay with her family. I thought I might invite Erika here for a few days.'

'Here?' His father was astounded.

'Well, yes.'

'But what would she do all day?'

'I suppose she could tour the city and we could meet for lunch, and I could take a few days off to show her around.'

'Yes, certainly, if you'd like to . . . Of course.'

'She came to London with me when I went to see Mother.'

'Oh yes?'

'It all worked very well. She found plenty to do there.'

'I imagine everyone would find something to do in London. It would be rather different here.' His father was glacial.

'I'm very fond of her, Papa.'

'Good, good.' It was as if he was trying to stem any emotion that might be coming his way.

'In fact, we are going to move in together.' Now he had said it.

'I don't know how you expect to be able to pay for that.'

'Well, I thought it might be something we could discuss while I'm here. Now, may I invite Erika for next week?'

'If you like, yes. Make all the arrangements with Fru Karlsson. She will need to prepare a bedroom for your friend.'

'We will be living together, Father. I thought she could share my room here.'

'I don't like to impose your morality and standards on Fru Karlsson.'

'Father, it's not my morality, it's the twenty-first century!'

'I know, but even with your mother's shallow grasp on reality she realised the importance of being discreet and keeping one's personal life just that. Fru Karlsson will prepare a bedroom for your friend. Your sleeping arrangements you can make for yourselves.'

'Have I annoyed you?'

'Not at all. In fact I admire your directness, but I am sure you see my point of view also.' He spoke as he would in the office, his voice never raised, his sureness that he was right never wavering.

Erika arrived by train the first week in July. She was full of stories about her fellow passengers. She wore jeans and a scarlet jacket and had a huge backpack of work with her. She said she was going to study in the mornings and then meet him for lunch each day.

'My father will insist on taking us out to some smart places,' he began nervously.

'Then it's just as well you got yourself some smart clothes,' she said.

'I didn't mean me, I meant . . .'

'Don't worry, Anders. I have the shoes, I have the dress,' she said.

And she did. Erika looked splendid in her little black dress with the shocking-pink shawl and smart high heels when they went to his father's favourite restaurant. She listened and asked intelligent questions, and she spoke cheerfully about her own family  –  her demon twin brother and sister, her mother's adventures in the taxi trade, her father's restaurant which served thirty-seven different kinds of pickled herring. She talked easily about the trip to London and how Anders' mother had been a marvellous hostess. She even talked openly about William.

'You probably don't know him, Mr Almkvist, because of the circumstances and everything, but he was quite amazing. He'd found a pub in Bermondsey where they were playing the nyckelharpa  –  Anders loved it  –  and then we went to dinner in a restaurant with the most amazing gold mosaic ceiling. He owns a television production company, did you know? Totally capitalist, of course, and against any kind of social welfare, which he called a handout. But generous and helpful as well. Proves that people can't be put in pigeonholes.'

Anders watched his father anxiously. People didn't usually talk to the head of Almkvist's in this manner. They normally skirted away from topics like inequality and privilege. But his father was able to cope with the conversation perfectly well. It was as if he was talking to a casual acquaintance. He asked nothing about Erika's studies, or her hopes and plans for the future.

Anders wondered, had he ever shown any enthusiasm or eagerness for anything except the firm he had worked for all his life?

Erika had no such worries. 'He's just blinkered,' she said. 'Lots of people are. It's that generation. My father doesn't care about anything except the taxes on alcohol and customers going off on a ferry to Denmark to buy cheap booze. My mother is fixated on the need to have women-only taxis. Your father is all hung up on tax shelters and asset management and trusts and things. It's what they do in his world. Stop being dramatic about it.'

'But it's not a normal way to live,' Anders insisted.

Erika shrugged. 'For him it is. Always has been and always will be. It's what you want that's important.'

'Well I don't want to end up like that, with no interests apart from the office. Blinkered, as you say.'

'So you de-blinker yourself. Why don't we go out and look for some good music tonight?'

Erika was totally practical about everything. She saw nothing wrong with pretending to Fru Karlsson that she slept in the guest bedroom. It was a matter of respect, she said.

Too soon the week was over, and Anders and his father sat again in the empty house speaking only of audits, new business and mergers that had been the order of the day at work. Anders found he enjoyed the business conversations and relished the debates, but he longed to be back at university and moving into his new apartment with Erika. He sensed his cousins were relieved that he would be leaving the office again. His father seemed indifferent, shaking his hand formally and hoping that he would study well and bring all today's thinking and economic theory back to Almkvist's.

Once he was back at university, the voice of his father seemed to Anders like something from a different planet.

The months flew by. He did as he had promised his mother and kept in touch with his father. He made a phone call every ten days or so; a stilted conversation where they ended up talking about personnel at Almkvist's, or new business that had come in their direction. Sometimes he told his father of a business development or an element of tax law he had come across, or the long weekend when he had gone to Majorca with Erika's parents. But he was always relieved when the call was over and felt that his father thought exactly the same.

When it came to the summer holiday the following year, Anders wrote saying that he and Erika were going to spend two months in Greece. If his father was startled that the months would not be spent in the office learning the ropes, he said nothing. Anders felt rather than heard the disapproval.

'I've worked very hard. I need a break, Father.'

'Indeed,' his father had said in a chilly voice.

They had a magical summer in the Greek islands, swimming, laughing, drinking retsina and dancing at night to bouzouki music in the tavernas.

Erika told him of her plans. When she graduated, she was going to be part of a new venture conserving ancient textiles; the funding had been put in place. It was very exciting. And where would it be based? Well, right here in Gothenburg, of course. It was going to be attached to the World Culture Museum.

Anders was silent. He had always hoped she would eventually find work in Stockholm. That they would get a little apartment on one of the islands in the city centre.

They would not marry because Erika still considered it a form of slavery but they would live together when he ran Almkvist's, and have two children.

This did not seem to chime in with Erika's plans. But he would say nothing until he had thought it out.

'You're very silent. I thought you'd be so pleased for me.'

'I am, of course.'

'But?'

'But I suppose I hoped that we would be together. Is that selfish?'

'Of course it's not, but we were waiting until we knew what we wanted to do. You haven't decided yet, so I came up with my plan first to see if you could work round it.' She looked anxious that he should understand.

'But we know what I'm going to do. I'm going back to run the family firm.'

Erika looked at him oddly. 'Not seriously?' she said.

'Well of course, seriously. You know that. You've been there. You've seen the set-up. I have to do that. There's never been anything else.'

'But you don't want to do it!' she gasped.

'Not like the way it is, but you told me to de-blinker myself and I did, or I am trying to, anyway. I'm not going to live for the place like my father does.'

'But you were breaking free. Isn't that why we were able to come to Greece instead of you working there all summer?' She was totally bewildered.

'But we know I have to go back, Erika.'

'No, we don't know that you have to go back. You have only one life, and you don't want to spend it there, in that little world with cousins and colleagues.'

'There's no alternative. He only had one son. If I had brothers who could have taken it over . . .' his voice trailed away.

'Or sisters,' Erika corrected automatically. 'It's only fair to tell him now rather than waste his time, their time, your time.'

'I can't do that. Not until I've tried it, anyway. It would be an insult. You're very strong on the respect thing. I owe him that much respect.' In the warm evening air as they sat in the little taverna beside the sea, they heard other people laughing in the distance. Happy people on holiday. Musicians were beginning to tune up.

Anders and Erika sat there, aware of a huge gap opening up between them.

It was now out of their control. The future that had looked so great half an hour ago was about to disappear entirely.

They tried to salvage the rest of the holiday but it was no use. It hung over them: Anders' belief that he would spend his life at Almkvist's and Erika's belief that he had yet to find what he would do were too far apart to gloss over. By the time they got back to Sweden, they knew that there was nothing ahead for the two of them.

They divided up their records and books amicably. Anders took a room in a student block. He told his father that he and Erika were no longer together.

His father's reaction was about the same as it might have been if he had said that a train was running late. A mild and distant murmur that these things happen in life. Then on to the next subject.

He studied hard, determined to get a good degree. Sometimes on the way to and from the library he would see Erika within a laughing group and feel a great pang of regret. They always greeted each other cordially; sometimes he even joined them for a beer in the student cafes.

Their friends were mystified by it all. They had always got on so well. Nothing had changed on the outside; they just were not together any more.

His mother had emailed to say she was sorry to hear they had separated. Erika must have told her. Gunilla said she and William had thought that Erika was a delightful girl, and that Anders must remember that when doors closed they could often be opened up again. She also advised him to do something with his music, or to learn to play tennis or bridge or golf, something that would give him a world outside Almkvist's. Perhaps he might even go back to playing the piano. He had even stopped playing the nyckelharpa since he and Erika broke up.

Anders was touched, but there would be little time to spend inventing hobbies. He had his final exams to concentrate on; he couldn't take up his place at Almkvist's unless he came away with a good degree. It was time to knuckle down and just get on with it.

He went home every month and worked for a few days in the office, keeping his hand in. He learned how to express his views and how to make decisions. He had a good business head, and people had begun to take him seriously. He was no longer the son and heir of the senior Almkvist: he was a person in his own right. He found himself able to talk to his cousin Mats about his drinking, which had become a matter of some concern; as Mats was family, the problem had so far not been addressed. Anders had been firm but fair. He showed little condemnation, but gave a very clear warning at the same time. Mats pulled himself together sharply and the situation was sorted.

If his father knew of it, he said nothing. But he tended to leave more and more to Anders. Anders, in turn, leaned on Klara. She was willing to share her experience with him, which was a great help as his final exams were now only weeks away.

On a sunny day in June, Patrik Almkvist sat next to his wife Gunilla for their son's graduation. William had stayed at home because of business commitments, he said. Privately, Anders thought that might just have been a diplomatic retreat. It might have been a miserable ordeal. Instead, Anders was pleased to see, it wasn't just good manners that kept them all smiling throughout the afternoon and into the evening. He realised that now his parents no longer lived together, they could relax. To his astonishment, a kind of friendship had emerged and they were both able to enjoy their son's achievements.

The conversation over dinner was filled with talk of the future: for a long time, it had been planned that after his graduation Anders would spend a year in a big American firm of accountants, a place with a distinguished name where he would learn a great deal in a short time. It had all been arranged with the senior partners, and Anders was hugely looking forward to it. Klara had been very helpful with her Boston contacts and had arranged everything. Gunilla had contacts there too, it emerged, and he would have a marvellous time in the city. As they strolled through the streets of Gothenburg, Anders felt that everything was falling into place.

The following morning, Patrik Almkvist collapsed in the hotel lobby.

It was a heart attack.

It was not major, the hospital told them; Mr Almkvist was not in any danger but still he had to rest. Anders and Gunilla sat by his bedside for two days and then, as his mother flew back to London, Anders took his father back home to Stockholm.

Fru Karlsson took charge immediately, and Anders knew his father would be in good hands. He was making arrangements with her for home nursing and support but his father cut straight across.

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