“If I can change, you can change”
The insignificant sign greeted him from a few hundred meters away—mounted on metal legs, it stood there and pointed stubbornly to the left.
CORRECTIONAL FACILITY 2 KM
He leaned back in the sagging, far too soft driver’s seat, which seemed to become bottomless as his heavy body sank deeper in. A tap on the brakes, a sharp turn, and he was gone.
Change. When you can’t run any more, when you don’t make your way home, or even know where it is—sooner or later change is the only road to travel, he was absolutely convinced of that.
He parked at the far end of the prison’s empty visitor parking and rolled down the side window for some fresh air. It wasn’t enough. He needed more. He opened the front door and let his left leg slide along with it and stick out while the dry-cleaned suit’s wide trouser leg flapped in the mild April breeze and the newly shined dress shoe tapped on the dry asphalt.
The muzak on the radio streamed out of the rasping car speakers with their loose hanging cords, and he leaned closer to the dashboard to turn it off, breathed slowly and deeply and closed his eyes until the flashing colored spots inside his eyelids disappeared—finally, in all that stillness he could hear the warbling of birds from the edge of the woods, which picked up where the concrete wall of the prison left off.
Thirty-eight minutes left. Not much in the old jalopy worked, but he could count on the clock.
And time, which otherwise pursued and vexed and muddled it all up, was absolutely key today. He had even decided to come in good time. Good time? What the fuck is that? Good time is 09:00 on the third of April. The most important point in time in many, many years.
The late winter sun was growing stronger every minute and it let loose its blaze against a solitary car forty kilometers north of Stockholm. The light struck scum on the unwashed glass and sliced through it. Ivan bent the sun visor down and glanced toward the outer barbed wire fence. The Österåker correctional facility. The sort of prison where a highly dangerous individual with a long sentence does the last part of his time.
And the more he stared at it, the more obvious it became: it was truly an ugly wall. Gray along the endless sides, equally gray on the back, but painted flashy bright red on the front. As if that would make a visitor happier. He didn’t give a damn about the color. It was the gate and the steel door that meant everything. It was through that door that his eldest son would step out. And it’s just then, when a locked-up human takes the first step into freedom, which he or she decides on what he will be—not when the days are unfolding in there. It isn’t possible to think clearly behind walls. As for himself, he had kept on drinking mash that tasted like mold and urine—orange juice blended with rotten apples and old bread that had stood and fermented behind a radiator. But, two years ago, when he had taken his first step in freedom, he had decided: not a drop more. And he had succeeded. Without foolish meetings and miracle methods, without sitting in a circle and holding hands and singing in chorus.
They had locked up Ivan Dûvnjac but not what was inside him. And if a father can change, a son can change. That was what was about to happen. A father might fail when his son is young. But it can turn out well to meet again as adults.
Engine noises from the banked, winding side road.
The car was so quiet, it hardly drowned out the warbling, but rather was blended with it. Some little Japanese model. Not entirely modern, but entirely blue and entirely washed clean. A windshield that could be looked through without getting stinging eyes. It stopped at the other end of the car park. He stretched and caught sight of a woman and a man in the front seat, other visitors who were also waiting for some longed-for person who would be released. They usually released them at this time of day. Not a single bloody person was waiting for him the last two turns, not even the mother of his three sons.
The woman was sitting in the passenger seat, and was wearing a blue and white dotted scarf over her hair and dark sunglasses. And a coat, it looked like. The man in the driver’s seat seemed dark and had a haircut that needed trimming, a little too long, just like a lot of people seemed to wear it these days.
The clock on the dashboard read 08:33. Twenty-seven minutes to go.
In very good time.
Ivan drew his hand through his hair, spreading his fingers out to make a rough comb and glancing at the rearview mirror—not that he necessarily wanted to look smart, but what had begun on the inside ought to be possible to discern on the outside.
Then a door of the other car opened. The woman. She walked toward the wall, stood there and waited, relaxing with arms crossed and with her weight equally distributed on her legs, and her gaze turned to the gate, steady, resolute.
And suddenly he knew.
She didn’t have to take off those sunglasses. He knew exactly who she was. Who she was waiting for.
Eighteen years. It didn’t matter to him about the time that had passed. Eighteen years and her legs were just as steady, her gaze just as steady. It was just like that that she had stood and looked at him when he opened the door to her home and passed by their children, when he began to hit her in the kitchen, intending to kill her.
Feelings don’t disappear. Hate sleeps under the surface like an evil virus and—when you least expect it—it expands and explodes between two thoughts.
They had locked up Ivan Dûvnjac but not what was inside him. And if a father can change, a son can change. That was what was about to happen.
He had stood in the stairwell with a finger on the doorbell’s black plastic button and had a choice. He had chosen not to turn back, not to walk back down the stairs. But he would have acted differently today, and he wondered if she would have done so, too.
Ivan stretched forward a little more, rubbed at the layer of shit to scrape away at least the part that was sticking on the inside. He could see a little better and it hit him between the lungs, the hate that had to be controlled. He hadn’t felt it for a long time, not so forcibly as now, when his whole body was preparing to charge toward Britt-Marie, toward the man who was still sitting in the car, thinking that he was waiting for Ivan’s son. He wanted to see the bastard’s face, to understand Britt-Marie, who she had become. The choice of partner revealed a person.
The rearview mirror again and his splayed hand through his hair. The collar on his suit jacket must be folded down. The black shirt must be tucked into his trousers.
Whatever had happened so far, whatever might still happen, they belonged together.
That’s what you are forever if you have children.
Responsibility, inward. Trust, inward. Against the world, outward.
He climbed out of the car and started to walk. If she was standing there, then her son’s own father should also stand nearer to the prison gate than the new man in a spotless Japanese car. New man? Why is she dragging him along here? What the fuck does he know about how a prison gets to you? How many times has he signed a receipt to get his personal belongings from the bottom of a cardboard box in order to step out into a changed reality?
He knows nothing. A coward who hides in the car.
Ivan was heading for the wall and gate but was soon forced to measure out the length of his steps—to walk more confidently. What was hurrying on the inside must not hurry on the outside. He must not walk too quickly, too aggressively, must pause at each placement of the foot.
He wanted to turn his head a little and look into the car, but she must not see how much he cared about it. The long-haired man would maybe toddle off when her ex-husband began to talk to her. She had certainly told him everything about who he was—or who she believed he was.
So steady there by the steel gate, which would swing open and let their son out. Ivan walked nearer but not too close, not yet. He stopped at the gate’s other end, wanting first to see how she reacted.
Not a word.
Not a look.
She stood there like a wax doll, silent, and looked away from him.
“I . . . have changed, Britt-Marie.”
It was as if he weren’t there. As if all the years of silence weren’t enough.
“And you weren’t there, Britt-Marie, in the cabin when we were arrested.”
A furious snowstorm. A getaway car helpless in the ditch. A summer cabin surrounded by the police task-force.
“But I was there. When it happened. Do you hear that, Britt-Marie? If I hadn’t . . . For the first time in my life, Britt-Marie, I was at the wrong place at the wrong time but did the right thing.”
And I delayed. I delayed.
“Leo would never have surrendered. You know that. Our eldest son would not have survived. Do you hear that, Britt-Marie?”
She spoke to him. He existed, again.
“Is it . . . but please, is that what you go around imagining? So you can live with yourself? Ivan—you didn’t prevent anything at all! If you hadn’t been the way you were when they were growing up . . . good God, Leo would never have robbed any banks! Or ended up in a derelict summer cabin surrounded by elite police—with you!” She kept her sunglasses on but he was certain she was observing him. “And Felix and Vincent wouldn’t have done time, either.”
Then he walked closer until only one half of the giant gate separated them. Between the steel bars of the grating, he glimpsed the central guard and the way in, the way out.
“What happened then, Ivan, the first years when the boys were little, it was . . . the circumstances that formed them. All your bloody clan-building!”
He walked even closer while she was talking, a couple of meters between them, not more. She showed no fear, only determination.
“But you didn’t give up! You had to keep going, to follow me, force your way into my new life. And it was then, right then, Ivan, when you tried to beat me to death in front of the eyes of your own sons, that the circumstances became the genesis.”
“The genesis? What a fucking word. You talk like that nowadays?”
“You drove him there, Ivan!”
“Come on—we wouldn’t have been fucking standing here in front of a prison waiting for our eldest son if you hadn’t split up the family.”
It was hard to see whether she was still beautiful, whether she had aged well. The scarf covered her forehead and the sunglasses covered most of her cheeks. She still had thin lips, at least, which she pursed so damn tight when she was angry or frustrated.
“So . . . you’ve brought your new man here with you?”
He looked at the spotless car, since he was a little closer now. It didn’t help much. The head lacked clear contours and most of him stayed pale blue behind the tinted windows. Long hair and a beardless chin. You couldn’t even judge his age in the glittering light.
“Is it even fair to him, Britt-Marie? Does Leo know that someone else is waiting for him too?”
A weak bloody smile. A sneer. She does it all with her lips. She likes it, he thought to himself, she’s even enjoying that I mind about the coward in the driver’s seat.
He tried, again, to see who it was. Impossible. But it was obvious that the eyes behind the spotless windshield were watching him, pursuing him. And then—a body turning, an arm raised.
Her companion had decided to open the door and dare to come out.
“Is there a problem?”
A young man’s voice. What the fuck? He hadn’t even considered that.
Same height as him. Dark in the same way he was himself. Broad shoulders like his own. Damn it, she’s picked just a younger copy. So fucking . . . unimaginative.
“Mamma, is everything OK?”
Ivan didn’t take it in at first.
That meant . . . It must be . . . Was it really him?
“Hey, Mamma—is everything OK?”
A body that moved like Ivan’s own, forearms clearly swinging to and fro with wide gestures and motions that became gentle and demanded space without exertion. Felix. On his way to the gate to position himself between them; a large, empty car park and soon they would all be in the same small spot, contained within a strange force field.
“Felix? Is that you? It was so . . .”
Now he saw clearly—his second oldest son wasn’t the same height at all, he was taller. And even broader.
“ . . . can’t we get together sometime . . . you and I, Felix?”
So many years, the same as with her, if you didn’t count one late evening and a couple of minutes in a hallway when both Felix and Vincent knocked on Leo’s door and tried to convince him not to commit that last bank robbery. When they opened the door, the robber who was going to replace them—the two brothers who had dropped out—was standing right there: their father.
“It would be . . . nice to find out how things are with you, you know. How you are.”
“It’s not any of your business how I am.”
He had already known before he asked the question that past events were still lingering, were in the way. He could see that in Felix’s face.
“But, look, that was long ago.”
“What I’d like to talk to you about, Ivan, I won’t talk to you about here.”
His face hissed Pappa, you should not have been there robbing that bank, it cost Vincent and me several years inside those fucking walls.
Ivan looked at the clock, this time a ticking watch. Perhaps to avoid facing the contempt. Perhaps time, which he hadn’t grasped, finally meant something.
That it was eighteen minutes until his eldest son was a free man.
That two years had passed without his drinking a drop.
That if he could change, Leo could change.
Excerpted from The Sons, copyright © 2018 by Anton Svensson. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Quercus. All rights reserved.