Åsa Strålande realized, the instant the third Jägermeister touched her lips, that there might never be a better moment to leave NSA. Sure, she’d managed to drink many more shots here on previous occasions—and not just Jäger but Gammel Dansk and Minttu, too—but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that five beers, one tequila and three Jägermeisters—let alone five, or fifteen—was not going to cure her insomnia. And let’s not even get started on the amnesia.
Nevertheless, to her credit, Åsa finished the shot, placed the empty glass back on the bar and said to the barman, Mikael (who had seen all of this before):
—Micke, jag är klar.
Ever the professional, Micke took the shot glass away and brought her a small water.
—Tack, said Åsa, emptying the glass in one long, exaggerated gulp, and signalling for a second. Micke brought her a Loka Citron instead.
—Så, var är han nu?
—Ja. Herr Märsta.
Åsa and Micke exchanged an awkward grin.
—Han åker till Märsta med tåget. Hemma.
More smiles. Pause.
—Vi ses nåsta vecka, Micke?
—Ja, visst. Ta det lungt, Åsa.
Åsa fought her way through the post-gig crowd towards the door, but not before running into Jakob, bass player with Efter Pausen, tonight’s headline act.
—Heeeeej, Jakob purred, his face still covered with sweat from what tomorrow’s Dagens Nyheter would be sure to describe as a fantastiskt gig, were it not for the fact that Efter Pausen—not to mention NSA—were so far to the left of DN’s target audience that any mention of the band—whose style was firmly in the ‘wall of stop-start noise-mayhem’ category, and whose debut EP, Att Minnas, had not even hit Bandcamp yet, and whose line-up tended to shift and change depending on which members were in town at any given moment—in the DN reviews section might as well be considered a minor miracle.
—Hej, Jakob. Häftigt.
—Tack, tack. Detsamma.
—Ha ha. Ha det så bra, man.
Jakob nodded, looking at his beer, which was almost empty.
—Skål? he not so much asked as joked.
—Ja, visst. Hej då.
The crowd milling in front of the cramped stage area parted for a moment to allow Jakob in and then he disappeared from view. Åsa continued upwards on her journey towards the exit of the club, climbing the stairs to the mezzanine level, where the musical vibe was subtly Nordic metal, and then up one more set of stairs to the casual-themed ‘street’ bar, whose soundtrack was provided by a mix of Melodifestivalen and Lilla Melodifestivalen covers courtesy of a semi-visible duo in the corner advertising themselves as Strax. Åsa felt herself going against the flow as she headed for the door, barely recognizing the band’s execrable version of Danny Saucedo’s ‘Amazing’ as she brushed against multiple sweat-drenched t-shirts and leather-Thunderdome armbands, bumping into the odd friend, acquaintance or—okay, let’s be honest—one-night-stand along the way.
The queue outside was still snaking along the footpath, even though it was late November, and bitterly cold, and NSA would only be open for another hour or so. Down the street, an even longer queue was slithering in slow-motion towards the entrance to Smashed Hits, the less said about which, at this point, the better.
—Leaving us already, Åsa? asked the doorman, Danny Gloucester, who may or may not have been instructed earlier in the night to let Åsa and her date for the evening (the afore-mentioned Niklas) in for free, and who may also have been harbouring a crush on Åsa for several years.
—Your accent is fading fast, Glock. Better get back to England before you turn Swedish. Eller hur? Åsa added, with a wink.
—Ha ha, ‘ja precis’, or whatever, said Glock, who was nowhere near as bad-assed as his nickname implied, and who had in truth been living in Stockholm for so long that his Swedish was almost intelligible.
Åsa grinned encouragingly.
—SÅsa, big night, hej?
—Oh, huge! Efter Pausen, wow, what can I say? Heavy. I mean, häftigt, eller hur?
—Mitt i prick, Glock. Mitt. I. Prick.
—Lulz. Take care, Åsa.
—I will. Hej då.
The back streets of Östermalm were normal, as they usually are late at night, in any season but, when she turned onto Birger Jarlsgatan, Åsa was hit by the perennial tragedy that is the top end of town at closing time. She headed for the Östermalmstorg T-bana entrance, passing a dizzy parade of girls mostly younger than herself in short skirts or cocktail dresses, congregating in the gutter or lining up to get into clubs that were nowhere near as exclusive as the drink prices implied, pretending to ignore their boy chaperones with razor-sharp haircuts, tailored pants and bow ties that could not never be mistaken for ironic. Older couples gave these privileged street waifs a wide berth, strolling arm-in-arm as if through a bygone era, when Stureplan was the refuge of old sea captains and clubs like Smashed Hits did not exist. The occasional tiggare could be seen threading through the crowds, and one or two more slept in seemingly permanent encampments below the windows of TGI Friday’s, huddled in their Nordic winter-proof sleeping bags, like dark blue silkworms, not even their faces visible. Åsa looked for a little paper Pressbyran cup in which to drop fem kronor but, finding none, slipped the coin back inside the warm pocket of her fleecy jacket.
The short trip to the subway entrance had stripped the sheen from Åsa’s Jäger buzz, and by the time she hit the escalators she was wide awake again. Åsa stood to the right as she descended, the people passing her—possibly hurrying to catch the Ropsten tunnelbana before the buses to Lidingö stopped, or possibly just drunk—smelt of aftershave, alcohol and the international scent of subway tunnels. Those heading up in the opposite direction towards Östermalmstorg and what passes for crazy in Scandinavia leaned forwards as if to try and taste the champagne they hoped soon to be chugging. Åsa let the escalator take her where it would, although there was obviously only one way it could go—unless some joker flipped a switch somewhere and sent them all shuddering in reverse.
The first train to arrive at the platform was named Jan Erik, and he was headed for Norsborg. Åsa watched as he disgorged his passengers, then admitted most of those who were waiting on the platform. A warning sound announced the imminent closing of the steel doors, and Jan Erik was gone. The LED board indicated that the Fruangen train was due in a couple of minutes, which Åsa spent staring vacantly at the subway art on the opposite wall of the tunnel. Gradually, the platform filled again and the blue train, whose name was Frida, arrived. This time, almost all of her passengers got out, leaving Åsa to experience one of Stockholm’s rare late-night pleasures: a four-seat cluster all to herself.
Åsa looked at her reflection in the window but all she could see was her black beanie and the outline of her pale face, featureless. She turned quickly away and checked her phone for messages, of which there was only one: an offer from Media Markt featuring an image of the company’s infamous maniacal pink puppet, Mark, a swimming pool, some kind of all-in-one home sound system and a banner flashing the word SLUTREA. With a swipe she consigned the message to her trash folder, regretting, not for the first time, that she had ever signed up to receive beta versions of these promotional campaigns—although, as Åsa would also be the first to admit, she’d done so at the behest of her ex-boyfriend, Per, and these cheesy communiqués from the far side of bogan capital were her one remaining link to his long-gone downy moustache and semi-serious affection for Allsång.
Three young men got on at T-Centralen, shattering Åsa’s momentary trip down melody lane when they crashed-landed, drunk, into the vacant seats in her cluster. However, they paid her little attention at first, pulling beers from purple Systemet bags and proceeding to drink, leisurely, and with laid-back conversation. Between sips, they passed around a small bottle of aquavit. One of them offered the bottle to Åsa, who waved it away. Perhaps relieved, he returned to his friends’ conversation.
It seemed, according to Åsa’s slightly bewildered understanding, that this guy had just had a tattoo inked on his left arm but was having doubts about its aesthetic and artistic merits. His two friends naturally demanded to see said tattoo and so, putting his beer on the floor of the train, the boy took off his heavy coat, rolled up the sleeve of his fitted FCUK shirt and pointed, not exactly proudly but with some conviction, at the hideous train-wreck someone had just charged him 4000 SEK—or was it 5000—to permanently mark there in blue-green ink, glistening under its temporary cling-wrap skin.
The two boys gasped simultaneously and then roared with laughter.
—Fy faaaaaan! One of them swore, while the other almost spat out the beer he had just chugged but managed to say nothing.
—Vad? Asked the tattooed one, a note of panic entering his voice.
—Precis, answered his friend, still laughing. Vad är det?
—Nej, seriös. Vad är det? Jag vet inte.
—Ser du inte?
—Nej. Ingen aning, kille. Ingen-fy fan-jävla-aning. Jösses!
—Hålla truten! Vad tycker du?
Åsa realized the distressed boy was speaking to her, and managed to tear herself away from staring at the garbled ink for a second or so to register the pleading look in his eye.
—Egentligen, she said, pointing to the now-half-empty bottle of snaps, kanske ska jag ta en liten sip, bara en eller två centilitres. Är det okej?
The first friend passed her the bottle eagerly, and she took several swigs—each of around six centilitres, but hey, who was counting—before handing it back. Despite the aquavit’s strength, she could clearly see that, despite their drunkenness, all three of them were waiting for her response.
—Jag tycker att det ser ut som ett kvinna—eller en man. Nej, vänte—
But the two friends had already burst into laughter again, if anything even more uproariously this time.
—Jösses, vad roligt. En kvinna–man!
—Ha ha ha ha ha! Jättebra!
—Daniel Johannson, en kille med en kvinna–man tatuering! Eller hur?
Even Åsa had to laugh at that. Humiliated, the boy yanked at his sleeve, struggled back into his coat and made as if to get up. Still laughing, his friends placated him, but he sat there in silence until Frida pulled into Hornstull, at which point he sprang up and exited the train without further comment.
—Förlåt mig, Åsa apologized as the two remaining boys hurried to collect their beer cans.
—Ingen fara, said the one who had first passed her the aquavit. Det är inte första gången.
—Oj, vad trist, said Åsa, smiling.
He offered her the almost empty bottle once more.
—Tack, she beamed.
—Vad heter du? he asked as the second friend began to drag him out of the train.
—Åsa, she answered. Åsa Strålande.
—Jag heter Karl, he shouted from the platform. Ta det lungt, Åsa Strålande!
Frida accelerated out of the station and into the relative safety of the tunnel bored out of the bedrock under the body of water dividing Hornstull from Lijleholmen. Åsa looked around her at last to find that not only was the train packed with people returning to the suburbs from beer missions in Mariatorget and Zinkensdamm, but that those nearest to her cluster had of course been listening in on her conversation with the three boys. A young couple in the cluster opposite her grinned openly but did not go so far as to say anything to her, their smiles passing for what, in Stockholm terms, was honestly just a little over-the-top.
At Liljeholmen almost everyone got out again, leaving Åsa sitting there, for the second time that night, alone in her cluster, experiencing a moment of inner-city stillness, holding the aquavit bottle with both hands as if she were praying. By the time she got out at Midsommarkransen she had completely forgotten about Niklas, NSA, Efter Pausen and the rest. Perhaps it was the crystalline effect of the aquavit moving through her system like some kind of memory disinfectant, an amnesiac tunnelbana for the brain, or the fireman in the Galieve commercial, hosing away her heartburn with his soothing blast of creamy gooze.
There were probably two shots worth of aquavit remaining in the bottle. Åsa walked up the ramp from the station, turned right onto Svandammsvägen and looked up to the clouds that might well be harbouring snow. The cars on the E4 purred in the distance but Kransen was otherwise silent, although not eerily so. She punched in her doorcode, took a penultimate swig from the bottle and got in the elevator, sitting down in the little collapsible wooden stool. She was slightly relieved to look in the wall-length mirror and see that her face, which had appeared featureless in the train window’s reflection, had returned to its natural state. Her lips, however, were chafed from the cold, and she had what looked like the beginnings of a cold sore in the corner of her mouth.
Once inside her etta, Åsa removed most of her clothes and went into the bathroom to pee before taking three Treos dissolved in a large glass of water as a precautionary measure. She checked her phone for messages one last time before connecting it to its charger. She’d left the window slightly open before going out that night, just to freshen up the air in the flat, but she closed it now and drew the curtains. The almost empty bottle of aquavit stood on the sink, its label coming off slightly. Åsa drank the last couple of centilitres, turned off the light and not so much lay down as fell onto her single bed.
The amnesia falls away like a shot glass slipping from her grasp. The glass shatters on the tiled floor of some faraway imaginary bar and she finds herself walking, as she always does, through the allotments in Tantolunden. The evening air is cool but it could be late summer. The twilight blends with the electric glow of the lamps to create a milky, aquamarine effect. She is walking . . . but that is it. The memory is too choked up for her to progress any further. She sees the man’s head, or the back of it at least. Then there is her hand, and the rock, and she is finally, terrifyingly, asleep.