A pig, a cow, an Östervalla resident
There was a saying that used to be shouted at local soccer and hockey games where I grew up that went “En gris, en ko, en Östervallabo!” which roughly translates to “A pig, a cow, an Östervalla resident!” It rhymes nicely in Swedish, trust me. People would say that the municipality had more horses than people.
It was something I would come to hear on more than one occasion during my years there, despite living in the civilized part of Östervalla, almost on the border to the neighboring Nybacka, and about half an hour north of the capital city of Stockholm. The rest of my home borough was nothing like where I lived. The single floor row houses surrounded by meadows and trees down by a lake was a rarity.
The rest was made up of forests and acres upon acres of wheat or some other grain, often with a sprinkle of fresh horseshit. I had been horseback-riding for the entire previous year, the year I turned six years old. I started doing it merely because my sister did it, and whenever I did something she did, it made her angry, which made me happy. I felt a bit sorry for my dad though, he had to run along next to the horse to make sure it didn’t eat me or something. All the parents did. It looked hilarious.
It all started when I was seven and I was abruptly woken up by my mother’s shrill singing voice, on my first day of school. What was it that started, you may ask? The thing that eventually, many years down the road, made me start writing what you’re reading right now.
“Wakey, wakey, rise and shine, it’s a beautiful sunny day,” my mother sang with an opera-like voice as she entered the room, imitating the old landlord she had had on the horse-riding camp in England she went to when she was twelve back in the second half of the seventies. It was now the very early 2000s. She sang this even when the day in question was neither sunny nor beautiful, which annoyed me. She was one of those people who could stuff her face with pounds of crisps and chocolate and never gain an ounce. Or if she did, it didn’t show. She kept her hair short due to its lack of volume and shininess, I had only ever seen her with long hair in photos. Photos I was in, but couldn’t remember being taken. Her eyes were blue but not very striking, they were a shade of light blue… I think, or maybe I just can’t remember, looking her straight in the eye makes me uncomfortable. More on that later.
I started out in life as a blonde, but my hair grew darker and darker as I gradually became more and more evil. That’s only kind of a joke. My hair was long because I didn’t like going to the hairdressers. You had to sit still and talk. Two of my least favorite things to do at the time. Socks were already on my feet as I slid out of bed, I slept with them on because I didn’t like to be barefoot. I even walked out on the lawn with them on.
To shut up my parents who constantly nagged me about it when I did it, I had once said that the particular pair of socks that were on my feet at that precise moment was my “outdoor socks,” something that apparently was hilarious because they still joked about it even though it had happened over a year ago now. Light was already trickling in around the edges of the curtains and when my mother let them fly up towards the ceiling, the room was flooded with light. It was about seven in the morning, but since it was August, it had been daylight for about four hours.
The room had remained the same since I was an infant. The walls were still yellow with little tufts of grass and white teddy bears on them. It didn’t really bother me much, I tried to cover some of them up with a poster, but since the poster was of Mickey Mouse, the childish level didn’t exactly decrease. Dad was already in the kitchen. He was tall, six foot five, and rather slim, with a bit of a belly grudgingly pouting out at the middle. He had long dark brown hair, which lay flat against his head, pulled out into a long ponytail ending at the top of his back, which was scarred heavily with marks from old pimples from his late teens. His face was largely covered by a full beard, which was dark and bushy. The beard was twice as fluffy as his hair which made him look nothing like Jesus (or the regular white, historically inaccurate, depiction of Jesus), which you might assume when a man has long hair and a big beard.
Before starting proper school, at six years old, you had to do a year of preschool after leaving daycare. Nowadays, everything is called preschool, even what used to be called daycare. So, at the age of six and a half, I first met the people I would start my formal education with at Härnöstuna elementary school, about a mile from my house down by the lake.
We were only twenty kids in the class, with a slight tilt to the boys’ side, with nine girls and eleven boys. I liked my friends, but I thought that they could be a bit childish and slightly gullible. Not that I wasn’t. Like everybody else, I was just six years old, and at that age, you’re nothing but childish and gullible. But there were times when I caught a glimpse of something that I felt I was not supposed to catch, at least judging from the other’s behavior.
Once during lunch, the topic of smoking had come up, and how cool it was. This was 2001, and smoking had yet to be seen as making out with an ashtray. They told each other how much their parents and older siblings smoked, what brands they knew, which were the best, and what they were going to smoke as soon as they got the chance.
One of the boys, Patrik, had even been offered one by his big sister’s boyfriend, but his sister had slapped down his outstretched hand inches from the Camel cigarette. Both of my parents smoked, but I had been silent so far, not feeling like contributing to the conversation. I didn’t think it particularly interesting and I had no plans to start smoking.
Maybe cigars, like my dad. I liked the smell of the smoke as he puffed. Dad mostly smoked Bellman, and sometimes Ritmeister, smaller cigars which didn’t take half an hour to smoke, and which didn’t cost an outrageous amount of money like the larger ones of the Cuban variety did. Bellman was a brand named after the Swedish poetry writer Carl Michael Bellman, who lived in Stockholm during the 18th century, but who is famous nowadays because of the so-called “Bellman-stories.” Most told and known by every single kid by the age of five, went thusly:
A Russian, a German, and a Bellman decided to bet who could stand being in a pigsty the longest. The Russian went first. After one minute, the Russian came running out of the sty yelling “The pig farted, the pig farted!” Then it was the German’s turn. After two minutes, the German came running out of the sty yelling “The pig farted, the pig farted!” Then it was Bellman’s turn. This time, after thirty seconds, the pig came running out of the sty yelling, “Bellman farted, Bellman, farted!”
Yeah, these stories were not the height of prose in any manner of speaking. Hence their popularity among the tiny fools we all call children.
As we were sitting there, I thought that the conversation had become a bit ludicrous. Smoking isn’t that cool, is it? I thought. It gave you cancer, I knew that much. Eventually, as they were talking about how much people they knew smoked, few smoked more than one pack a day, I blurted out, unable to hold it in any longer, my voice drawling with sarcasm: “Oh yeah, I smoke two packs of Marlboro every day.”
They all looked at me in awe. The air seemed to have thickened, I was suddenly the coolest person in the world. Some looked at me with something like fright on their faces, like I was the head of the Italian mafia and I required a favor from them. When we had sat in silence for a few awkward seconds, I said slowly “That… was a joke,” as if I was explaining that you have to pull the handle down to open a door. “Oh,” most of them said with a nervous, forced chuckle.
I had trouble understanding how they couldn’t have understood that the whole thing was a joke. My voice, how I had said it, and the impossibility of a six-year-old smoking two packs of Marlboro cigarettes every day, had made it so obvious. Yet, they had all wholeheartedly believed that I was telling them the truth. Sure, for a joke it might not have been that funny, but come on, I couldn’t have been more obvious unless I had written the word “Sarcastic” across my forehead before I said it. Something about that moment gave me an inkling of the social struggles I would later face.
I had only been to the school’s soccer field once since the break time was never long enough to run around the entire school only to find a gravel soccer field filled with intimidating older kids. I had a vivid memory of the first and only time I had been there. It was after school, a few of us boys from the class had stayed behind, as many kids did every day when they were still too young to be trusted to walk home alone with keys to the house. This after-school-time was also divided into different parts of the school, with only the older kids staying after school being allowed to go to “The Club.”
The club was the school’s safe room, (you know you need one when you have the Russians to the east and everyone is threatening each other with nuclear bombs, as was the case back when the place was built) which had been made into a recreational area with a ping-pong table, sofas, board games, and a kitchen, since the chance of a nuclear bomb landing on the school was since many years more or less non-existent.
But on this special day, we had been allowed to do the long walk through the school, go past the dining hall and the club, exit on the other side and run out onto the gravel soccer field in the setting sun. It was early June and there were only a few days left of the school year. The glow from the sun warmed the roof of the school and left a third of the field in shadow. The sun had been shining all day, the gravel was dry as dust, dust that rose from the ground at the slightest touch.
The rays shone through it, causing the air to be filled with the only form of warm fog I’ve ever experienced. We were about six boys, and even though that was far too few to play on even half the pitch, we divided ourselves up into teams of three. But before we started playing, we had to decide who we were playing as.
Tommy immediately shouted out “Liverpool!” From the other side of the pitch, the boy next to me, Samuel, answered “Tottenham!” but he was interrupted by Lukas “No, no, no we’re the Brazilians, everyone knows they’re the best.” I had no idea who Liverpool, Tottenham, or the Brazilians were, but it didn’t really matter. The goalposts were made out of dark worn wood. They didn’t have any nets and had probably been there since the seventies at the very least. We ran around in the dust till our throats were sore and the sun had disappeared behind the trees on the other side of the school, making the temperature drop fast.
Lukas was my best friend back when I was six years old. He was half-American, and he looked at it. (Not that all Americans look the same, just that the vast majority of the kids in the class had blue eyes and were very white, both physically and mentally, whatever that means). He had dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, and a complexion that was not as pale as the rest of us. He had a scar on his left cheek, there were a few dark lines like someone had scraped his cheek with a broken, rusty fork. His face had a shred of a squirrel look about it. It was like his face narrowed off towards the end, with a skinny nose and large front teeth.
We had spent a lot of time together, mostly at Lukas’s house, and his American mom, Lily from Oklahoma, had taken a liking to me. The last time I had been over, she had even bent down and kissed me on the cheek and said that I was “Such a little gentleman” in her strong American accent. Within the next decade, she would be dead… from cancer, Jesus, did you think I did it!?
In my class at Härnöstuna, there was only one girl who would join in with the boys in our preferred activity during breaks of smashing our parallel classes in a game of soccer or floorball, which was a kind of hockey we played in the street. Her name was Frida. She was a tall girl, probably even taller than me. Like Lukas, she also had dark brown hair and eyes.
Frida had guts, she was the kind of girl that would join in the pile of boys on the ground after a successful game, piles in which I would generally be at the bottom of since I was too heavy to be on top of anyone else. A pile of this kind was aptly called a “Böghög” or faggot-pile to be clear since small boys in the year 2000 couldn’t possibly touch each other in any way without prefacing it with some healthy homophobia.
Frida and most of the other girls in the class were most interested in Arlo, a boy with a staggering amount of charisma radiating from him. He had been adopted from Ecuador, and his distinct blackness in a room full of pasty white kids made him stand out, as did his large front teeth which gave him the look of a beaver.
All of this probably helped the girls like him the best, he was always at the top of the list of guys to “be with,” something which was almost always only for show, since you basically just asked if you had a chance with them and then you were together, but the actual relationship was more or less non-existent. Unlike my paternal grandmother, I didn’t have to wait until my early twenties to see a non-white person, so while I did see Arlo encounter racism first hand over the coming years, I never saw it from anyone within this class.
During our first day of first grade, Arlo sat next to a boy called Peter, a boy with glasses, his blond hair encasing his head like a bucket. I had the impression that he was a bit slow. It was quite obvious, from the never closed, slightly drooling mouth, to the unfocused eyes that always seemed to be glancing out of the window at something far away from reality. And of course, the fact that he consistently managed to ignore his runny nose.
Our new teacher, a woman in her late thirties called Veronika, talked with a slight accent and glowed with enthusiasm. She was quite tall or rather looked quite tall since she was thin and a little above average height. She had strong cheekbones and a slim long nose with freckles all over it, which sprawled away on the top of her cheeks and under her glittering blue eyes which were sparkling with joy. As it was our first day, Veronika thought it would be a good idea to show us around the school, a lot of which we hadn’t seen despite having completed a year of preschool there. She set off, with twenty-six-and-seven-year-olds tottering after her.
“The gymnasium is through here,” Veronika said as she opened the door to a room off the building’s main corridor. It led into a dingy changing room, there were stiff wooden benches with black metal poles reaching towards the ceiling, joining together on top to make room for countless silver hooks.
“This is the girls changing room, the boys are one door down from here,” said Veronika. The group giggled. I didn’t. I quickly realized that the giggling was the result of the thought that had just popped up in everyone’s heads: The girls were going to be naked in here. Even though none of them had an ounce of hormones and still considered the opposite sex somewhat icky, this was apparently worth giggling about.
I saw a glint in Veronika’s eyes and the hint of a smile. But she didn’t say anything. She probably thought it too early in their companionship to start talking about the birds and the bees. We were only seven years old, if she started talking about bangin’, most of us probably wouldn’t understand anything anyway. We had basically only seen our own stuff, and possibly some siblings’ and parents’ stuff, depending on your family’s general view on nudity and other such things.
Although, it was quite common for adults and children to note that someone’s fly was down by saying: “Have you been to a girls’ party?” This showed the sexual liberalism the Swedes possessed by suggesting to a small boy that since his fly was down that it must mean that he just left an orgy where he fucked other children and probably acquired chlamydia. Or maybe that he just took out his willy for shits and giggles. One of the two.
We all went through to the gymnasium, which was equally dingy to the changing room we had just left, but it looked like something that had aged with dignity. The walls were wooden with and the soccer slash handball goals were painted on, the room was so small that if the goals had actually been sticking out of the walls, it would have cut the field in half.
Basketball hoops and mattresses were hanging in the ceiling, waiting to be winched down using ancient cables which could probably be deemed snappable. The longer walls were covered with wall bars and benches that could be taken off and “played with,” however, you couldn’t really play with a bench. It was more for shielding off one game of something from another game of something else when we somehow managed to play more than one thing in the tiny space.
The gym not looking entirely like garbage was due to the natural lighting. Sunlight was streaming in from windows at the top of one of the walls and two at the bottom. The windows at the bottom were propped open, the wind rushing through with the noise of leaves fighting against the wind, making the room feel a lot less like the craphole it actually was. Unlike the changing rooms, which truly looked and felt like the shitholes filled to the brim with garbage that they were, lit by mellow, but at the same time headache-inducing fluorescent lights, the green-grey walls in the shade of boogers, the gross yet sterile showers and the dark sauna where you could see about half of the wood-clad room and the malfunctioning thermometer in the shadow of the barely functioning lamp, the only source of light.
It was all optimal for the making of traumatic memories of being whipped with a wet, rolled-up towel. I wasn’t worried, I was larger compared to everyone else, and the only time during the previous year that I had gotten hurt was when I had managed to slam my own face into a table, making my nose drip big drops of blood. We left through the boys’ changing rooms, the difference from the girls’ was quite distinct. It was dirtier, the bathroom mirror was cracked, and if you smelled thoroughly enough you would soon realize that what you just inhaled was the smell of piss.
During break, we usually either played smash or floorball. I didn’t like smash because it basically came down to protecting your little square within a square from someone else bouncing the basketball in your square and then for it to get lost in oblivion. Then you were out and sent to the back of the line of people waiting to tag in. It was a game where you screwed people over.
Arlo seemed to like it exactly because of this reason. It was okay if the line wasn’t too long, because if it was, I would stand there fuming with anger at someone still in play, and at some point, it would boil over. And that never ended well. Arlo seemed to be able to channel that frustration into never losing ever. He was everywhere. And when it came to floorball, Arlo used his stick to execute every other stick on the court, the result of which being that every guy who ever played against him, played with the constant fear of losing a finger or two.
Because of this, there wasn’t much left of the blade on Arlo’s stick, which only increased the frequency of his constant waving, leading to the rest of those playing being in the need of protective glasses. But overall, I liked Arlo. Arlo seemed to like me too. We played a lot of table tennis together during the long afternoons before we were picked up by our parents.
At lunch, we sat down with Samuel, Tommy, and Lukas, a constellation that probably would never exist around a lunch-table again, as assigned seating even at lunch was soon to be upon us. They would come, the dreaded assigned seats, but for today we had a short streak of sit-with-whoever-you-want-freedom. Whoever chose what food all the schools in the surrounding area would serve had obviously thought it through: Spaghetti Bolognese.
I assumed the thinking was “Let’s make it easy for ourselves and give the teachers a calm first day by giving the kids something they’ll eat so much of that most of them will practically be in a coma after lunch.” It worked well, all our plates were filled, especially my own since I ate under the conviction: If you slab on a shitload of food on your plate the first time, you only have to stand up to go get milk.
The adults never stopped repeating the phrase “It’s better to get food several times than taking too much and then throwing it away.” It never changed anything. Why should I only take a little, it’s not like I’m not gonna eat it, I thought. Although there had been a few times when this hadn’t been the case and I had had to throw away some food. This was hard because the lunch lady manning the trays where you left your food always gave you a look when you threw away food that said: “You ungrateful little bitch, there are kids starving in this world and you just throw away food like it was a baby in a forest.” Or worse, actually said it out loud, albeit phrased a bit more diplomatically.
“You know, Archie has got some jumbos,” Samuel said to Tommy, obviously continuing some earlier conversation about Gogos.
“You know that big red one and a light blue one that’s shorter and a bit fatter.”
“Did he win them from someone?”
“Yeah, from some second-grader.” Tommy raised his eyebrows at this startling news. I too played with Gogos, but I wasn’t as into it as a lot of the other boys in the class. I didn’t like losing, and since Gogos was a game where you bet figurines and the one that could hit the other’s figurine won that figurine, I rather stayed out of it than risk anything, at least for the most part. My mental disposition made losing more painful than it made winning fun.
We decided to play floorball at break and I had to shovel down my food so that I could get out and play at roughly the same time as the others who got up and left when they were done, in considerably less time. In later years, I just gave up and spent most of the lunch break eating alone since there was no point in hurrying when everyone else was done in roughly 90 seconds and ran out to play. I needed my damn time. Well outside, we played floorball against a few boys from one of our new parallel classes 1C.
Christian, the class’s second in command slowpoke, also joined in. We had done this a lot during our first year so we knew our strategy. Arlo and Lukas up top, Tommy and Samuel in the middle, and Christian and I at the back. Or that’s at least the positions we held for the first ten seconds. After that, it was basically free-for-all chaos with the only common goal being that we were all trying to cram the ball into the same goal.
We won, 6-2. To rub it in the others’ face, we made a man-pile, with me, as always, at the bottom. I couldn’t breathe, something I didn’t realize until I was at the bottom of the pile, but having no breath to talk with, I couldn’t say so either. Thankfully, the pile dispersed a few seconds before I passed out. The bell rang as we were all lying on the ground and we scrambled to get up and headed back in, every single one of us covered in gravel.
We went back inside where Veronika was standing in front of the whiteboard. All the girls and the boys who didn’t play floorball were already there.
“Tomorrow we start studying, today is just a day for you to get comfortable with your new classroom and for us to get to know each other. I would like to know a bit about you guys, but there are so many of us so if we all started talking at the same time, it would be chaos, so what I would like you to do is to write down as much as you can about yourself.” There was a collective anxious sigh from everyone except Isabella and Frida, the most studious girls in the class. The rest of them were not as comfortable with their spelling abilities or forming legible letters.
Personally, I felt that I was at least a little bit above average in the class. I started out with the most basic. My name is Oscar. I am 7 years old. Aaand I was stuck. I stumbled along, barely being able to read what I had written. I like to build cabins in the woods. And sandwiches. There. That would have to be good enough. The fact that I technically had just written that I liked to build sandwiches in the woods was not clear to me. I looked over at some of the others. A few had only been able to write their name and age, some not even that. This made me feel a bit more at ease.
“Okay, let’s get off of our feet and get some movement in here!” Veronika said as she made the transition from teacher to dance instructor. I had been dreading this. I hated “having fun,” since it usually meant being forced to act like a monkey or something even sillier. I didn’t like to dance, I didn’t like to sing, not even the incredibly few times I had been forced to during the previous year when the teacher thought it would be “fun” if we all sang a song together. And then there had been the Lucia celebrations at Green Valley, the daycare where I spent my first four years after my parents had gone back to work.
All the kids dressed up as either Santa, one of Santa’s elf helpers, a gingerbread cookie, or a starboy, which was basically a boy in a nightgown with a white cone on his head with stars on it, holding a stick with a star at the end of it. Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds. Since Adrian, the only black boy in the entire day-care dressed up as a starboy without anyone suggesting that he should be a gingerbread cookie instead, the whole thing narrowly avoided being incredibly racist.
The song Veronika had chosen was about monkeys and their relationship to bananas or something, I didn’t really take notice, I did the movements as unenthusiastically as possible, just because I had to. I didn’t really get the point of it. The other kids seemed to really like it. Christian was really going for it. He was flailing his arms, trying to look like an orangutan scratching his head and his armpit at the same time while I more resembled a depressed robot contractually obligated to these movements or risk deactivation.
During English lessons, we were given fake names that sounded more English than our own, I was given the name of Bill and a girl named Sofie happened to be named Jill. She thought it was hysterical that these two rhymed. I did not. Or maybe she just liked me, I dunno. But since names don’t change just because you start speaking another language, the whole thing just became confusing and disorientating. I guess the point was that we were supposed to enter some kind of character so that we would be more inclined to take part in acting out hypothetical scenarios of buying ice cream in English, without actually getting any ice cream, not in English nor Swedish.
The problem with doing this in English was that nobody knew the word for ice cream. It happened to be two words. Ice. Cream. How outrageous. Veronika also shouted out the names of body parts in English and we were supposed to guess what it was by pointing to one of our own body parts. Patrik and Jakob tended to point to their groins whatever Veronika said. It stopped being funny at “calf.” In the middle of having a finger on my butt to indicate “buttocks,” I went to the bathroom and when I came back Christian said: “Ha, now Oscar doesn’t know where the stomach is!”
Evidently, he had just been corrected and needed to feel better about himself. Annoyed at being sassed by one of the two kids that needed help from a freaking special ed. teacher, I confidently said that I did too know where the stomach was. Veronika asked me to point to it and I promptly put a finger on my thigh. It was embarrassing, to say the least.
That night I slept well. Until I realized I hadn’t done my homework. We had to circle the nouns in ten sentences. Simple enough, except we had just learned what the darn things were, a noun that is. They were things, things that you could touch, like a table, a chair, or a tiger. I panicked and threw off the covers. I got up in my pajamas with my socks still on. I didn’t like to be barefoot, or bare-necked for that matter, hence my love for turtlenecks.
Although I was getting less and less disturbed by not having my throat covered, even after my sister had traumatically tried to tickle me. She was basically my personal guillotine, my neck had to be covered whenever she was in the room. I went into my parents’ bedroom, walked around the bed to where dad lay, and patted him on the shoulder.
“What is it?” He said sleepily, only opening his eyes halfway.
“I’ve got to do my homework! It’s due tomorrow.”
“It’s okay to slip up once in a while, just go back to sleep.”
“No, I can’t, you’ve got to help me.”
“Okay,” he said, immediately regretting that he raised me to be so diligent. I ran into my room, got my homework, and then ran into the kitchen. Mom opened her eyes, realized what was going on, and closed them again.
Dad sat down with me at the kitchen table with only the table lamp lit, the rest of the house left in darkness. Dad was barely awake, he just sat beside me as I was perfectly capable of doing my homework myself, only I didn’t believe that. Dad just mumbled agreeing noises when I asked him if I had done it right. This was early evidence of the work ethic that would come to be a huge aid academically, but an equally large, if not bigger drawback socially in the years to come. In short, people, in general, do not like studious nerds.