Some things happen so fast. Jacob Seger lands in Beirut, confused. He slept on the plane, so perhaps he’s still half asleep as he follows a stream of travelers headed to border control, to the heavily armed policemen or soldiers or whatever they are, who ask him why he’s visiting Beirut, how long he plans to stay, why he doesn’t have diplomatic status if he’s going to be working at the Swedish embassy.
“Intern,” he says. “I’m just an intern. Not a diplomat.”
Not yet, he wants to add, slowly starting to wake up. I’m not a diplomat yet. This is just the first step. This and getting his degree in political science at Uppsala. All he has to do is pass that grueling statistics exam and complete this internship, then write his thesis. After that he’ll get a real job at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. That’s his goal. He’s been dreaming about it for the four years he’s been in Uppsala, buying The Economist, studying up on heads of state in obscure Asian countries, Swedish exports, and Nobel laureates so he can pass the Foreign Service entrance exam. A blue diplomatic passport and a calfskin leather briefcase, that’s the goal. He just needs to get a handle on his French and Arabic. A tiny, familiar squirt of anxiety shoots through him there at the counter, while a man in uniform with a tired, neutral expression looks him over. Languages are his Achilles’ heel, and unfortunately they’re key in a diplomatic career. He tenses up at just the thought of sitting in a classroom, memorizing vocabulary. It doesn’t even help that his Arabic teacher, Hassan Aziz, an Iraqi man in his sixties with thick gray hair and a knitted tie, has offered to give him private lessons at his apartment outside Stockholm.
“I can see how much you want to learn, Jacob,” Hassan often tells him, patiently, after class. “But you have to practice at home too. You’re welcome to come to my home once a week, and we’ll work on it together if you like.”
But Jacob feels ill just thinking about studying at home. He can’t stand the thought of hours spent on a train and a subway getting to and from Hassan’s suburban apartment. He doesn’t have the energy for that struggle. He just wants to be able to do it. Like in The Matrix: “I know kung fu.”
He shakes off the thought. It doesn’t matter. He’ll take care of French and Arabic later. He surely can’t be stopped by that; it would be too unfair. He’s meant for this life, meant for airports and important missions.
His spirits lift again when the police officer or soldier or whoever he is hands him back his passport, his anticipation increasing as he passes by border control and follows the green signs toward the exit.
The arrival hall is full of a stifling Mediterranean humidity, automobile exhaust, cigarette smoke, and taxi drivers holding handwritten signs in Arabic, which Jacob should be able to read after his half-year course in the language, but he dejectedly realizes he can’t. His pulse starts to race again. Will they test him on his Arabic at the embassy? He got this internship by claiming upper-intermediate proficiency in Arabic. Was that a lie? He decides to consider it a question of definition. Travelers push and jostle their way out toward the parking lots and taxi queues, while Jacob stops and looks around.He got this internship by claiming upper-intermediate proficiency in Arabic. Was that a lie? He decides to consider it a question of definition.
Someone was supposed to meet him here. Someone from the embassy. He was expecting to see a sign for “Seger” there among the taxi drivers, and he scans them again with the same distressing result. He’d hoped a black Mercedes or a Volvo would be waiting for him, the embassy’s second-in-command sitting in the back seat with a briefing on Jacob’s first mission. Some negotiation or a meeting with the Lebanese government, or maybe he’d be sent out directly on a fact-finding mission to a refugee camp or straight to a cocktail party at the French embassy. Childish, of course: he knew it wouldn’t be like that right away, not on the first day, but he’d expected something, some indication. A task. The opportunity to show them he was a man with a future ahead of him. Someone to remember. Somebody to bet on.
But no one is here. Nobody has his name on a sign. No stressed-out European is scanning the arrival hall. Jacob takes out his phone. He made sure his cell phone would work here, just one small detail in his preparation. It’s expensive to call—he knows that—and if there’s one thing he doesn’t have, it’s money. But he looks up the number he received a few weeks ago for an Agneta Adelheim, while taking a seat on a bench.
It’s important to be quick-witted, resourceful. Never end up the victim of circumstances; take control of the situation and handle it. It makes him happy to see the Adelheim name again. Not just some boring old Andersson. He even looked it up, and it is indeed aristocratic. That feels good. That’s where he’s headed, a world of diplomats with aristocratic last names. A small rush of satisfaction tingles up his spine as he pushes on her name in his contacts list, and the phone starts to ring.
But Agneta doesn’t answer, and his call isn’t forwarded to an answering machine. After fifteen rings, he stops trying, closes his eyes, and leans back on the bench. The concrete is cool against the short blond hair of his neck. He’s sitting in the airport in Beirut. His first time in the Middle East. His first time outside of Europe. For a moment it feels like he’s drowning; he gasps for breath, opens his eyes wide.
“No, no, no,” he says out loud to himself.
He calms himself down. Time to be resourceful.
He calls Agneta Adelheim again. When she answers on the second ring, relief washes over him.
“Oh no,” she says when Jacob introduces himself. “I’m so sorry. I was sure it was next week you were coming. I’ll be there in half an hour.”
Jacob hangs up, shaking off his disappointment. They forgot about him. It’s a setback, but things like that happen. They have a lot on their plate. Of course things fall through the cracks. A person can’t keep track of every little detail. It doesn’t mean he won’t be able to amaze them.
He pulls a copy of Dagens Nyheter out of his newly purchased brown leather briefcase. He’s been carrying the newspaper since boarding the flight in Stockholm, but only now does he open it. Might as well get up to speed on the latest news, he thinks, skimming the front page. He’s mainly looking for anything related to Beirut. He read online about the demonstrations taking place at the government headquarters. About garbage not being picked up, filling the streets with stench and disease because the government is so corrupt and dysfunctional. But none of that is in this newspaper. Instead, there is some Swedish Security Service scandal breaking in Sweden. He remembers hearing about it on the news yesterday, but he was too preoccupied to make much sense of it.
Now he has time. A half hour at least, and as he unfolds the newspaper, he sees a photo of a red-haired woman in her thirties, dressed professionally, taking up half the first page. Green eyes and a resolute expression, she’s standing at some kind of press conference.
The headline reads:
Russia Behind Riots in the Suburbs
Jacob devours the article in just a few minutes, then reads the editorial and all the follow-up articles. Apparently, a Russian company with direct links to the Kremlin paid a Swedish professor to write a report for the Council of the European Union to persuade them to increase the privatization of European police forces. In the meantime, that same company helped to organize riots in several suburbs to coincide with the presentation of that report to the EU ministers during a meeting in Stockholm last week. Their goal was to destabilize the police and increase opportunities for private companies with Russian ties to take over some policing duties. And Säpo, the Swedish Security Service, knew about the whole plot and allowed it to happen.Jacob puts down the newspaper with his heart pounding in his chest. It’s like a spy movie. So exciting, and yet the more he reads about it, the more jealous he gets.
Jacob flips back to the front page again, to the picture of the attractive red-haired woman. Gabriella Seichelmann. An attorney at one of Sweden’s most prestigious firms. She was the whistleblower on all of this. Apparently, there were other people involved, but she’s the public face. She’s the one who presented the witness statements and documentation to journalists, who were allowed to read them only if they promised not to publish anything classified. The documents were verified by the journalists, but Säpo is still refusing to comment.
Jacob puts down the newspaper with his heart pounding in his chest. It’s like a spy movie. So exciting, and yet the more he reads about it, the more jealous he gets.
That lawyer. She can’t be that much older than him? Five, six years at the most? He sighs deeply. Can you imagine being in the middle of something like that? Standing up to powerful people. Your face and name splashed across every newspaper. It makes him feel so small. His internship, his unfinished statistics exam. His inability to master the languages he needs for a career that still won’t be nearly as dazzling as what this Seichelmann has already achieved. Maybe he should have gone into law instead?
His phone beeps. Maybe Agneta is finally here. But he takes it out, and it’s only Simon. Of course.
Have you landed yet, babe?
Babe. It annoys Jacob. How long is it going to take Simon to understand what they had this spring is over? They’ve barely seen each other all summer. Does Jacob really have to spell it out?
Sure, it was exciting. And it meant a lot more to Jacob than he’d let on to Simon. And maybe there could have been something more, something that made the word babe seem like a good fit. If Jacob had given in and let go. If he’d abandoned himself to the whole thing. But it moved too fast. Simon started talking about moving in together after just three weeks. Jacob felt the urge to be together all the time too. Felt like he never wanted to leave their bed. But he forced himself, refused to give in to the flesh. That wasn’t what he’d gone to Uppsala for. It wasn’t part of the plan. Not at all. And pretty soon Simon started talking about meeting Jacob’s parents.
“You could at least tell me about them,” he’d said. “I bet your mother is so glamorous and your father so strict. I bet their sex life is hot.”
That’s when Jacob couldn’t take any more. He couldn’t tell Simon about his parents. He’d left them far, far behind the person he’d become after leaving Eskilstuna, the small town where he grew up. They weren’t a part of who he was, who he was going to be. They didn’t fit into the Uppsala version of Jacob Seger. The diplomat version.
A voice startles him out of this line of thought, and when he looks up he sees a woman in her fifties with gray hair, wearing a thin navy-blue dress, standing in front of him.
“I’m Agneta Adelheim,” she says. “I’m so sorry to make you wait.”
From THE FRIEND. Used with the permission of the publisher, Harper. Copyright © 2019 by Joakim Zander. Translation copyright © Elizabeth Clark Wessel.