“Is this seat taken?”
I startle at the sound of the female voice. For a second I am not even sure where I am but the low rumble of the engine and the lulling sway of my seat cue me in quickly.
“Uh…” At first I do not know if the question is directed at me but when no one else answers I figure it must be.
Is the seat next to me taken? I guess not. Not by me anyway. Probably also not by any other person or the woman would not ask if it were obviously already occupied.
“I don’t think so?”
“Oh thank god,” The woman laughs, the bright sound making me tilt my head in interest.
I debate if I should vacate my seat to let her pass but she easily squeezes through; something brushes against my knees and part of her long jacket swishes over my thighs before she settles into the seat next to me.
“The bus is getting full, huh?” I have not really paid attention during the past thirty minutes or so but listening to the busy talking around us the bus must really have filled since the last few stops.
“Uh huh. Quite so. And here I was fearing I wouldn’t meet another human being in the next few months.” There is a small smile in her voice.
I chuckle quietly. She is not from here. “If they wear hiking boots they probably did not come for a chat but will disappear into the wild as fast as it goes.”
From her reaction I think I must have hit home. “I guess you are not a hiker then?” I ask.
She clicks her tongue. “No…” She laughs. “Not really.”
“Where are you from?”
“And what brings you here?”
The woman next to me moves, fabric sliding over fabric. “Um, my aunt. She lives in Kiruna.”
“Visiting then…” I say carefully, not daring to ask directly because I picked up on her guarded tone.
I nod and tilt my head down a little while directing it forward into the direction of driving. In the corners of my eyes I can make out her darker silhouette outlined somewhat against the bright window, but no details.
“Oh holy shit!” she cries out suddenly.
With a wince I turn my head to face her again, my heart beating fast. “What?”
“How was this seat not taken? It’s amazing out there!”
I relax and manage a shaky smile. Yes, I remember the view. “The lakes, huh?”
“Yes…” she whispers. “The colors, the sun… It has just come up over the horizon, I think. The water is completely still and everything is just… wow, beautiful. Just look at it! I mean… There’s snow up high in the mountains, do you see that?”
Her enthusiasm makes me smile, but I fidget a bit in my seat. “Um…” She is definitely missing something here and I guess I should tell her.
“You probably see this every day, huh?”
“Um, actually--” I brace myself but she interrupts me.
“Were you born here?”
I blink, a bit surprised about the inquisitive question. “Me? Oh uh, yes, I grew up in Kiruna, in fact.”
I rub one hand over the rough fabric around my knees. Guess I will not tell her then. It will probably not make a difference anyway. “Um… yes. Now I teach in Gällivare, but I live farther south.”
“You‘re a teacher? What do you teach?”
“Music,” I say and grin at that. “And Physics.”
“Cool. What a combination!” She sounds genuinely interested. “How old are your students?”
I weigh my head. “Everything from five to twenty.”
“Do you like it?”
I nod. I like my job, even if I have to get up at 5 am to catch the bus.
There is a second of silence. “I bet your students like you.”
I blush. Where is this coming from? “Um…”
She giggles. “I’m sorry. I was just thinking you come across like such a calm guy somehow… Your students learn a lot from you, I’m sure.”
I duck my head, one finger trailing along the pattern of the seat until I force myself to stop it. “What do you do?” I ask to deflect from me.
“Um… That’s a long story.”
I nod slowly. “One that explains a months-long visit at your aunt’s?”
Silence from her. She has stopped moving entirely.
“Sorry,” I say softly, regretting it instantly. What have I been thinking? “I’m sorry.”
“You’re a good listener,” she says quietly. Then she sighs and leans back, her voice different now. I think she is speaking to the window. “I had a bit of a rough year. Relationship down the drain, quit my job, that sort of thing. I kind of thought it were good if I went away from it all for a while… But now I don’t know. Maybe it was just a silly idea…”
“I don’t think it is silly,” I say carefully. “This is a good place to recharge.”
“You think so?”
“Yes. Time’s a bit slower here. Everything is.”
“Hmm…” She chuckles. “I noticed that. Even the bus is super slow.”
I grin and try to catch another glimpse of her but the background of the window has changed: it is darker, probably forest gliding past outside and I cannot make out much from the shadows.
We remain silent for a while.
“There’s a bakery…” she murmurs at one point, her face turned away from me and probably looking out the window again.
I snort softly. “People here do need to eat as well.”
I listen to the sounds from the bus, the feeling when we roll around a bend in the street and the voice announcing the next stop. “There’s a car mechanic we should be passing about right… now. And a chiropractor next to it.”
“I know it sounds stupid but I just always thought that this was a practically deserted land.”
I nod, not surprised. “It’s not very densely populated but we still have pretty normal jobs. And distance doesn’t mean you don’t know your neighbor, even if it takes you twenty minutes by car to reach him.”
The bus stops somewhere on the road and I hear the doors opening.
“Do you see the driver?” I ask my seat neighbor.
“He’s picking up the mail.”
She laughs, amused. “Indeed… So the letters are delivered by the buses?”
I cock an eyebrow, grinning. “This bus runs once a day, even in winter. No mail service could be this frequent!”
The smile is evident in her voice. “Indeed, crazy.” She moves next to me, yawning a bit and probably stretching. “So, living here… Do you see a lot of northern lights then?”
Well, not me, that’s for sure. But I have seen countless. Before. “Uh… yes, I guess there’re many. In the winters especially.”
“Oh god, I hope to see some. That’d be awesome.”
“Hmm, you will,” I assure her. If she stays for the upcoming winter months, chances are indeed rather high. “Winter is very long here. And dark.”
“Ugh… Sounds not very appealing.”
We sit in silence for a while, the bus rumbling around a few corners before taking up speed on a straighter route again. I wonder if my seat neighbor has fallen asleep, in which case it would not be advised to pick up the conversation again, when the bus suddenly breaks more abruptly than it normally does. The woman next to me gasps and I thrust one arm out, bracing myself against the back of the seat in front of me. There is no sound of a crash but the bus keeps standing where it stopped, motor running. Around us, people have stood up and started talking louder.
I tilt my ear toward the noise, frowning. “What’s happening?” I ask the woman next to me. There is no stop anywhere near here.
She says nothing for a moment, probably observing what is going on outside. “Are these reindeers?”
I lift my eyebrows. “Um, are they blocking the street?”
“Yeah, I think?” She seems unsure if she should trust her eyes.
“Could be. This is the time when they’re herded back to the winter quarters.”
“Really? Oh my god, that’s amazing. I saw reindeers on my first day in Lapland, can you believe that? And so many even…”
I try to suppress a chuckle at her obvious awe. It is kind of cute. She will see tons of reindeers more if she stays for a while longer. They are a bit of the equivalent of sheep up here. Only slightly wilder.
That reminds me of the sandwiches that I packed for breakfast and I fumble for my leather bag between my feet and take out the paper bag.
“Oh…” I hear a longing sigh next to me.
The smell of fresh bread and meat spreads as I unwrap the first sandwich. “You want some?” I offer, hoping I interpreted her reaction correctly.
“Oh that’d be… really nice. I did not have anything to eat this morning.”
I smile at her, trying to turn my head so that I am facing her. People appreciate me doing this as I know, even if it does nothing for me. “Have this one. I got two.”
Holding out the bag to her, I wait until I can hear her grab the crinkling material, her cool fingers brushing mine as she takes it from me.
“Thank you so, so much. I’m starving.” From the sound of it, she is digging right in. “I didn't think the journey would take this long. I’ve been stuck first on a plane, then trains and busses for uh… more than ten hours now.”
“And you’ve probably got four or five more ahead of you.”
There is a resigned sigh. “Yeah…” She changes position, folding her legs from the sound of it and gestures with something. “But wow, this is really good. Did your uh… girlfriend prepare them?”
I shake my head, unwrapping the second sandwich. “No girlfriend,” I say matter-of-factly. “Believe it or not but I did those myself.”
She giggles. “Sorry. I don’t really think that men are hopeless in the kitchen, believe me.”
I grin. “Oh you don’t?” I tease.
I cannot really tell what she is doing because she goes silent on me. Blushing, I turn my face away slightly. I do not wear sunglasses and many people have assured me that my eyes look normal, only not very focused, but I am still a bit self-conscious about being stared at. Maybe because I cannot tell if someone indeed stares at me.
“Aren’t you afraid of winter?” She asks suddenly.
“What do you mean?”
“Six months darkness…” I can feel her shudder next to me. “It must be terrible.”
I scrunch up my empty wrapping paper in my fist. “It’s not that bad,” I say, not facing her anymore, my jaw set. “You get used to it.”
She sighs quietly. “I don’t think I would ever get used to it…” she whispers.
I do not answer to that because neither had I, rolling the paper ball around in my hand.
“Anyway…” She moves next to me, paper rustling. “Maybe we can meet up in Kiruna from time to time? So that I can get in touch with people that are not… hikers?”
I whip my head around. “Yeah, sure, of course.” The idea had not occurred to me because usually I only meet people on the bus that are here for a short holiday. It makes no sense to ask them to meet again. But with her it is different, I realize and I grow excited at the thought. I enjoyed our conversation a lot and I guess I like to do this again.
I flinch a bit as something nudges my hand and realize she is giving me her empty sandwich paper back. I stuff it in my leather bag together with mine.
“Nothing,” she says, but something has changed in her voice.
I try to figure out if I did something stupid but I cannot come up with anything. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, really. Do you, uh… do you get to Kiruna often?”
Still frowning, I weigh my head. “From time to time. Once a month, maybe…?”
“That’s not often,” she exclaims and giggles.
I exhale, relieved because whatever I have done or said wrong seems to be forgotten, and shrug. “I could make it more often…. If there’s a reason to go up there…”
“I hope you will,” she whispers and I can smell her as she leans in a bit, sweet and flowery.
The bus breaks and the moment between us is gone. “Well…” I say and shrug my jacket on. “I guess this is my stop then.”
“Skolan, huh?” My seat neighbor sounds disappointed.
I blink apologetically. “Exactly.”
“Okay, so see you in Kiruna maybe?” I can hear the hope in her voice and it makes me all warm.
“See you,” I smile as I pull the cane out of the seat's pocket in front of me and unfold it.
There is only silence from her side, so I nod one last time in her direction and move to get out of the bus, holding the cane in front of me without a second thought. I am already halfway down the corridor and approaching the steps leading to the door when I hear my former seat neighbor‘s voice, although it is quiet and muffled as if she is trying to hide it.
I never got around to telling her.
“Shit, shit, shit…”
I stop walking and turn to her, frowning slightly. “What?”
First there is stunned silence, then she blurts out: “I’m… I’m so stupid… I’m so, so sorry!”
“The paper… from your sandwich…?”
I blink, thrown off track. “What about it?”
“Are you not getting out here, Kjell? No school today?”
I straighten and turn back to the bus driver who cackles at his joke. He does not sound impatient, but I do not want to witness him sound anything else than friendly, so I hurry to get to the front. “No, no, I’m getting off here, sorry for that, Rødh.”
Helplessly, I strain my ears to listen back to the woman but she says nothing anymore. It is only when I am already standing at the curb and listening to the bus driving away, confusion still clouding my senses, that I realize I do not even know her name.
How stupid can one be? Kiruna is not a huge city by world standard, but it is pretty big and the chances of randomly bumping into anyone are vanishingly small. And I could walk directly past her without even knowing.
Very well done, Kjell. Definitely your best move so far. This could have been your day, but of course you had to fuck it up. Of course. But no problem, there will be just another awesome woman who is willing to talk to you on the next bus tomorrow, for sure. Just lining up behind the others.
I am still berating myself when I arrive at school and it does not go unnoticed.
“Heater broken down?” Jonatan, one of my colleagues, asks, only half joking. On a scale of catastrophic events, a broken heater is pretty high up this close to winter.
I groan and move my hand over the top of my personal table in the teacher’s lounge, searching for a stack of printouts I have prepared already yesterday.
“Uh huh, no,” I murmur darkly. “Worse.”
While sorting my things, I tell him about everything that happened on the bus this morning, stuffing the printouts into my leather bag after throwing the empty sandwich wrappers in the trash.
“The sandwich paper?”
“Yeah, what the hell, huh? What’s that supposed to mean, is it some kind of secret code? If so, I don’t understand it. Am I too old for this?”
“The sandwich paper!”
I huff, impatient. “Yeah, I told you I-“
“No, Kjell!” There are footsteps, a rustling sound and then Jonatan waves something through the air in front of my face. “You got it all wrong. It’s not a code! She meant the actual paper.”
I frown and step closer to Jonatan. “Huh?”
Jonatan clears his throat. “Okay, I’m reading this now… Are you paying attention?” He pauses, presumably to check on me, then continues, “It says: Anna...” A series of numbers follows but I do not listen anymore.
Anna? Of course! Anna! The woman from the bus, her name is Anna!
Oh, we have both been so stupid…
“Wait, wait!” I interrupt Jonatan, pulling out my phone. “From the beginning again, please!”
Jonatan does me the favor, reading the phone number that Anna must have noted down on the sandwich paper before handing it back to me, and I add the contact to my list, grinning madly.
The paper rustles under my palm as I smoothen it out in front of me, feeling along the edges of the crumpled material. I have never had a girl give me her number in this way before and I must admit it feels amazing. Of course though, we will have to talk about what obviously went unnoticed in the bus and I am certainly a bit afraid of it. She had not sounded like someone for whom it would be a big deal and I hope there is just plenty of time for the both of us to sort things out. But she would not be the first person to bolt upon finding out about my disability.
Because there is no point in waiting, I send a text to Anna immediately.
- Hej. -
Then I gather my things and leave the teachers' lounge. It is already on my way to the classroom when my phone vibrates in my pocket and I pull it out, at the same time trying to juggle my cane, the leather bag with books and lunch and the printouts that did not fit inside jammed under one arm, while the last trickle of students streams through the corridor as well.
“Good morning Mr. Lindblom!”
“You’re late, Max!” I absentmindedly scold the boy who storms past me and try to unknot the cords of the headphones, stuffing one bud into my ear with impatient fingers.
The text from Anna is read from the screen.
- Hej hej. -
I grin and type an answer.
- I’m Kjell. I’m the fool from the bus. -
Although classes are about to start, I wait for Anna to return a text with my phone clutched in my hand, standing in the middle of the now deserted corridor. Seconds stretch forever and I start to feel a bit sick in my stomach when there is no answering text immediately. But then the phone vibrates a second time.
- I’m Anna. That makes us two fools. -
- When’s the next time you’ll be in Kiruna? -
My heart soars and I smile so wide it hurts. She still wants to see me! Joy and relief are pumping through my veins as I continue walking down the corridor, the unmistakable noise from behind one particular door guiding me swiftly to my unsupervised class. In this moment I must be the luckiest guy in entire Swedish Lapland. It feels a little like the floor suddenly changed its nature with the bounce in my step as I enter the classroom, the children’s deafening screams falling silent as they scramble to their seats the moment they notice my presence.
“Good morning class,” I greet them joyfully, throwing my leather bag on the table and collapsing the cane. “Today we’ll talk about how we know that the earth orbits around the sun. And what all of that has to do with winter.” I wave with the stack of papers in my hand. “Who wants to distribute this?”
I am still a bit in my own headspace as I listen to the children group together, some joining at tables and others on the sofas distributed along the walls or simply sitting between pillows on the fluffy carpet in one corner. My phone is turned off but I feel the heat of it like it is burning in my pocket, sending little jolts of excitement through my spine as I slowly walk over to one group of children that has requested my help. I smile to myself, crouching down in front of one of my students who starts explaining his sketch of the planetary system to me while a bunch of others are hovering around, sometimes more or less helpfully throwing in comments.
I know I need to try not to get my hopes up too high. But right now I can hardly believe my luck and I cannot help but feel immensely glad for this morning’s bus ride. My fingers itch to call that number on my phone and to hear Anna’s voice again. This could be great months to come, I think. I am almost sure about it and for the first time in my life I am excited about winter.
There is usually not much to look forward to during winter. For me, winter is as dark as summer.
Only this time… this time it may make all the difference.