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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Family Clause

A Novel

Jonas Hassen Khemiri; Translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



A grandfather who is a father is back in the country he never left. He is standing in the queue for border control. If the officer behind the glass asks any suspicious questions, the father who is a grandfather will keep calm. He won’t call the officer a pig. He won’t ask whether the officer bought their uniform from a mail-order catalogue. Instead, he’ll smile and hold up his passport and remind the officer that he is a citizen of this country and that he has never been away for longer than six months. Why? Because his family lives here. His beloved children. His fantastic grandchildren. His deceitful ex-wife. He would never go away for more than six months. Six months is the max. He generally goes away for five months and thirty days. Sometimes five months and twenty-seven days.

The queue moves forward. The grandfather who is a father has two children. Not three. One son. One daughter. He loves them both. Especially the daughter. People say that they look like their father, but he can barely see any resemblance. They’ve got their mother’s height, their mother’s stubbornness, their mother’s nose. They’re really just small or, in fact, quite large copies of their mother, both of them. Especially the son. The son is so like his mother that the father who is a grandfather sometimes, quite often actually, feels like leaning in and head-butting him. Not that he ever does it. Of course he doesn’t. He restrains himself. He has lived in this country for long enough to know that feelings are bad. Feelings should be shut away in small, ideally labelled boxes, and not let out until you’ve got the manual ready, until the experts are in place, until an official inspector can take responsibility for what those feelings might unleash.

The queue has come to a standstill. No one gets angry. No one raises their voice. No one pushes anyone else. People just roll their eyes and sigh. The grandfather does the same. He remembers when he was a father. Parties and beach holidays, judo training and stomach bugs, piano lessons and end-of-term productions. He remembers the potholder his daughter, or possibly his son, made in Home Economics, embroidered with the words: World’s Best Dad. He was a fantastic father. He’s a fantastic grandfather. Anyone who claims otherwise is a liar.

When the father who is a grandfather reaches the border control booth, it takes only a few seconds for the uniformed woman on the other side of the glass to meet his eye, scan his passport and wave him through.

* * *

A son who is a father leaves for the office as soon as the children are asleep. He picks up the post with one hand and closes the inside door with the other. He loads the food into the fridge and throws the gym kit into one of the wardrobes. Before he takes out the vacuum cleaner, he does a couple of rounds with kitchen roll and a dustpan, getting rid of the past few days’ dead cockroaches from the kitchen, bathroom and hallway. He changes the bed sheets and towels, and fills the sink with water so that the dried-on coffee stains in the cups can start to clean themselves. He opens the balcony door and airs the room. He fills the bin in the kitchen with leaflets, withered kiwis, rock-hard mandarins, torn-up envelopes and brown apple cores. He checks the time and realises he is going to make it. He doesn’t really even need to rush.

He mops the floor in the hallway and kitchen. He cleans the bathtub, the sink and the toilet. Once he is done, he leaves the soap and sponge in the bathroom. He tells himself that if his father just sees them, there’s a greater chance he won’t leave the office in the same state as last time. And the time before that.

The son empties the capsules for the espresso machine into a plastic bag, then puts this plastic bag into a box and stashes the box at the back of the pantry. He puts the candles his sister gave him for his birthday into another bag, and hides them in the toolbox. The expensive cans of tuna and the jars of pine nuts and walnuts and pumpkin seeds go into the empty toner box on top of the fridge. He tips the change from the bowl in the hallway into the right-hand pocket of his jeans. Stashes his sunglasses in his backpack. He does one last lap. He’s finished. The office is ready for his father’s arrival. He checks the time. The father should be here now. He’ll be here any moment.

* * *

A father who is a grandfather is standing by the baggage carousel. All the suitcases look the same. They’re as shiny as spaceships, with wheels like skateboards. You can tell from a mile off that they were made by some junk manufacturer in Asia. His own case is solid. Made in Europe. It’s been going strong for over thirty years now, and will last another twenty at least. It doesn’t have any wheels that can break. It’s covered in stickers from now-bankrupt airlines. As he drags it off the conveyor belt, a young girl with the arms of a wrestler asks whether he needs any help. No thanks, the grandfather says with a smile. He doesn’t need any help. Especially not from strangers only offering to help in the hope of a bit of money in return.

He lifts the case onto the trolley and rolls towards the exit. There was some kind of technical fault with the plane. The passengers had to board, then disembark and board again. His children must have seen the delay on the internet. The son picks up the sister in his car. They drive north on the motorway. The son parks in the incredibly expensive short-stay car park and the daughter grabs the father’s stylish coat from the boot. Right now, they must be waiting on the other side. The daughter with her dazzling smile. The son with his headphones. They don’t need any presents. It’s enough that they’re here.

* * *

A son who is a father may as well try to get some work done while he waits for his father to arrive. After checking there aren’t any dead cockroaches in the kettle, he boils water for tea. He turns on his computer and goes through the end-of-year accounts for the Utsikten 9 housing cooperative. He logs in to the tax agency portal and requests extensions for a freelance journalist and a curator who are late with their receipts. He writes a list of things he needs to do before his daughter’s birthday party next Sunday. Remind the parents who haven’t yet RSVP’d. Prepare games. Buy balloons, paper plates, streamers, straws, juice, cake ingredients. String and clothes pegs for the fishing game. He turns to look out of the window. There’s no need to worry. Nothing has happened. The father is just a bit late.

In the past, the son always used to meet his sister at Cityterminalen when the father was on his way. They waited behind the glass on the benches opposite the bus stop, back to back, head to shoulder or head to thigh. Each time, the son checked the station clock and wondered where the father could be; the sister went to Pressbyrån and returned with a raspberry smoothie, a sandwich and a takeaway latte. He took off his headphones and let his sister listen to new tracks by Royce da 5'9", Chino XL and Jadakiss. The sister gave back the headphones, yawned and returned to the conversation about intimate hygiene she was having with a couple of pensioners waiting for the night bus back to Varberg. The son who wasn’t yet a father got up from the bench and walked over to the window. The sister who wasn’t yet a mother stretched out on the bench using her handbag as a pillow and fell asleep. Every fifteen minutes, a new airport bus. Still no father. The son sat down, got up, sat down again. A homeless man was woken by guards. Two taxi drivers played noughts and crosses or bet on horses. A couple of disoriented tourists left their bus and walked in one direction, only to return and walk in the other. He looked down at his sleeping sister. How could she be so calm? Didn’t she realise that something must have happened? Their father had been arrested. The military had grabbed him as he was boarding the plane, asked to see his passport, accused him of being a secret agent, a smuggler, a member of the opposition. Right now, he was in a bare cell, trying to convince the military that he was no relation to the prisoner who had set himself on fire in protest against the regime’s methods. We’re a big family, he said. Our surname’s a common one. I’m not a politician, I’m a salesman, and then he smiled his winning smile. If anyone can talk his way out of a cell, it’s him. Sit down and relax, the sister said when she woke. Breathe. Everything’s fine. Ninety minutes, said the son, shaking his head. It’s just strange that the plane landed ninety minutes ago and he still isn’t here. Relax, said the sister, forcing him back onto the bench. It’s not strange at all. First, he’ll wait until everyone else has left the plane, then he’ll grab the discarded papers and unopened bottles of wine. Then he’ll use his favourite toilet, collect his luggage and inspect his case. If it’s got the slightest scratch on it, which it always has, he’ll join the queue for claims, won’t he? The son nodded. He’ll report the damage to his case and the staff won’t know whether he’s being serious or not, because that case has been knocking around since World War II or something. They’ll tell him that they don’t pay compensation for wear and tear and he’ll get angry and shout that the customer is always right. Unless the woman behind the counter is young and pretty, said the son. Exactly, said the sister. Then he’ll smile and say that he understands. And then? asked the son. He was smiling now. Then he’ll go through customs, said the sister. And some inexperienced guard will think he’s hiding something. They’ll pull him to one side. They’ll ask questions. They’ll tell him to step into a back room and show them the contents of his bag. And what will they find? Nothing. His bag is practically empty. Aside from a couple of shirts and a bit of food. It always takes this long, said the sister. And you always get worked up over nothing.

Each time, they sat in silence. A bus arrived. Another bus arrived. When it pulled away, the father was standing on the pavement. Always wearing the same clothes. The same threadbare jacket. The same worn-down shoes. The same bag and the same smile and always the same first question: have you got my coat? The daughter and the son went out through the double doors. They helped him into his coat and took his case. They said welcome home, wondering every time whether home was really the right word.

* * *

A father who is a grandfather comes out into the arrivals hall. He meets the eyes of the people waiting. Their faces are blurred, like criminals on CCTV. Young women drinking takeaway tea. Bearded men in too tight trousers, checking their mobile phones. Two smartly dressed parents carrying a banner they haven’t yet unrolled, a relative filming them with a forearm standing straight up like a cobra. Several men are clutching bouquets and spare coats. The father knows the type. He’s seen them before. Swedish men, waiting for their Thai brides. They meet on the internet and get engaged without ever having met, and the men bring coats to the airport both to show that they’re kind and to avoid the girls being shocked by the cold. But kind men don’t need to order whore wives from the other side of the world, he thinks, walking towards the exit. He doesn’t try to find his children, because he knows they aren’t here. Still, he feels his gaze searching. His eyes hoping.

He sees a large African family; the men look like drug dealers. He sees a young Pakistani man with a birthmark beneath one eye, blinking firmly as if he is nervous or has just woken up. Probably queer. You can tell by his tight shirt and fluffy scarf. The grandfather keeps moving, past the twenty-four-hour café, past the taxi drivers with Swedish surnames and English companies scrawled on their signs. Past the currency exchange that has closed for the night and the round column with the big green stickers informing him that there is a defibrillator right here. What the hell is a defibrillator? If having a defibrillator is so important, why don’t they have them in all airports? No. It’s just here, in this strange country, that the politicians have decided the arrivals hall won’t be safe without a defibrillator.

The grandfather who no longer feels like a father pushes his trolley in the direction of the bus stop. He steps out into the gale. He has been travelling to and from this airport his entire life. Sun, rain, winter, summer. It makes no difference. The wind outside Terminal 5 is a constant. It’s like a hurricane, regardless of the weather. It transforms scarves into flags. Jackets into skirts. It’s so powerful that the people waiting for buses have to take shelter between the concrete pillars if they want to avoid giving an involuntary dance recital, two steps right, one step forward, as the wind laughs and whines in time.

He squints towards the electronic display. Fourteen minutes until the next bus. It must have just left. Fourteen hellish bloody minutes. His wife peeps out from behind a corner. Fourteen minutes! she shouts in a cheery voice. What a blessing that it isn’t 114! It’s freezing, he mutters. Invigorating, she says. No one has come to meet me, he says. I’m here, she says. I’m sick, he says. But what a blessing in disguise that it’s diabetes and not some other chronic illness, she says, because diabetes is easy to keep on top of; I’ve heard about diabetics who have been able to stop taking insulin just by changing their diets, and I bet you think it’s fun with all the needles and blood sugar tests, don’t you? I’m going blind, he says. But you can see me? she says. Yes, he says. What a blessing, she says with a smile. Her short hair flutters in the wind. A blessing in disguise. That was her mantra. Regardless of what happened. When the daughter’s classmate broke his arm, his wife’s first question was: right or left? Left, said the daughter. What a blessing in disguise, said the wife. He’s left-handed, said the daughter. Then he’ll have a chance to improve his right hand, said the wife. A blessing in disguise. The father smiles at the memory. The wind drops. Everything goes silent. The wife approaches, stroking his temple and kissing his cheek with lips as cold as lift buttons. By the way … she whispers. Wife? Why do you still think of me as your wife? We’ve been divorced for over twenty years. The wind is back. She is gone. His body is weak. There’s something wrong with his eyes. He just wants to go home. He doesn’t have a home. There are taxis. There’s the fast train. But he will wait for the bus. He always waits for the bus.

* * *

A sister who is a daughter but no longer a mother leaves the restaurant, hails a cab and says her address. Good meal? the taxi driver asks. Fine, says the sister. We were celebrating a friend’s birthday. She’s thirty-eight. Thirty-fucking-eight. The sister sighs. Time flies, says the taxi driver. It really does, she says. Do you have kids? the taxi driver asks. Thirty-eight, she says. I remember when my mum turned thirty-eight. She had all her paperwork in folders. She’d started her own business. She seemed so grown up and sorted. My friends all sleep around and work project to project. But maybe that’s how she felt about her friends, too, when she compared them to her parents, or what do you think? Very possible, says the taxi driver. Silence. Anyway, the food was good, she says. Have you ever eaten there? No, he says. Really good portions, she says. I hate it when you go somewhere and pay three hundred for a main course that doesn’t even fill you up. It’s really annoying, isn’t it? It is, he says. You want to be full. Exactly, she says. There was something wrong with the ventilation, though, she says. The whole place stunk of cooking. It was so strong I had to go outside for some fresh air so I didn’t throw up. The taxi driver meets her eye in the rear-view mirror. Silence. She takes out her phone. The first message is from eight thirty. Her brother writes that he is at the office, waiting for Dad. Damn, of course. Was it today their father was coming home? Next message, nine fifteen. He writes that their father still hasn’t arrived. Half nine. He writes that he’s starting to get worried. Ten fifteen. He writes that the plane is delayed and he’s going to head home soon. He asks her to call him. She checks the time. It’s half eleven. He’ll probably be asleep by now. They can talk tomorrow. The only thing bothering her is that the taxi driver seems to have applied his aftershave with a bucket. And whoever was in the back seat before her must have been a heavy smoker. The half-closed pack of wet wipes in the door compartment smells like artificial apricot, the driver’s tin of snus tobacco like moss. As the car leaves the tunnel, she has to open the window and move her nose towards the crack. Too hot? the driver asks. A bit, she says. He closes her window from the front seat and turns up the AC. She can hear herself breathing. Her mouth fills with saliva. Here’s fine, she says as soon as the taxi has left the roundabout. She hands him her card and climbs out of the back seat. She spends five minutes squatting down next to a flowerbed, then she starts walking home. She hasn’t thrown up. She isn’t going to throw up. But something is wrong. She feels like a superhero with the slightly dubious power of being able to detect every single smell within a several-block radius and then feel incredibly queasy as a result. The stench of hotdogs outside 7-Eleven. The dog shit by the bus stop. A man who smells of face cream. Her street smells like damp autumn leaves. She turns right and approaches her door. Footsteps behind her. They speed up. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything. A nocturnal jogger? Her hard-rock-loving neighbour, who saw her squatting down and wants to ask if she needs any help? Still, she takes out her keyring and gets ready. The keys are transformed into a knuckleduster. She is focused. The queasiness is gone. Eyes, balls. Eyes, balls. Take the initiative. Scream. Never let the attacker see your fear. She steels herself, turns around and walks straight towards the man who is following her. What do you want? she shouts. The man pulls a headphone from one ear. Sorry? Stop following me, she says. I live here, he says, pointing. Which number? she asks. Twenty-one, he says. There is no twenty-one, she says. Uh, yeah there is, he says. Because I live there. Which street? He says the name of the street. Okay, she says. Go. He hurries past with frightened eyes and a shaking head. He smells like buttery popcorn. She watches him leave. Once he disappears around the corner, she squats down again. Bloody restaurant. Bloody stinking taxi. Bloody disgusting leaves. She takes the lift and makes it to the bathroom just in time to throw up. Honey? the man who isn’t her boyfriend whispers from the other side of the bathroom door. Is there anything I can do? She doesn’t answer. She lies on her side on the bathroom floor until the world calms down.

There are the towel hooks without his towel. There’s the toothbrush holder without his toothbrush. There’s the shower curtain with the purple parrot on it, the one she only put up because the bathroom would be as steamy as a rainforest every time he took a shower, and she would have to change the roll of toilet paper. How could she be angry about a few puddles? There’s the bathroom cabinet in which he had the bottom shelf, because that was how high he could reach without having to climb up onto the white stool. He kept his deodorant and the disposable razors that he didn’t yet need on that shelf, along with the collection of moisturising creams she brought home from hotels whenever she went away with work. The bottom shelf in the bathroom cabinet is now empty, and, when the man who thinks he is her boyfriend put his clippers there without asking, she responded by throwing them in the bin.

When she comes out of the bathroom, the man who isn’t her boyfriend is playing with his phone on the sofa. Bit too much to drink? he says with a smirk. Not at all, she says. I was on fizzy water all evening. Didn’t feel like wine. He puts down his phone. What? she says. Why do you look so worried?

* * *

A son who is a father checks the time. Almost midnight. His sister hasn’t called. His girlfriend sent a message an hour ago. He replied that the plane was delayed and he was on his way home. He got ready to leave. But he didn’t leave. He doesn’t know why. He tries calling his father’s number abroad. Then the Swedish number. Both phones are switched off, or out of juice, or confiscated. He listens for the key in the lock. He thinks about when they stopped going to pick up their father from the bus station. Was it three years ago? Five? He can’t quite remember, but he suspects it was roughly around the same time he became a father and the father a grandfather. Something happened then, though the son is still responsible for the practicalities. He keeps an eye on his father’s bank account and post. He pays the bills, does his father’s tax return, cancels follow-up appointments and opens letters from the Social Insurance Agency. He is also responsible for giving the father somewhere to stay whenever he comes to visit. Regardless of whether he’s here for ten days or four weeks. That’s how it has always been. That’s how it will always be.

The son takes his mug into the kitchen. When he switches on the light, he hears the scuttling of cockroaches vanishing behind the oven. From the corner of one eye, he sees the shadow of two disappearing beneath the freezer. On the sink unit, a glossy red cockroach is sitting perfectly still, trying to be invisible, its antennae swaying in the air. The son leaves the mug on the hob and slowly reaches for a piece of kitchen roll. He wets the paper, kills the cockroach, wipes up after it and then throws the paper straight into the toilet, to avoid spreading any more eggs. The sticky blue paper traps from Anticimex have been in place for several weeks now. The man with the poison was here last Thursday, spraying new lines of toothpaste-like death cream between the oven and the counter, between the fridge and the freezer. And yet they still keep coming. There are two kinds, one slightly blacker, the other slightly redder, but when they eat poison and die, they do it the same way. On their backs with their legs folded up. Their long antennae wave back and forth like blades of grass. They look so harmonious as they lie dead, ready to be crushed by a damp piece of kitchen roll. He always uses one sheet per cockroach. The roll lasts longer that way. If he accidentally takes two pieces, he has to kill two cockroaches; that makes it fairer for everyone and means he doesn’t have to waste money buying kitchen roll all the time. That wasn’t his voice, it was his father’s. One piece at a time, he always used to shout through the door when you were on the toilet. Two pieces if you’re wetting them. I’m wetting them, the son said. Then you can have two pieces, said the father. The son took two squares, dampened them and wiped. Now another piece to check you’re clean, the father instructed. Just use the whole roll, the mother shouted from the kitchen. Don’t listen to her, said the father. The son did as he was told. All his bloody life, he has done as he has been told. Time to change that, he thinks, grabbing a pen. He doesn’t write that this will be the last time his father stays here. He doesn’t write that he wants to break the family clause – the father clause. Instead, he writes: Welcome, Dad. Hope you had a good flight. Here’s your post. Let me know you arrived safely when you can, so I don’t have to worry that something happened.

The son turns out the lights and steps into the stairwell. He locks the inner door, the outer door and the security lock. Then, just to be on the safe side, he checks that he has locked the security lock. He leaves the building and starts making his way home. Turns back to double-check that he didn’t forget to lock the security lock when he was checking that he had locked the security lock. He passes the square where the pub is being renovated. He passes the food store on the corner, run by the kind but confused old man who seemed to live in the shop but now appears to have shut up for good. He passes the chained-up signs for Hälsan Thai Massage and K & N Hair, the green throne-like urinal and the notice board covered in photocopied A4 sheets advertising dog walking (‘Devoted Dog Lover Since 1957!’), feminist stand-up, bike repairs and Zumba classes. He passes the metro station, the espresso bar that has shut down, the dry-cleaner’s that has shut down. He is about to nod to the spot where the beggar usually sits, but it’s empty, nothing but a couple of blankets, an empty bowl and a piece of cardboard with a picture of the beggar’s children on it. The son turns left onto the footpath. He takes the gravel track that has recently been tarmacked, past the big Astroturf football pitch, the red changing room and the clump of trees where, for several days now, a fallen tree has been waiting for someone to remove it. He passes the villas, the roundabout, the building site. Did you see him? his sleepy girlfriend mumbles as he crawls into bed beside her. Not today, he whispers.

Copyright © 2018 by Jonas Hassen Khemiri

English translation copyright © 2020 by Alice Menzies