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Directions novella

forthcoming in: Pixels, Beletrina, 2021

Jasmin B. Frelih


06/08 - 06/23/2020


Jöran Olofsson Sture was frowning over his watch. It was 10:40 pm and the train still hadn’t left. His father’s Patek Philippe was never late, so it was definitely the railroad’s fault. Quickly glancing along the car he tried to catch anyone that shared his disappointment with a world that doesn’t keep its promises. Shopping bags, sleeping children, a few teenagers, gathered in a tight circle, a few elderly men and women who did not like to think of time, staring out the window into the waning evening in Stockholm, immersed in the cool blue of summer insomnia. Jöran brought sleeping pills, but they would have to wait until he changes trains in Flemingsberg. He did not want to daydream along the platforms, the numbers confused him. He also brought inhibitors, but was somehow determined that he would take them only when it truly

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became unbearable. Perhaps his depression was connected to the climate, to the monotonous routine, to the life he had created for himself, and was not, as his therapist had told him, caused by the hormonal imbalances in his brain, some sort of suboptimal working of his body. Maybe his body did not work because it was trapped into his life? The journey could bring a new perspective to the problem and it was this idea that finally convinced him to go. If it were up to him he would of course decline. But Milenka decided that she would, for the third or fourth time now, try to pass her bar exam, and the prospect of an empty house got her so excited she only calmed down when he said he would go. On a single day he heard he deserved a break first from Ursula, then from Peter, and then from Oscar, who also winked and quietly mumbled something about the Balkan women, as if he had forgotten he was married to a Czech, which was certainly similar, Slavic girls, after all, and then also from her at home. A break from what? He had his job because his father and Kamprad were schoolmates and not because the manuals would suddenly become useless without him. How hard could it really be to explain to someone how to build a closet? A break from the eternal return of the same, maybe. The same, eternally returning slightly worse. A man ran past his window and for a moment JÜran got a notion of an eerie similarity, even though he did not see the man’s face, there was just something about his posture, the

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way he ran, that made him think of an illegitimate brother, of a dark family secret which will be brought to light on this trip. The doors of the car opened and he peeked above the seats to get a better look, but saw nothing. The train moved. Jöran looked at the time. 10:41 pm. A disgrace. Döppelganger. If the man was his double, then it was actually better he did not see him, since in that case he would only have twenty-four hours of life left. That’s how the myth went. When you saw your döppelganger you were left with one day, which Jöran would be spending on the train. Maybe it worked even if you only saw him from behind, maybe it was enough that you knew, or strongly felt that you saw him, and the idea of his father’s infidelity came as pure surprise, Jöran did not have such ideas often. Perhaps the trip was already having an effect. All he had to do was change his life, to hell with his therapist. He could get a divorce. When he came back he would tell Milenka he has had enough. He laughed at himself, knowing full well he was completely at liberty to think about this, since there was no possibility he would actually go through with it. But, why? Here things became a bit murky, so he rather gazed at the window and watched his reflection steadily overcome the dusk outside. If he only had one day left, what would he do? Probably nothing, he thought with a bitter smirk. He would sigh, complain for a bit that it all went so wrong, but he couldn’t think of anything he regretted, which was perhaps the worst thing about it. Would he call anyone? Who? His teacher

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from elementary school. Why? Because back then he felt understood and that feeling was so rare and unique that he remembered it ‌ for the rest of his life, apparently. But it was only because her maternal instincts appeared to him as an exceptional personal connection, a harmony of their souls. And what would he tell her? Nothing special, most likely. Even though he might have liked to believe there exists a possibility of a kind of confession, of something that would place his life alongside the understood lives of humanity, he had his doubts. The wall between himself and others was not there for defense, it was there merely so they could imagine something hidden behind it. Since people had a far better imagination than he did, their ideas were usually a delight. Was it morbid to think these thoughts? People around him were mostly staring at their cellphones, some were bowed in quiet conversation, did they ever consider that they were spending their last day on earth? Rust corroded the bridge, they will crash into the depths, or those teenagers, and this was not prejudice, it was about the economy, about the lack of opportunity, of escape, were just then setting up the timer on a bomb. What would his therapist say, suicidal ideation? He did not want to commit anything so rash, he was only fantasizing about being killed in the company of others. Was that selfish? What do normal people think about? The price of bread is skyrocketing, sex, layoffs, Trump’s America, ‌ ? What should he think about

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so he could be considered normal? Was it normal that they printed the time of the departure on the ticket, which then turned out to be wrong? He does not remember the last time he took the train, he went to work with his car, even though it was expensive, and to think about the climate … But in the rain … From one garage to another, always dry, without an umbrella, Milenka told him to take it and for a moment he forgot what it was for. Maybe he really should have listened to them, but he was afraid of flying, and not because of the possibility of an accident, the fall, the death, but because of the noise, the turbulence, the violence of steel and air, the feeling of being trapped that came at you the moment you were off the ground. He simply heard somewhere that trains were supposed to be on time, and was just frowning to seem normal. And he did not want to take the car because he got the shivers just thinking of a roadside motel, of the cabin molded from plastic they called a room, of all those bleach smelling coarse towels, of the pieces of soap wrapped in cellophane … a memory from high school, trip to Provence. Was his life flashing in front of his eyes? Would he really die? Of course, he told himself, that is certain, unavoidable, which was comforting in a way, something to depend on. He should take the train more often, these first twenty minutes turned out to be quite fun. With his suitcase it was even more cumbersome in the crowd, but Jöran was not apologizing. They arrived at the station at exactly eleven pm and he knew he did not have

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much time, so he got excited at how hard his heart beat while he was staring at the jumble of letters and numbers on the giant board, looking for the right connections. Malmo. Platform number three. He hurried over there, got in the car and searched for an empty compartment, arriving too late, as there was already at least someone inside each one, which made him worried that he would be left without a seat if he spent too much time deciding, was that possible?, so he just entered the next one, where he was lazily looked over by two men whose relationship was unclear, they all nodded and when he sat down Jรถran wiped his brow and realized all the excitement had made him sweat, which brought a smile to his face that stayed there until, not long after, an older lady entered the compartment, shoved her ticket in front of his nose and demanded that he move. He looked at his own ticket again and noticed the number of his seat printed in the corner. His face flushed red and his chest began to burn and, feeling as if the world was ending in his diaphragm, as if his life was worth less than a ran over crow, he trudged to his compartment, which was strangely enough empty, though that did not make things better one bit. As soon as he sat down he reached into his bag to touch the plastic tube and hear the rattling of the pills inside. Maybe he should try to fall asleep? But how rude was she, not even for a moment did she consider it a simple misunderstanding,

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she immediately attacked him as if she had caught his hand in her bag, as if he had tried to rob her. We were not all veterans of the railroad, somebody should have told him when he entered the train that the seats were numbered, so he could have avoided her pursed lips, the peering of her eyes, her pale, worn parka and the cloud of sweet, cheap perfume he had to get through to make it out, and those two have, even though he did not turn to see, definitely laughed at him, he took his palms to his face and thought he could feel the red on his fingertips. Well at least the compartment was empty. Was this something that will define the entire journey? Stumbling from one awkwardness into another because this was a new experience for him? He was already too old to be allowed a lenient learning from his mistakes. School had long been over for him, he took his knowledge into the world, father got him a job, Milenka was placed on his path, even though he did not know it at the time, by his mother. How was he supposed to know that the night train had numbered seats, it was not like that on the transport in the city, where only freedom and coincidence reigned. Outside the dusk was already celebrating its temporary triumph, and the dark seemed to Jรถran as the right expression of the sum of everything he did not know, pushed as he was into it by his first unordinary decision in a long while, one he was now already coming to regret. He calmed the beating of his heart, took a few deep breaths, realized with alarm that he was close to crying,

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and then intertwined his fingers and pushed his palms together, which resembled prayer and was thus acceptable if anyone should see him, but was in reality a trick that his therapist had taught him, where he joined the circle of his personality and settled into his understanding of firmness, which was supposed to strengthen his confidence. Firmness was harder to find with the ground gliding beneath him, he only closed his eyes for a moment before he opened them again, feeling as if the train was plunging into the depths. But the trick apparently worked, since he was able to dismiss the incident and decided to give the journey another chance. He was alone, he could have fallen asleep and woken into the twinkling of the morning, but what should he do with his suitcase, would he wake up if someone came, he took his wallet out of his bag and put it into the back pocket of his trousers, but it then became too uncomfortable to sit so he put it back. Would he be able to fall asleep? He tried to yawn, his jaw dropped, he felt some pressure in his ears, but it didn’t work. With a pill? He had never taken them before, Milenka gave them to him, but he did not ask if the sleep was like ordinary sleep or more like anesthesia, would he dream, would he have nightmares, would he wake up when the ticket inspector came, he would prefer not to be woken up forcefully, when he was a child he sleepwalked and the doctor told mother that she should not try to wake him up, since that could prove traumatic for him, while he was now as an adult completely thrown off track by a single

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rude lady with a ticket, who knows what kind of a wound would the ticket inspector cause him if he shook him out of a pill coma with his paw. Thrown off track seemed like a pretty unfortunate metaphor, with regards to his situation. Again he thought of death. What would it mean, to die? He caressed the seat next to him with his palm, focusing on roughness of textile. Never again, until the end of time, would he feel something like this. He lifted his palm, held it in the air and considered it. He could do without. But what would he really miss? All the feelings he liked were burdened with so many useless things. Beer was good, but not every beer, and even that only until the morning, when he had to find his equilibrium by crying under a hot shower, which was unpleasant enough he could easily swear off beer forever. But what could you do when the coworkers dragged you down after work, it was too late for coffee, sodas had too much sugar in them, and with lemonade or water you had to listen to their taunting, when you ordered a beer they at least left you alone, even if the morning was always too soon to arrive. It used to be nice to stay up late with Milenka, listening to the rush of her breath as she dragged his palms all over her, feeling her warmth when she pushed her entire body into him, but they slept in their own bedrooms for years now and the memory of those few times he was standing drunk in front of her door at night, quietly changing his mind, was painful enough he could easily allow it to be eternally forgotten.

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Jöran was staring into the meager pile of things that comprised his life with a lump in his throat. Was it really possible that everything just slipped through his fingers? What did he ever even want? He wanted to play soccer, but mother decided he had a talent for drawing, that he could make it in graphic or industrial design, so he was not allowed to practice any sports where he risked his fingers. She enrolled him into swimming and chess. He liked to swim, but the coach stuck his hand into his bathing suit one time, which he never told anyone, he just told mother that his wrists hurt, so she immediately agreed for the lessons to stop. Chess was pointless, since victory meant nothing to him. How little would actually disappear from the world with him. Should this bother him more than it did? He imagined that the tracks disappeared, that for a moment the entire mass of the train sailed into pure air, before it was driven into the ground like the pole of a vaulter, and the cars in the back pushed into the cars in the front, the back of the train arched like a caterpillar’s step, and everything exploded, Jöran in his compartment was thrown from his seat into the wall in front of him, he felt his skin crack, his bones crunch, the forces were so great his teeth jumped out of his gums, his organs oozed out of the ripped openings of his body, the squirts, the geysers, the clouds of blood painted the windows, then the walls crumpled like an empty can under the foot of a drunk, and Jöran was squashed into a pancake, with his last experiences in this world the dull kiss

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of steel against his cheekbone and the funny sound of his eye popping out of his socket. Plop. And that would have been it. Jรถran, comfortably wrapped into the vision of the worst possible scenario, fearlessly fell asleep. He was woken by the sun that colored his left eyelid a crimson red. He turned his head but pressed his cheek against a fabric that in no way resembled the one he woke up against for the past twenty years, which immediately opened his eyes. The train was still moving. The world was rushing beside his window as if someone were pulling a rug, full of Lego bricks. He watched the thwarting of shadows, drawn by the sunrays that pushed against the train, the flickering translucency of the windows speeding on the ground, the syncopation of poles flashing past him like window cleaners, sharpening his gaze, wiping the dew of the ground. For a moment he was a part of the world, completely fastened into the distance between him and the clouds, which had their heels still sunk into the dusk fleeing from the edge of the horizon, with all the space of the sky in his lungs and thoughts that replied only to what was outside him and finding a perfect echo inside. The scream of the train rushing past him in the opposite direction doused the window and pushed him back into himself. The view that returned when the train disappeared was no longer the same. He was himself again within it, full of the chilly morning thoughts that were already breaking

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the world apart into tiny pieces, drawing cracks and crevices, pushing the distance between what was outside and him. He rubbed his eyes, yawned as if pulling in the entire immensity, and when he looked around the compartment he realized he was no longer alone. A body sat across from him, with a jacket thrown over its head. Jรถran checked his pockets, jumped at his bag and searched for his wallet to see if the documents and the money were still there. The pill tube rattled. The jacket did not move. Everything was there. He looked at his phone, caught the transition from 5:39 to 5:40 am, he would send a message to Milenka when she woke up at nine. No notifications. He deleted all his social networks when he was forced to admit to himself how terrible he felt whenever he scrolled through them and finally denied all value to his curiosity. Since then he also had much less email, as if the gods of technology resented his decision. In any case, each screech of a notification was always just the promise of work, always just the whistle of his anxiety disorder. He pulled the ticket out of his pocket and realized with horror that it was stamped. Trying as hard as he could he could not remember the moment when he had given it to the ticket inspector. Did he feel him over in his sleep and went through his pockets? Was that even allowed? Most likely it was, or else all stowaways would always pretend they were in deep sleep, most people wake up when someone sticks his hand down their pants, and if not before, surely when

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they get thrown off the train. If he would not find the ticket and Jöran would not wake up? Would he be freezing somewhere in the middle of nowhere right now, waiting for the bus? Maybe it was the sleeping body that took care of everything, responding to the opening of the doors with an automatic gesture, the body without thought, a corpse, a zombie. Well why does it not then just take over the whole thing and leave Jöran to think beautiful thoughts in peace? Who needed all this rubble of constant second-guessing, when we all knew where we’re headed. His mouth was dry, there was a plastic bottle of ice tea on the windowsill next to the sleeping person. Did he bring it with him or could you buy it on the train? Overnight journey … in the movies there was always an old lady with a cart, filled with stuff, walking up and down the train and selling things. Milenka’s Harry Potter. Maybe he should have thought of this sooner. But you could not expect everybody to think in advance. People could not be trusted that they would always behave responsibly, they should always be offered ways so that their lack of planning did not ruin them. Everyone cannot always think of everything. And what are we paying them for? They would arrive at six, so he had nearly twenty minutes left, if he got up now and went to look for the lady, if she even existed, or like a stand or at least a machine, he thought for a while, he had not seen any, but there was certainly at least a machine with drinks and coffee on the night train,

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he was sure of it, but should he leave the suitcase here, with this man who drank ice tea at night, could that say anything about his moral character, probably not, but to go with his suitcase up and down the train for a single glass of water, well, he would have to go to the toilet in any case, could he wait for these twenty minutes, plus maybe ten to find the toilet in the station, maybe it would be unbearable by then, but what could happen, he would just bear it, he wouldn’t just let go in his pants, or if he just quickly jumped to the toilet and risked his suitcase, he would of course take his bag with him, what was in his suitcase anyway, a few expensive ties and shirts, he should buy himself a new shirt when he got there in any case, just for the sake of it, to have one from the journey, for the memories, if he would of course survive and keep the journey in a nice memory in the end, it would be rather unpleasant if he bought himself a great shirt that would then remind him of a disaster after disaster, and he would be then forced to ponder in front of his closet if it was worth it, if he liked it better than what he had to go through to have it, but maybe he would consider it like a trophy of some kind, should things really turn out to be so tough, which, objectively, of course, they shouldn’t, but who knows how he would experience them, maybe it would all turn out to be a string of misunderstandings that would keep him smashed to the ground, maybe he would not find a shirt he would like anywhere, and in this case he should really take extra care of those he brought along,

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but what were really the odds that this person would take advantage of a few minutes to steal a shirt from his suitcase, but what if something happened in between, what if he would not be able to unlock the toilet and then the suitcase would just stay there, or what if, what if, what if, Jöran once again intertwined his fingers, pressed his palms together and pushed his tangled fist high up in the air. “You will never figure … it out,” was heard from beneath the jacket. The voice was drowsy, hoarse, yet surprisingly distinct above the din of the train. Jöran stared at the dark jacket which kept still. “ They made it completely impossible for you … and now … they are trying … to convince you it is because … it is because of your personal … shortcomings.” Jöran vaguely smiled, looked at the fingertips that peeked from underneath the jacket and followed the outstretched feet in dark pants that disappeared under the seat next to him. “ This is also … the ultimate goal … of this fucking game … to convince you … you cannot decide … you have no options … that you don’t … you don’t exist.” The jacket moved then, the fingers drew back, the legs slightly bent in the knees and the body of the stranger turned to the window. A loud snoring filled the compartment. Jöran laughed in silence. The train was slowing down, his body was barely perceptibly being pushed forward. This was then what the strangers dreamt about. About the infinite pointlessness of their

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lives. They would arrive at the station soon, should he wake him up, would that be polite, what was the procedure with these things? He could shake his arm, go with his hand under the jacket and silently say, I’m sorry to wake you up, but we will be arriving soon, are you alright, you talked in your sleep, do you feel as if your live has no meaning, do you know who it was that made it impossible for you, can I help? He did not know what would be worse, that the guy would then push him away, leave me alone, nutcase, or that he would grab his wrist and pleaded, help me to escape my grotesque fate. It would most certainly be best if he did not do anything. We were all, in the end, responsible for ourselves. Jöran got up quietly, went through his pockets again, straightened his vest and his trousers, carefully hoisted his bag on his shoulder and pulled the suitcase down from the ledge above his head. It made a noise, he stopped and looked at the man. Nothing. The doors of the compartment slid apart in complete silence. “Would you like to spend the rest of your life in mental institutions?” Jöran, already between the doors, turned back in shock. It really sounded like the question was aimed at him. But the jacket remained unmoving. Shivers went down his spine, this was becoming slightly strange. His foot moved into a step. “Forget … now forget … everything …” Jöran was shaking his head, “… now you have to … you have to …” he was

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already in the aisle, keeping only his head back so he could hear, catch what he had to, “… now you have to survive.” Jöran banged his suitcase against the side of the compartment, forcibly closed the doors and hurried onwards, hoping he at least managed to rouse the man from deep sleep. It was a thing of compassion, really, not leaving someone, even if a complete stranger, trapped into a nightmare. But tactfully, it was best that he would not even know why he woke up. Having already done his good work of the day in the early morning, contributing to humanity, Jöran walked to the end of the aisle wide awake, with his head raised high. The toilet was spacious enough for the suitcase, so he did not even have to lock the doors, he just set the suitcase against them and stood astride above the bowl. It lasted for an eternity, he began to wonder at the amount of water he kept inside him, where did it even come from, he did not drink anything, maybe there was something wrong with his bladder, or was this the normal result of sleeping on the train, the constant gentle shaking of the sleeping body, where the drops of water fell and gathered from every corner like cherries or walnuts from a tree in the wind, maybe this was even healthy in a way, to shake your body every once in a while … when the train came to a sudden stop and Jöran was, despite his firmly planted feet, thrown slightly aside, which caused the last few drops to land on his trousers. He caught his balance and stared down in resignation. The horror. He did not have the time to wait for

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his trousers to dry, he would have to go among the people looking like that, nobody knew him here, at least he hoped he would not meet anyone, he wiped the stains with toilet tissues, but that covered them with frayed white threads that, at least he thought so, drew even more attention to the stains, but you couldn’t tell what it was in any case, it could have been water, he could have been sprayed by the water while washing his hands, that was perfectly normal, but he would not rub the water drops so intensely to cover them with white threads, everyone could tell, but who would look at him anyway, it did not matter, he zipped up, grabbed the suitcase, carried it in front of his legs and waddled off the train. Malmö for Copenhagen. A good half hour, he had time for coffee, maybe he should wait with coffee for a bit and try to fall asleep again on the next train, but that ride would be short enough in any case and he wanted to see when they crossed the Öresund bridge that turns into a tunnel, he never went across it before, from Sweden into Denmark, there used to be a ferry, he remembered one trip to their relatives in Aarhus, mother and father kept quiet the whole time, he was reading in the back, until he got sick and threw up over father’s new company Volvo, he did not remember what happened next, he just remembered the smell, the mixture of brand new leather and the acid from his stomach, and then a bunch of air fresheners stuck between the seats … Jöran found himself in front of a machine with drinks, got

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so close to it that nobody could see his trousers, thought about what to take for a while, then pushed for ice tea. It dropped into the slit, Lipton, cold, he opened the bottle and took a sip, then frowned, he did not like the taste, but he was so thirsty that he drank almost the whole thing, before almost indignantly throwing the bottle in his bag. Standing in front of the train he spent a long time inspecting the ticket for the seat number, but he didn’t find it, so when he got inside he carefully sat on the edge of the seat and remained ready for a quick move until the moment the train took off. He relaxed a little then. The train was not completely full. The glare of the sea in the morning was too strong for the view to be beautiful. JÜran tried to focus his eyes on a point on the horizon and let his thoughts go free, but the abundance of light made him think of a desert, of heat and the ocean salt that burns the lesions in your mouth. He had forgotten to get himself coffee, there also wouldn’t be much time in Denmark to catch the train for Hamburg, maybe he ought to have extended his journey a little, but it already took longer than a whole day, and he would probably have more than enough of the train pretty soon, and would have, if he had allowed himself more room for transfers, wearily reproached himself, standing by the machine with the tenth cup of coffee of the day in his hands, already high on caffeine and shell-shocked from the long thrusts of movement, that he should have taken the tickets closer together, and

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so he had to now hurry and hope that he would be able to grab at least a cup somewhere on the way, before it would be time for lunch in any case, meaning it would be too late for the morning coffee and he would have spent the entire morning in a lessened state of consciousness, but that was in any case a problem only when they wanted something from you, whereas for staring through the window at the burnt through blue, for tasting the slight vertigo at the height of the bridge, for contemplating the patchy, windblown surface of the sea, the half-drowsy consciousness was more than enough. “… yes, ok … yes, I fell asleep, I will … I will …” The voice seemed familiar to Jöran but he could not remember from where, he looked around the car to catch a familiar face, he had his bag in his lap, it covered the stains, which had to be completely dry by now in any case, and he could get rid of the threads with a wipe of his sleeve, but the source of the voice eluded him. “… I don’t think that will be necessary … yes … the boy with the flowers will be more than enough … we are headed into the tunnel now … yes …” The darkness came quick and welcome, the people grew quiet, they stared straight ahead and adjusted their eyes to the artificial light. Jöran was staring at his reflection in the window. He had not left Sweden in ten years. Did this, in these times, even mean anything anymore? Nobody came to inspect his documents, he didn’t even take his passport

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with him, they said an ID was enough, now, when they were all in the EU, and even though he did not benefit personally from this, he nevertheless liked the idea, he liked to think of himself as a European, as someone who could easily rent an apartment anywhere on the continent, except in Norway, of course, but he wouldn’t move to Norway in any case, neighbors have their rivalries after all, like with soccer, and with the Danes as well, even though he did not keep track these past few years who was more despised now, maybe since they joined the EU together with the Danes it did tilt slightly to the side of the Norwegians, who always had to do things in their own way and thought they had it better because of their stupid oil, though even the Danes ‌ Again he asked himself if he thought like this only because he knew that other people thought like this. Maybe everyone thought like this only because they thought that everybody else thought like this. Since his first day on the job he imagined the day he would retire and move somewhere south, to the Mediterranean, into a stone house with a garden and a vineyard and spend his old days under the sun, but for the first time now he thought, whose idea even was this, exactly? When you were done with your first week and you came home ready for the weekend, and you got a glimpse of the amount of Mondays still in front of you, the true length of the fifty year working week ahead, it made sense to create a certain idea of a goal, and his vision of a house in the Mediterranean became ever more tangible

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during the years, but he did not even like the idea of an eternal summer? Well, they must have winters even in the Mediterranean. With Milenka they would … In the hot, heavy humidity of the still air … Old, with wrinkles and sweat on their skin. Always with dark patches under their armpits. Would she still shave when she was old? Would he have to go to the pharmacy to get pills, there he would be embarrassed to ask the young teller for Viagra, he would fidget about it for ages, maybe by then you would be able to order them in the mail, and it’s not even certain he would need them, everything seemed ok so far, even though he had to do it all by himself … What if he just stayed in Stockholm? Would the city change for him when he no longer had to go to work? What would he think about if he knew that other people thought of nothing? From the tunnel they emerged into Denmark. The Ö’s lost their dots and crossed themselves. Goodbye fatherland, he would return soon. He did not exchange his Crowns into Euros, he’ll just go to an ATM, but would he have enough time at the station? He looked at his watch. Exactly seven am. He tracked the smooth movement of the second hand. He had a really nice watch, heirloom from his father, though it was slightly annoying it was worth so much and that so much money had then gone to charity, he could have given up on it, but what use would the orphans in Africa have for a wrist watch, and now, when it was his, a sale was out of the question, though he did check the prices once or twice,

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out of sheer curiosity, in secret, because if Milenka found out he was carrying a log cabin with a sauna and a Jacuzzi on his arm, the watch probably wouldn’t stay at home for long, and now he realized that it was actually dangerous to take it with him on the train but he hadn’t even considered that until then, when he looked at the people around him and couldn’t guess how much respect they had for private property, most of them would probably return a lost wallet with a few Crowns inside, with a canceled credit card and some documents, a few would most likely take the notes and throw the wallet into a mailbox, a few would just leave the wallet out in the open, but at least one or two would take the money and then also try to buy a new jacket with the credit card, hoping to catch the owner before he realized it went missing, it was all insured in any case, even if you cancelled it too late, only then you had to bother yourself with people whose job it was not to believe anyone, and that could be annoying, although, if you knew yourself, if you knew you were honest and you stood your ground, they realized you were right in the end, but in the case of such a valuable watch it was not only about a proper upbringing and a sense of ethics, you also had to take into account the circumstances, maybe one of his fellow travelers had a child with a rare disease that could only be cured with an experimental treatment in America, and because it was not certain that the cure would work the insurance companies refused to cover it, so now he spent his days buying lottery

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tickets and hoping that luck would give him at least a chance for his child’s survival, and if someone like that would by chance notice what kind of a watch was on Jöran’s hand, and if he had even an approximate idea of what it’s worth, well then one had to ask how Jöran would fare in that case, he did not want to accuse anyone of malice, it was about the circumstances, maybe he would just follow him around out of desperation, waiting for his chance, maybe he would boil over and attack him in the compartment and pull the watch from his hand, maybe he would be even ready to cut off his arm, to bash his head in, to even murder him for the watch … Jöran carefully, not to draw attention, pulled his sleeve over the watch and held it with his fingers. The train stopped. With one hand in his pocket and with his bag on his shoulders he pulled the suitcase behind him. He forgot about the stains, even though they could still be seen. He was pleased with Scandinavian efficiency, they were more similar than they cared to admit, it was simple to find your way in the station even in Denmark, everything was nicely marked and it made sense. He had ample time to transfer. Staring at the board under the ceiling he almost crashed into a boy standing on crutches who was selling roses wrapped in cellophane. The boy spoke to him in a language that seemed like a mocking Swedish to Jöran, it was hard to understand. He raised his brows and the boy spoke in English, for your wife. Jöran smiled and shook his head, made a step to the side, but the boy placed the crutch in

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front of his feet, so Jöran looked at him angrily, loudly said no, and went past. Milenka once told him that only men who cheated on their wives brought home flowers. Jöran rarely left home, while to cheat seemed to him like an idea from a movie, as likely to happen as a car chase and a shootout with the police. Not very, he hoped. He already gave up on the coffee when he got on the train for Hamburg and was greeted, there she actually was, by an older lady behind a narrow cart, filled with snacks and sweets, bottles of soda and a tower of cups next to a kettle. He graciously smiled at her, tried to express that he would definitely order something when she came by, and waved at her with his ticket, hinting that he would first go to his compartment. The seat number was on the ticket. The compartment was empty again, which he, normally, as would anyone, experienced as a relief. He thought about what to do with the watch. Should he put it into the suitcase or in the bag, where it wouldn’t be any safer, only not as visible, and so wouldn’t prove such a temptation, but the suitcase and the bag were a temptation on their own, anyone who would manage to go through his stuff during the journey would be very pleased with what he would find, and in any case he liked to have it on his arm, the feeling of cold steel reminded him of home, of the very idea he really was at home somewhere, the watch was like an anchor or an amulet, something that kept him solid within time and space, he could just keep it covered with his

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sleeve until the end of the journey, but if it would be very hot in Germany he would have to hide it with the sleeve of his shirt, which was more difficult since Milenka always bought him tailored shirts and the watch would definitely peek out at times, maybe he could buy one with longer sleeves somewhere on the way and change, and just suffer the heat until then, he did not know how much he was risking and how stupid it really was to walk around with such a watch out in the open, well maybe the continent was already fully civilized, maybe the pickpockets were a thing of the past, maybe the insurance companies became shelters of humanity and in this case the idea that someone could steal your watch from your arm during your journey would be preposterous, but people were people after all, a world where everyone would be happy with what they had would be a pretty strange place and not necessarily strange in a good way, and in any case, as long as boys on crutches still had to sell roses in train stations, everything was apparently still not perfectly all right, though it was true that he heard that organized gangs of beggars are coming from Eastern Europe, now when they are all in the EU, and Jöran stared out the window and caught sight of the boy standing in the distance, so frail and awkward on his crutches, the boy who would at the end of the day have to give his boss the lion’s share of the profits, Jöran could have bought him an apartment with his watch, where he would be safe from his boss, and paid for his schooling and for hours of physiotherapy, so he could

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walk normally again, if he was not of course just pretending to arouse compassion, that was also possible, but in any case there were countless numbers of such boys while Jöran had only the single watch and for how long would he feel better about himself if he had saved the boy with it, maybe for a week, before Milenka, who would of course find out, she always found out everything in the end, began to reproach him because of the lost log cabin and the Jacuzzi on account of a single boy who was pretending his legs didn’t work, who wouldn’t go to school, and whose boss would take over the apartment and run the beggar operation out of it, all because of Jöran’s kindness. The doors of the compartment opened and an older man entered, Jöran just quickly glanced at him and nodded in greeting before looking back out, so the man could get into his seat in peace, without the intrusive stare of a curious neighbor, the boy outside still stood there miserably, looking despondent from afar, someone approached him, a younger man, maybe he cheated on his girlfriend on the way and was now in the grips of remorse, the boy looked at the ground when the other one talked to him, he probably wasn’t a buyer, maybe that was the boss, even though he looked a bit young for a boss, maybe just his superior, do they have a hierarchy in the gangs, they most likely do, all efficient things have hierarchy, the man punched the boy in the stomach, at least it seemed so from afar, Jöran’s nerves got into a weird tangle, as if he suddenly became afraid, but

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not for himself, he got up on his seat and almost pushed his nose against the glass, he muttered something but did not hear himself, he was looking out, the man ran away and the boy swayed on his feet, the flowers fell from his hands to the ground, he tried to grab onto his crutches, a red flower burst into being on his shirt, Jöran was looking, wondering for a moment where the flower came from and how could it be growing larger, the boy dropped his crutches and fell on his back, Jöran stood up, a hey escaped his throat, he looked incredulously at his fellow passenger, who was frowning at his phone and did not respond to Jöran’s hey, he looked back out, a few people began to move in the direction of the boy, very slowly, Jöran placed his palm on the glass, felt the straining of metal underneath him, the train began to move and he ran to the doors of the compartment, already grabbing the handle when he asked himself what would he even do, he did not even see what happened, they have cameras and the people were there, he was most likely not the only one who saw anything, and in any case he couldn’t help now, he felt a bit silly, standing there in front of his fellow passenger, when he suddenly felt the grip of fingers on his wrist and was too surprised to pull his arm away, he looked down, and the man was holding his hand and staring, with his head turned completely sideways, like an inquisitive dog, at his watch. He let go, relaxed in his seat, looked at his phone and shook his head.

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“ There is something wrong with time.” That voice. That jacket. Jöran deliberately occupied his body one muscle at a time and managed to calmly sit back down. He also turned to his watch, examined the hands, it all seemed fine, 7:27 am, if they departed a minute ago then the train was completely on schedule, what could possibly be wrong with time, did that man stab the boy, should he call the police and tell them he saw what happened, Denmark police, the numbers were the same since they were in the EU, at least he thought so, but how he fell, did he have flowers in his lap, what was that, and this guy meanwhile hadn’t seen a thing, he was staring at his phone the whole time, Jöran looked at him somewhat haughtily, raised his chin, people were getting stabbed left and right and everybody stayed glued to their screens, with their lighted, deathly pale faces and diluted eyes, typing and tapping, his whole body was shaking, how physical it all became all of a sudden, Jöran was looking at his arms, his feet, he felt the void beneath his diaphragm, his breath came in short thrusts, he was sweating, he wiped his brow, there was so much of this body he had to carry around, with all this rubble clinging to it, while outside the sharpness, you never knew when it would open up before you, the scream of crumpling, ripping, slashing, dousing it all, well, maybe in reality nothing actually happened, maybe he just misunderstood the whole thing, it could have been some kind of a play or a performance, a new idea of the beggar gangs to turn up

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compassion to the max, so that the people would then just fling money out of their pockets and cover the boy under a pile of notes, the boy with the flowers, the boy with the flowers will be more than enough, we are headed into the tunnel now … Did he not say that? This was some kind of a weird coincidence. Twice in the same compartment. Was this really the same jacket? Was not the other one darker, newer, this one seemed a bit worn out. Was it really the same voice? Should he be afraid? He looked straight ahead so he could watch him from out of the corner of his eyes. Graffiti covered concrete was sliding by on the other side of the window, every now and then they were engulfed in the darkness of the underpass. Jöran did not know what to think. “Excuse me,” he began, went quiet and waited for the other man to look at him, but the man just raised his brow, “you know I’m having a hard time,” an awkward laugh escaped his throat, “what was it supposed to mean, that there was something wrong,” he intertwined his palms on his knee but did not lift his leg, “I mean to say, how could there be something wrong with time,” another short pause, “the train was perfectly prompt.” “I just came back from Indonesia,” said the man, who glanced at Jöran only for a second before looking back at the screen, “I think the time zones have a weird effect on my brains, because they always seem to confuse them. I should have phrased it better. That’s a nice watch you have there.”

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“It’s my father’s,” said Jöran quietly. “Whenever I travel I get the feeling that time becomes somehow longer. Relativity, you will say, of course, but its effects are negligible within planetary distances and imperceptible to humans.” Jöran wanted to say something, but he did not know what. “It’s as if each hour got an extra second. Three thousand six hundred and one second in an hour. Twenty-four extra seconds in a day, eight thousand seven hundred sixty extra seconds per year, which amounts to almost two and a half extra hours. And yet people would not even notice them.” Jöran slowly nodded with a frozen smile. “With their senses, I mean. But they would see it. Satellites would fall from the sky, then planes, ships would collide, trains probably as well, one extra second an hour would throw the entire world off track. Everything is connected,” the man circled with his finger in the air, “GPS takes relativity into account, did you know?” Again that unfortunate choice of metaphor, Jöran began to regret saying anything, he was no longer sure it was the same voice and the jackets were in any case all pretty much the same, the shock at seeing the apparent violence in the distance was receding, and with it the certainty of memory, his fingers went searching for his bag, he wanted to hear the calming rattle of the tube. The man waved with his hand. “Occupational deformity. Time, I mean. I trade on the stock market, where every second counts, and where, if I

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think about it, I could put each extra one to good use.” “ Time is money,” said Jöran quickly, glad for the comfort of cliché. “Exactly. Exactly like that. And what do you do for a living?” “I am a designer,” said Jöran and paused for effect, “in Ikea.” “Oh,” said the man, who was apparently not as impressed by this as Jöran had expected, “that’s too bad.” This was a surprise. “ Too bad?” “Ikea has a really interesting corporate structure. I say too bad because the company is not listed on the stock market. I would be happy to place a bet on its future, because I am certain the bet would pay off. It is a very good company.” Jöran was nodding, pleased. “I have no idea about this stuff whatsoever,” he said, “we pay into a mutual fund with my wife, just for the ease of mind, other than that I do not have the nerves for … money.” The man seemed to smirk and grew quiet, which struck Jöran as somewhat impolite, so he turned to the window and gazed out into the land of abroad pushed to the ground by the sky. But, something unusual certainly happened to that boy, he could not shake off the image of his shirt, the spreading of color, he might have spilled something on him, like activists spilled fake blood on ladies in fur coats, maybe that was how they dealt with beggars nowadays, with illegal

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flower salesmen, was a thing like that even possible, probably not, he would think of everything else before he would be forced to admit to himself that something horrible had actually happened while he did nothing, he just stood up like a fool and went to the doors, before again letting himself be tricked by his own thoughts, a constant refrain of his entire life, he should have pulled the emergency brake that instant and stopped the whole train, it was completely unacceptable to suffer such crimes the first thing in the morning, and if it then turned out to be something innocent he would just stoically bear the ridicule and reproach at his needless panic, was it too late to call now, maybe he was the sole witness, maybe that man stood in the camera’s blind spot, and it all now depended on him, well, but he did not even see him, just in passing from the side and from the back, what should he tell them, he couldn’t evade all the cameras there, would he now spend the next twenty hours of the journey contemplating this, yet doing nothing about it, the longer he waited the more pointless the whole thing became, would he finally decide somewhere in Austria that he really should do something, so, if he wanted to do it, he should do it immediately, take the phone, maybe just check the websites of the local papers beforehand, if there was any news of it, but they probably didn’t report on it so quickly, but, if it was true what he saw then they will definitely report it, violence at the train station, beggar gangs fighting for territory, he should wait for a bit and then check it, and

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if they wrote something about it he would call just to be sure, and besides, he was definitely not the only one on the train who saw something, maybe there were others right now thinking about the same thing, and probably some of them already called as soon as it happened, but none of them pulled the brake, stopping the whole train was quite an endeavor, for a single boy who couldn’t be helped any longer in any case … He heard that his fellow passenger took a plastic bottle out of his bag and sipped. He looked at him. Ice tea. He also had some left. But so then it was him under that jacket? The man frowned at him and Jöran realized he was staring. As if waking up he riffled through his bag, pulled out his bottle and tamely showed it to him. “Good,” he said. The man again smiled very impolitely and nodded, before his open gaze, with his chin pulled slightly back, slowly returned to the screen. Jöran was tempted by outrage, he wanted to snort and throw his back at the seat, what did this guy think he was, Jöran just wanted to point out the coincidence, people formed alliances in this way, the warmth of common choice convinced us that we were similar, that we had the same taste, which was one of the conditions of society, and if they were here together in this compartment now, Jöran truly did not see a problem if they should appreciate some common ground, he was not intrusive at all, the man even dared to grab his hand before and now he was

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smirking because he wanted to show him they bought the same thing, but it wasn’t really a coincidence, was it, Jöran bought the ice tea solely because he saw that he had it, otherwise he would probably take a water with gas, which he usually did, even though he did not like all brands, some were too sour, others too rough, but most were vastly better than a bunch of sugar and acid that left you with an eternal heartburn, but back then in front of the machine he just thought of it and wanted to try, that’s how advertising worked, right, it was not that important what and why and how, the most important thing was to put it in your head, so that once you were faced with a choice you chose something you already saw before, if there was a whole shelf filled with toothpastes and you didn’t have a favorite, you just took a brand that you knew, it was all the same in any case, if they really invented the best toothpaste, everyone would buy it, except if it was too expensive, which would then cause another poverty trap, the dentists were also expensive and since we, as a society don’t want poverty to cause, along with all its tragedy, rotten teeth as well, the toothpastes were all the same and the price was different just so that those with a better paycheck bought the expensive ones and convinced themselves they paid for quality, so that their hard work kept making sense, and those with lesser paychecks took the cheaper one and told themselves they were all the same anyway, Milenka would definitely not allow cheap brands in her cabinet, she would throw such a

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fit that the next time he would take the most expensive one on purpose, and then count the cents to her every morning and watch that she squeezed the tube out to the last drop, which also drove her crazy, and in any case it was always her who did the shopping, Jöran couldn’t even remember the last time he bought some toothpaste, did he remember to take his toiletries bag, he took a shower before he left and set it up on the ledge, did he leave it there, maybe Milenka threw it in his suitcase, he had a kind of a dim memory of that, he spent the entire night on the train and never once thought he should brush his teeth, he quickly pushed his chin forward and blew into his nose, it was still not critical, and did the people even brush their teeth on the trains, or did they just buy themselves some chewing gum, when that lady comes he would ask her if she has some … “Did you know that there are people who communicate with time?” “I’m sorry?” said Jöran. “On the clock face such as yours there are, discounting the second hand, seven hundred and twenty different positions. There are one thousand four hundred and forty different positions on the digital clock face. They repeat every day, over and over again, and each of them could mean a certain specific thing.” “Oh,” said Jöran, glancing at his watch, “interesting.” “If you had a system where everyone would know what they all mean, you could communicate in this way. Someone

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could send you an empty e-mail and you would know what the message was, because you would look at the time it was sent.” “How about the dates? The dates repeat as well,” said Jöran, for whom it was important that the fellow passenger knew he was really listening, that he understood, “each year.” “ That is true. You could also do it with the date. But if you wanted to send a message to someone of, say, eighteenth of March, and it were summer, you would have to wait the entire year to do it.” Jöran smiled, “which would not be terribly efficient.” The passenger pursed his lips and nodded. “While the clock, on the other hand … One thousand four hundred and forty different positions each day makes for quite a complex system. It can communicate a lot. If you know three thousand Chinese characters, you can already read the papers, for example …” “An adult Chinese knows eight thousand of them,” said Jöran, who had to design the manuals for the Chinese market and once read a prospectus. “Yes,” said the passenger coldly, “but how many of them are truly vital? Let us suppose that with a thousand four hundred and forty you can say everything that is truly essential.” “Let us suppose,” said Jöran. “And then the combinations … for example, in one day I send three e-mails to my broker, where in the contents I write a few completely ordinary orders. But, since we have

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a system, he will check the exact time of the e-mails and know what I really want him to do. Let us suppose that I am communicating something I am not allowed to, information with which I am not supposed to trade …” “But is that not illegal?” said Jöran, who was growing slightly bored. “Of course, that is exactly the issue here. How will the state attorney prove that I communicated something I was not allowed to communicate to my broker? All codes can be deciphered. Drug dealers think they are awfully smart when they talk about hazelnut ice-cream and baking soda when they really mean heroin or cocaine, but during the trial they simply ask how probable is it that two grown men are talking about scoops and powders …” “Yes, not very probable, well, although …” said Jöran just to say something. “Yes, although. And on top of that, when it becomes clear that we are in fact dealing with a code, it also becomes clear that the communicating parties deliberately tried to hide something they knew was illegal. We are now talking about criminal intent. While in my case, despite the fact that the consequence of my messages was a certain action of my broker, which would be, in the case I would directly order it from him, illegal, they simply cannot prove this. If they cannot connect the contents of my messages with his actions, if they cannot find the cypher, the key, they cannot prove criminal intent. Even if they focused on the clock,

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even if they knew that I communicated something with the timing of my emails, well, I still have to send emails at one point or another, so this is not something that would not exist in the absence of criminal intent, such as is the case with chocolates, fried chickens and similar stuff with dealers.” Jöran laughed. “An excellent idea,” he said, “speaking hypothetically, of course, since I would not like to be forced to call the financial authorities upon you.” “Absolutely hypothetically, of course,” said the passenger with a pleased smirk, “one could say I have … too much time on my hands.” Jöran was irked by his bloated self-importance. He closed his eyes and gave in to his designer’s intuition, drew a grid, a clock face, no, a digital plane of four eights, one thousand four hundred and forty elements was a massive amount, the combinations of three sequences were for practical purposes infinite, without an organizational principle there would remain, in any case, even if the partners in dialogue would be exceptionally well versed in the scheme, too much possibility for a communication breakdown, what did he say, that time was his occupational deformity, well, Jöran’s was the shape, and not any shape, but a clear, straightforward shape, without possibility of misunderstanding, an elementary shape, one that makes sense to a Tibetan shepherd, to a child raised by wolves and to the president of the USA, and an instruction manual for the thing that his

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fellow passenger proposed would have at least one thousand pages, but still, he had time, how would it look like, to mark each one separately, from 00:01 to 23:59 would not be very efficient, 00:00 would most likely mean ‌ nothing, so there were not one thousand four hundred and forty, he threw a raised eyebrow at the passenger, but he did not seem to notice, so he closed his eyes again, he would probably join them by the numbers, nine different ones, four spaces, but they could repeat themselves, there was so much of this, he would need something to join them, maybe he could use color, but if he had to stay with the black lines he would build bars, but there could only be zero, one, or two in the first space, this made it a bit easier, oh, and in the third space there was only zero to five, while there were all nine in the second and fourth space, the image of a double-humped camel appeared, what was the difference between a camel and a dromedary, he never knew that, was it just a language thing, maybe, so, first step was the camel, then you put the contents on its back, first bar, zero was night, one was day, both two times nine, two was then the evening, four times daily, two and four again, interesting, let’s say he would mark them with black, white and grey, would that be too boring for such a massive thing, ever since Oscar, who studied user experience in California, UX, he always said the letters the American way, yooaxe this and yooaxe that, joined the team, he paid much more attention to, not only the rational efficiency of the design, but also to

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the experience of the person who was trying to understand, and even though he never admitted this to Oscar, and why not, he was a fine boy after all, when he returned he would thank him for broadening his perspectives, one thing was to design, another was to pay attention to the experience of shape, but even with the most basic understanding of human psychology you simply had to admit that the idea of his fellow passenger was far too complex to be useful, no matter how profitable it could turn out to be. “Hypothetically,” said Jöran, “I do not think this could work.” The passenger did not seem surprised, his expression was one of naïve curiosity. “Really?” “I am a designer, as I said, I design instructions,” Jöran took on the professorial tone he enjoyed, “and there are just too many elements for an efficient system of communication. I considered how I would draw the manual and I just don’t see a way how to present the system in its complexity, while keeping it simple enough for use. Simple, meaning in a relative sense, of course.” The smile just would not disappear from the passenger’s face. He was quiet only for a brief moment. “So you have certainly considered the fact that the numbers six, seven, eight, and nine appear the least, and so they could be used to designate something more specific, while the numbers from zero to five could perform more basic

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functions, depending on the order in which they appear.” Jöran nodded. “I have, but it is still just too much, and it is also too much to expect that the users will learn to connect all the numbers to a specific content. Wherever the connections are completely arbitrary, confusion always follows.” The man seemed excited for the first time. “So we would not connect them arbitrarily. The numbers are almost certainly with us from the beginnings of human consciousness, and on this long common journey we have by now already marked all of them with certain cultural meanings. Five, for example, five fingers on one hand, a hand that can grab, than can offer a shake to conclude a business, that can punch in a fist, two fives can mean applause, a prayer, a request, hands, held up in a sign of surrender, then, if we stay with the fingers, digital is, as you well know, about the fingers, one could be a thumbs up, OK, or thumbs down, not OK, maybe an index finger pointing left or right, if we bring into mind the clock face, such as the one on your hand, then, perhaps the four could be a square, like a table or a bed, or the fork, which has four points, so it could be something to do with the mouth, for spearing food, or for a passionate kiss, something physical and bodily, and then you have the number three, a triangle, something sharp, a knife, the shape of a mountain, something cold, rational …” Jöran was frowning at first, then his eyebrows went up, before he completely relaxed his face and interrupted the

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passenger with a loud exhale. “… which all depends upon the specific culture and contemporary, how should I say, inclinations of the individual, a four could also be a cross, for example, if we lived in a more religious society, just as the number three does not make me think of a triangle or a knife, of something sharp, the number three, for me, is well rounded, like the silhouette of a bird in the distance flipped on its side by the wind …” The gaze of the passenger calmed down. “I merely tried to explain that you definitely could create a system out of numbers that would, to a human mind, seem intuitively logical and meaningful, to a certain extent.” They stared at each other. “Relatively …” “… and hypothetically speaking,” concluded Jöran with a smile. He had done well, the passenger now surely wouldn’t look at him like he did before, when he waved at him with his ice tea, for some people a tiny signal of alliance was simply not enough to relax, they needed a more substantial conversation, just to see they were not the only one with a mighty mouse spinning the wheel in their head, as mother used to say, and that they stopped pretending they drank the whole wisdom of the world, as father used to, Jöran looked out of the window content, he saw the passing of mists, thrown across the plain, and felt the coming of the day that already searched for the cracks in the sky to push

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its full light through them, it looked like they would have a hot day, were they already in Germany or still in Denmark, so much talk of time and not once did he glance at his watch, it was a little past nine, they would be in Hamburg soon, this was definitely Germany already, although, was the city not very near the border, his geography was poor, he could check his phone, did he turn off the ringing, he should call Milenka, but right now he did not want the fellow passenger to hear him talking to his wife, he had to change his tone of voice for her, speaking not as a professor or as a lead designer but as a husband, as someone who listened and loved, he hoped she would not be angry if he called only around noon, it would be soon in any case, he was actually proud of himself, he had really done well, what a strange idea, truly, all these numbers, that for someone a number could be a knife ‌ The boy appeared in front of his eyes again, what a horrible thing, was it really possible it happened, or should he just ascribe it all to the nightmarish morning of his journey, abroad for the first time in years, there were certainly psychological pressures at play, such a disturbance of routine throws a man off track ‌ He tried to push his thoughts against something that would deliver him from the mixture of disgust and outrage he felt while remembering the scene, and the shame of his response, or rather, the absence of his response, so he looked out the window with renewed focus and had to really try so that what he saw grew louder than his mind, that he consciously ap-

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prehended the edges of meadows, the branching of electrical wiring, the dry line of rubble running along the lower edge of his gaze, the track signals, another system of communication he had no real access to, a black board jumped into his mind, he saw it for just a moment before it whizzed by, with the numbers 5334 – 2 done in white paint, who knew what that meant, the section of the track, its incline, instructions for the conductor that only he could read, we were in fact surrounded by languages we didn’t understand, next to all the human languages there were all these markings and codes of professions, well, perhaps he really did sit next to a genius who invented the alphabet from the clock and was now using it to rob the global stock markets, he resisted the temptation to look at him again, he did not seem especially ingenious, and probably, if he really had done such a thing, he would not proclaim it out loud to every random person he met on the train, except … Except if Jöran was not a random person. What did he say, five is a hand that grabs, three is a knife, four is a fork, something with food, the body, 53, the hand grabs the knife, 34, the knife stabs the stomach, Jöran felt cold shivers down his spine that he tried to alleviate by smiling, it could not be possible, that was completely out of the question, his brains would drive him mad, there were numbers everywhere, if he began to think in this way, he would end up in an institution … He talked in his sleep, would you like to spend the rest of your life … Maybe he wanted to drive him crazy. He would not

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succeed. Jöran grabbed his bag and placed it in his lap without knowing why, it just felt safer. But, what was then … “And what is then number two?” he asked. The doors of the compartment opened. The fingers of a hand pulled apart the velvet curtain separating them from the aisle. “Anybody thirsty or hungry,” she said in German, rehearsed but not annoyed, Jöran appreciated the goodwill of salespeople, he considered it an integral part of their job, she pushed the cart slightly forward, stepped into the compartment and looked around, “good day, would anyone care for some coffee, tea, or maybe something to eat?” The passenger did not even look at her, he kept staring at his phone and almost imperceptibly shook his head. Jöran spread his face into a wide smile, caught her eyes and leaned forward. “I would like a cup of coffee with milk, no sugar, and a bottle of water with gas, please, if you have it, or without, if you don’t.” His fellow passenger blew air through his nose. The politeness of a person is measured by how he treats those whose job it is to help him. Jöran could be strict if he thought that someone did not put in the effort, but he did possess enough self-confidence that he did not have to berate every cleaner, salesperson or a handyman to feel better about himself. His fellow passenger was, that was clear by then, a bitter person whose humanity had been damaged by money.

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The lady stood by the kettle, which boiled quickly, Jöran asked himself if it ran on batteries, he could use one like that on his worktable, because he could not stand the cables, their warped shape bent his view, messed with the very idea of a straight line, but with batteries it would probably be difficult to boil water, since, even though it was a common thing, it required a lot of energy, maybe there was a larger battery on the cart, it did appear heavier than what you would expect from a plate on wheels with some chips and cookies, but liquid was also quite heavy and besides, there had to be a refrigerator somewhere on the cart as well, which would make a large battery almost necessary, she probably charged it at the end of her every round … Vapors rose from the cup, Jöran carefully took it from her hands with a quick squeeze of his eyes and a slight nod, placed it on the sill by the window and took the cool plastic bottle, San Benedetto, wonderful, one of his favorites, “thank you,” the lady looked past him, through the window, for a moment, and said, “that will be five thirty, please.” Jöran first dove in his pocket, then put his hand in his bag, when he felt the chill. “Is it possible to pay with Crowns?” he asked with a pained look on his face. He forgot to go to the ATM, he did not have a single Euro with him. The passenger looked up. The lady shook her head, “unfortunately, the company does not allow it,” and placed a hand on her hip. Jöran sighed, swallowed, and turned his eyes at his fellow

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passenger, who suddenly resembled a sly fox. “Would you perhaps be able to … just until the station … the ATM,” he spoke with difficulty, before he was finally shown mercy. “Of course, not a problem, just a moment.” The man placed his hand into the inner pocket of his jacket, pulled out a banged up looking leather wallet, opened it and grew still. Jöran looked at the lady with a chastened smile and she returned a meager one, pleased that the problem was solved. When he then noticed that the passenger grew completely still, as if contemplating something, he frowned. He did not know what to say. The passenger’s head began swaying as if he were counting, then he looked at Jöran absently, before his gaze cleared and he said, “alright.” “Alright?” said Jöran. “I would also like to get something to drink, but I can’t decide between Coca-Cola, Schweppes, or 7Up.” Jöran looked at him as if he were dealing with an alien. The lady’s mouth became all wrinkled. “Red, yellow, or green.” “What do you … feel like having?” quietly asked Jöran, his whisper drying up into a cough. “Should I sell what I have, should I wait for a bit, or buy even more?” Jöran caught the eyes of the lady, they were both puzzled. The passenger was smiling. “You know what, you decide.”

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“Excuse me?” said Jöran. “Given the information at hand, you know just as much as I do. It’s a bet, pure and simple, like betting at roulette. If you miss, you of course will not be blamed, but if you hit it, you won’t have to return any money, so we won’t have to chase each other at the station in Hamburg.” Jöran’s first impulse was to defend himself, he couldn’t do it just like that, by heart, he would have to know more, at least broadly what it was all about, so that he could, maybe … but he did say that it was after all a bet and the lady became a bit impatient, her lips were still smiling, but her eyes were already cold, and on top of that the passenger was starting to annoy Jöran a great deal. “OK, Coca-Cola, so, red, so, sell,” he said, careful that his voice would not come out too rough, as the passenger was in the end still doing him a favor. The passenger nodded to the lady, took the bottle from her, “that will be eight seventy,” and paid her. She left. Jöran thanked him, the passenger said, “well,” and turned to his phone. The coffee was potable, nothing more. Not that he expected anything better from the instant coffee on the train, at least the water was right, he drank it, held it in his hands, a blue cap, and what did this mean in this new conceptual scheme his fellow passenger was apparently full of, he regretted allowing being strung along in this way, he should have done something spontaneous, he should have ordered

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him a beer or a pack of Haribo’s, and he could then take his damn stock and stuff it, coffee and water cost five thirty, again the 53, and where was the knife there, what a load of bull, eight seventy, they didn’t discuss those, 87, surely he had a full bunch of associations at the ready, but Jöran would no longer ask him a single thing, he didn’t like being drawn into his game, when he simply asked for his help, it was truly disrespectful, and this in front of her, and before he thought he had managed to at least slightly get him on his side, by taking his idea seriously, it was not every day you found yourself sitting next to a lead designer of a global company, and even if he then did not entirely agree with you that shouldn’t mean you could just treat him like a child in front of the cart lady, many would pay a hefty sum for Jöran’s opinion on their idea, but this guy was apparently offended that Jöran was not completely enthralled with his clock communication, and how much did the Coca-Cola cost, he counted in his head, three Euros forty cents, apparently, 34, 5334 again, and what should he do with this, there were all kinds of correspondences in this jumble of the world, the more attention you paid, the more you saw, but we should keep our thoughts for ourselves, each second counted, three thousand and six hundred an hour, if you were awake for sixteen hours a day that made, he calculated in his mind, around sixty thousand, and less than thirty thousand to dream, and together they made one day, a day in the life, given to you just once, so how many were we willing to

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give away, to ideas that weren’t ours, if you went to work you sold thirty thousand of them, he grew weary of the count, life seemed so bare and empty when you understood it as the ticking of the clock, well and how many seconds of thought should he give to that boy, this was about emotions and a conscience, you couldn’t after all say, he would have to discuss this with his therapist, you couldn’t just say, this particular trauma was worth this many seconds, if you thought about it too little, there would be consequences, if you thought about it too much, it was useless, the quality of the second also had to count, how many were wasted when you were staring at the sky and thinking of nothing, but were they really wasted, and weren’t all of them wasted in the end, and this man wanted every minute of the day to mean something special, we could surgically dissect the day and the people would drowsily stare at the hands, waiting for their point of entry, and why should we not do that with every single second, we could just tell the entire society, these seconds were for thoughts of our parents, these seconds for our children, we were not that different and complex, these seconds were for our hobbies, those with sixes, sevens, eights and nines, because there was less of them, of course, and we would all be entranced into the rhythm of the clock, into the perfect structure that would deliver us from all doubt, all ambivalence, all fear, that would finally deliver us from life. Jöran was pleased to realize that the coffee had made him

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mad. The passenger did not even open his Coke, he just put it in his briefcase, another slight, if he at least drank it after putting him on the spot like that, he felt a rise of some kind of wrath and found a form of power within the edges of the feeling that spread around his body, he grabbed it, trembled at the possibility of letting go, of telling this obnoxious person what he had coming to him, but what could he actually complain about, a string of tiny insults that could just as easily be ascribed to the early morning hour and the long journey, to a slightly rougher character, and we were after all not responsible for that, his weird ideas were just that, his own, and if Jöran allowed them to disturb him so, well, you could have hardly placed the blame for this on the passenger, they could have just as well been far more disgusting, he could have found himself in the compartment together with a racist or a sexist, who would try to force his philosophy on him, and yet Jöran would probably not yell at him, he would most likely just look out the window and let him know by ignoring him that he vehemently disagrees, it seemed very unlikely that he would just attack him, even though it was true that any racist or a sexist must by definition be a less intelligent person, so you didn’t even see the point in an argument, since you couldn’t convince him to renounce his primitive views, just as it was difficult to convince someone by mere discussion to quit smoking or stop overeating, everything was not about reason or arguments, we were biological beings, sometimes we understood reality,

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and at other times we felt it, but the ideas of his fellow passenger bothered Jöran precisely in the realm of reason, and this was perhaps why he felt a greater need to get into an argument, but they were presented to him, well, yes, hypothetically, relatively, what if, maybe, perhaps, for your consideration, as freely floating theoretical possibilities, not as firm convictions or any kind of ideology, and if Jöran now reproached him that he was being bothered by the signal boards zapping by his window, that he was contemplating the cost of things based on the number, not on their value, and that he felt that he was in the morning, when the train took off, witness to a crime that was at the same time somehow preordained and was now echoing through the elements that Jöran was exposed to as some kind of an indelible trace of the crime, why in the world did he say red, he should have said green, but the flowers were not green and the stain that spread was not green either, and if he now reproached him with this, well what could the man possibly have said other than that Jöran was obviously crazy, well, with the pills in his bag, with the years of therapy, he knew what he was getting into when he decided to go on this trip, it would be best if he just stayed quiet and suffer the thing through, it wouldn’t be much longer, he would take a pill on the train for Munich and try to fall asleep and hope that, when he woke up, it would all be forgotten, that it would fade away, that the numbers would go silent and that he would no longer be haunted by coincidence,

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or else he would call Milenka and ask her to come and get him, even if by plane, he would also bear the plane, but yet he somehow could not shake the feeling that he was the victim of some type of a strange stratagem, but what could possibly be its purpose, what could anyone want from Jöran Olofsson Sture on his way to a Southeastern European biennale, maybe his watch, but why would anyone try to get it in such a cruelly complicated way, all of this was just as incomprehensible as if he had found himself in front of a pile of wooden boards without any screws, with a rubber duck in place of a hammer, and then someone would push the Bible in his hands and demanded he builds a wardrobe. “Bravo!” exclaimed the passenger and raised his fist in the air. Jöran peered at him, cautiously as if in front of a pot of boiling oil, afraid even in the expectation of his next destabilizing move. “You hit the mark,” said the passenger calmly again, with the wrinkles of a smile dancing around his eyes, and pushed the phone into his face. Jöran saw the crashing of the red line and felt the man’s wide grin as if someone lightly traced their fingers down the nape of his neck. “I don’t understand,” he said. The passenger flinched and pulled his head back. Jöran realized it was possible the cup of coffee left him with terrible breath, which made him happy, so he left his mouth open a bit and kept breathing at him.

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The passenger was slowly moving away as he talked. “Everything depended on a decision of the court, to summarize, in short, we expected it at ten, and everybody in the market knew it, but nobody knew what the decision was, if it was a yes, the price would go sky high, if it was a no, it would, as you see, come crashing, and because I sold at the right time and because the courts then agreed with you, I will now buy a larger quantity of the stock of this same company and just wait for their complaint, when the whole thing will start growing again.” The passenger was truly excited, Jöran bitterly watched a man in the throes of a gambling high. “Perfect, thank you. It is of course understood that your debt is now paid in full,” he waited for the hint of Jöran’s smile, before going into the pocket of his pants, “I’m sorry, can I offer you a piece of gum?” and held a half-opened fist in front of Jöran. Jöran was unable to defend himself. The good cheer was contagious, no matter how upset he was he still did not have the heart to pay back all the insults at a moment when the man was so visibly in the grips of joy. He held out his hand and threw the gum in his mouth. He grimaced. “ They are from Indonesia, slightly unusual at first, but they quickly become good.” Jöran chewed. It was like chewing spice. The slight bitterness made his jaw go numb. His gaze wandered to the window, where the world ran past him like wax in fire.

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In Hamburg, when they arrived at the station, Jöran took his phone out of his bag, looked at the number of unanswered calls on the screen and put the phone back. His fellow passenger got up, grabbed his suitcase, opened the doors, turned around on his way out and looked at Jöran. “You should just buy a rose the next time.” He left and Jöran just sat there for a while. Then he got up, grabbed his bag and his suitcase, and slowly left the train with his head held down. On the platform he looked around, stared for a while in the direction of the board, for a while into the markings on the trains, before he took the ticket out of his pocket and held it out in front of him. His lips moved in a silent monologue. He put the ticket back and took a few steps to the escalators when he stopped and stood still until there were only a few people left on the platform. Something he saw brightened up his face and he moved again. The suitcase caused him some trouble on the escalator, he placed it sidewise and stood slightly bent above it. Underneath he stopped again and looked around. He moved in the direction of the signs for the toilets, where he went into the cabin and stayed there for quite some time. When he got out he washed his hands and muttered at the empty soap dispenser, before carefully wiping his watch wrist with a paper towel. In the underpass he again stood for a while in front of the door, staring at the signs. He went to the main entrance of the station, where there were restaurants. While walking he loudly sighed a few times. At the main entrance he stood and stared at the

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restaurant signs. His head shifted slightly to the side. He went towards a door when he suddenly stopped and turned around. He looked up again, before he apparently saw what he was looking for and headed into that direction. In front of the ATM he placed his suitcase between his legs, slid his card in, and typed down his pin number. He looked astonished for a while. His hand then hovered above the number pad, before he shook his head and pushed the button. The card came out, he took it and went back to the restaurants, to the door he went towards before. He got in and stood in line. He looked around for a while, then he closed his eyes and kept them closed until the girl behind the counter called at him, a few times, mister. He ordered a hamburger and a bottle of water. He paid with his card, took the receipt and stared at it while he ate, standing behind a table. He put the water in his bag and went to the platform of the Hamburg – Munich train. There he sat on the bench, placed his suitcase between his legs, his bag in his lap, stared straight ahead and went completely still. The train took off. JÜran raised his eyes and saw his fellow passenger in one of the windows that moved past him. The passenger showed him his raised index and middle fingers from a closed fist turned towards him. He held the fingers up until their gazes broke. JÜran looked at his watch, the time was a minute after one in the afternoon. He stared at the smooth movement of the second hand and said something. If anyone could hear him, they would know.

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A novella telling the story of an introverted IKEA designer on a train across Europe who is slowly being nudged into insanity by a fellow passenger after witnessing a crime.

“On the clock face such as yours there are, discounting the second hand, seven hundred and twenty different positions. There are one thousand four hundred and forty different positions on the digital clock face. They repeat every day, over and over again, and each of them could mean a certain specific thing.” “Oh,” said Jöran, glancing at his watch, “interesting.”

Profile for Jasmin B. Frelih

Directions  

A novella telling the story of an introverted IKEA designer on a train across Europe who is slowly being nudged into insanity by a fellow pa...

Directions  

A novella telling the story of an introverted IKEA designer on a train across Europe who is slowly being nudged into insanity by a fellow pa...

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