I’ve been thinking about my mother, and the summer I lied about Nisse Hofmann. For six long weeks the weather had been sweltering; you could be outside all day and never feel a breeze. I was turning eleven in September, but the hot days passed so slowly it felt like my birthday would never arrive. The birch tree on the lawn outside our apartment block stood still as a sentry; not a branch moved. Its bark grew dusty, and its leaves hung like rags. During the day, when there was no one else around, it was like the world had stopped.
In spring Mum and I had moved from Stockholm to this new estate outside the city. Everything was spotless and uniform, right down to the birch on the lawn outside each building. Lots of people wanted to live there, but Mum’s boyfriend Anders knew someone at the housing company. It was Anders who had said we should leave our old place, because it was small and it was falling apart. He said this was the way to live: with room to move and green space around you. What only occurred to me later was that he didn’t like the old apartment because Mum had lived there with my dad. And with me, but he had died a long time before, when I was too young to remember anything. ‘He was fine and then he got sick and then he died,’ is how Mum explained it. ‘Just like that,’ she said, clapping her hands together as if she was knocking flour from them. After we moved to the new place, away from my father’s ghost, Anders tried calling me his little girl, but he didn’t try for long.
Our building was long and rectangular and spectacularly white. It had four floors and four stairwells: A, B, C and D. We lived in 4B, on the second floor. On my bedroom wall I had a big poster map of the world and in my bedside drawer I kept a sheet of stickers, red and blue. The red stickers were for the countries I had been to, and the blue stickers were for countries I wanted to visit. The only countries with red stickers on them were Denmark and Sweden. Sometimes I took the sticker off Sweden because it felt like cheating, but sooner or later I always put it back. Over time the number of blue stickers grew: France, Ireland, Russia, Spain, Brazil, America, Yugoslavia. I picked countries because I liked the way their names sounded, or because I saw them on a television programme, or because I read about them in my mum’s travel guide, a thick paperback I would heave into my lap and read for hours. Some, like Japan, I just liked the shape of.
Nisse Hofmann lived on the second floor too, one stairwell along. He was the same age as me, and he didn’t have a dad either. Not only did our apartments neighbour each other, our bedrooms were right beside each other, too. I would see him at his window fixing stickers to the glass. From the outside you could only see their white backs, but from the shape of them I could tell they were soldiers and planes and cars. At night sometimes I would get out of bed and press my ear against the wall, trying to hear him.
Nisse’s mum was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She had white-blonde hair and was so pretty that she looked cruel. I didn’t understand how someone like her could exist in a place as boring as our apartment block. She seemed to be struggling with the same thought: I never once saw her look happy, but it didn’t affect her beauty. My mum was pretty in her way, but the worry she always seemed to be feeling about one thing or another worked its way into the lines of her face and became the only thing you saw. I don’t like looking in mirrors, but when I do it’s her face that stares out at me. Except I’m much older now than she ever was.
When I saw Mrs Hofmann with different men I would wonder if they were as bad as Anders, or maybe even worse. In the night, now and then, I wondered if Nisse’s ear was ever pressed to the same patch of wall as mine, with just a few centimetres between us. I could see his blond hair glowing in the darkness of his room.
Not that I liked Nisse. He would tear around the apartment blocks like an animal, stamping on flowers and hitting the trees. He would soak a patch of dry earth and make the mud into discs he threw at other boys, then chase after girls with his black, slimy hands stretched out towards them. I kept myself away from those games. I played with other children from the estate sometimes, but not Nisse.
One day I saw a group of seven or eight children huddled over something at the corner of my block. They were standing and kneeling in the soil of a flowerbed, absorbed by something I couldn’t see. Curious, I peered over their backs to find out what was so fascinating.
‘What is it?’ I asked, unable to see between their tightly packed bodies.
Just then Nisse, who had been hidden at the centre of the huddle, stood up, forcing everyone back. ‘Only this,’ he said as he turned and I saw a small blur rush towards me. Automatically I reached out to catch it: a dead mouse. It was only in my hands for a moment before I threw it to the ground, shuddering at the cold, rigid density of it, its fur spiky and sticky with dirt. The feel of it clung to my hands. Everyone around me was laughing.
‘Dirty thing!’ I screamed at Nisse.
I ran crying to my apartment, and eventually – when my mum had established I wasn’t hurt in any way – I told her what had happened. ‘Right,’ she said, and left the apartment. I went to the window and watched her come out of our door and walk across to the next stairwell. That night I didn’t need to put my ear to the wall: I could clearly hear Mrs Hofmann shouting at Nisse, although I couldn’t make the hoarse, gruff voice I heard fit with her beauty. It was as if their apartment contained another woman who only appeared when someone had to be punished. Later, long after the shouting had stopped, I sat up in bed and pressed my ear to the cool wall. I remember smiling when I heard, very faintly, the sound of Nisse crying.