I Am 26

I am 26 years old. I moved to Sweden a little over a year ago and have just completed my Swedish language course. According to my school I can now speak Swedish to a reasonable level. They’re wrong though, I can’t. Unless I’m drunk, I find Swedish quite intimidating. I do my best, but my progress isn’t helped by the fact that almost everyone in Sweden loves talking English. Meaning that my feeble attempts at Swedish in supermarkets and pubs are normally met with a smile and a reply in English.

It is time to find a job. I’m in a bit of a panic. I am not qualified to do anything beyond watching films and talking about music. Then there’s that language barrier thing. Half-heartedly I scan through the job ads in the local paper. All of which want someone that isn’t me. In my head I can hear the people back in Blighty laughing. When I upped stumps and left England behind everyone asked what I was going to do for work. “Something’ll come up,” I told them, “It’ll work itself out.” So far though it hadn’t.

I chance upon an ad for a ‘merchandiser’. I can do that, I think, I’ve done window displays before, yes, I think, this is it, this is the job I’ve been waiting for. I write down the basic phrases I think I’ll need to set up an interview, then dial the number. A few minutes later I have a job interview. Wow that was easy, I think. Although I still don’t really know what the job entails since I’m not quite sure how you ask that in Swedish.

A week later, the sun is blazing and I’m wearing the only suit I own, it is wool, I’m melting. I’m sitting in a corridor in a dodgy area of town. People are buzzing about, there’s a lot going on. All told there are about fifteen of us going for the job. What chance have I got against these, I think. For starters I’m the only idiot to turn up in a suit, everyone else is dressed casual, obviously off to the beach afterwards and not wanting the bother of going home to get changed. A man who could be mistaken for a lesser Baldwin steps out of a room with a clipboard, he rattles off a few names, one of which is mine. Three of us rise and follow him into his office. I’m not good at interviews. As I said before I’m not really good at anything really, plus I have really bad social phobia, job interviews and first days at work are about the worst things I can imagine.

I’m already sweating, I daren’t take off my suit jacket for fear that my shirt is multiple shades of damp. The lesser Baldwin interviews all three of us at once, I mumble through a few answers, unsure of the questions. I leave, safe in the knowledge that I messed the whole thing up. Later that day I receive a phone call, Lesser-Baldwin is impressed with me, he particularly likes the fact that I wore a suit. “You’ve got the job,” he says, “come for a trial day tomorrow. Oh and wear the suit.” I hang up the phone. Great, I think. I still don’t really know what the job is, or how much it pays. Who cares though, I’m almost no longer unemployed.

Next day, I arrive at the same offices, there’s still a confusion of activity around the place. I’m introduced to the man who is going to be training me, he looks like a down-on-his-luck Bowie. Gaunt features and ill fitting clothes, mousy blonde hair and a hint of a goatee. He pumps my hand enthusiastically, tells me his name which I promptly forget and spend the rest of the day trying to work my way around. He says that we can talk English if it’d be easier for me, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve taken an instant dislike to him I’d give him a hug.

I seize my chance, “So what are we going to be doing today?” I ask.

“You’ll see,” he says cryptically. Oh, right, okay then. “Grab that bag,” he tells me, pointing to a huge sports bag which is so heavy I have to lift it with both arms. With that we’re off. Onto a bus and heading out of town. Grubby-Bowie doesn’t stop talking, he tells me how he’s well on his way to making his first million, how he’ll soon be off to America, and a thousand other things. I’ve known him for less than thirty minutes and I’m already tired of him. It’s too warm to be doing anything, let alone sitting on a bus listening to some weirdo lying about himself.

We get off the bus at a particularly dingy area of Malmö. Grubby-Bowie immediately asks me for a cigarette, something he will do for the rest of the day. I’m still trying to work out where we’re going since he answers all my questions in a way that doesn’t tell me anything. He marches off ahead of me, “Keep up,” he barks, which is easier said than done since the sports holdall is cutting into my shoulder as I struggle along the road. We’ll get to the shop soon, and then we can unload whatever he’s got in here and life will get easier I promise myself.

We stop outside a garage, not a petrol station but a proper full-on grease-monkey garage. The kind that has cars up on ramps and pictures of naked women on the walls. He unzips the bag and takes out a smaller black bag. He winks at me and tells me to observe. Then he marches in, bold as brass. I wait outside, and watch as he interrupts the grease-monkeys. They look at him sceptically, shaking their heads. Grubby-Bowie returns. “You can’t win them all,” he says. Before I can process what’s going on, he’s striding into the newsagents next door, I follow this time, eager to see just what it is he’s up to. He walks up to the man on the counter. They say hello to each other, the man behind the counter asks how he can help and Grubby-Bowie unzips his little black bag, “What music do you like?” he asks gliding his hand over a set of about 25 CDs.

The man behind the counter is a little taken aback, “Uh, Country and Western,” he manages. Grubby-Bowie immediately pulls out a couple of CDs and starts to rattle off the track listings, the man behind the counter is speechless. I know how he feels. Grubby-Bowie places the CD on the counter between them, “Just 100 kronor,” he says. The man behind the counter looks confused, this isn’t the way this is supposed to work. We are the customers and he is supposed to take money from us, not the other way around. Grubby-Bowie keeps talking, producing more and more CDs, laying them out on the counter. There is now a small queue forming behind us. I feel embarrassed for the man behind the counter. Grubby-Bowie is giving him the hard sell, he’s relentless, he’s a shark and he isn’t letting go. Eventually the man opens the till takes out some money and pays us to go away. He gets to keep a CD of course, but I’m in no doubt he paid for Grubby-Bowie and his sweaty helper to get out of his shop.

Naïvely I think this must be a sideline thing that he does. It isn’t though as I find out when he marches into a hairdressers next and gives the girls cutting hair and the old ladies in the chairs the same patter that he gave the guy in the newsagents. Amazingly he manages to unload more CDs.

“So this is it?” I ask, needing conformation for what I already know.

“Yep, easy money. Easy money,” he laughs as he restocks his little zip-up bag with CDs from the sports bag I’m carrying, before banging on about some sports car that he’s got his eye on. I want to die. I’m in his grip and can’t see how I can politely get away. I spend the best part of the day watching him punt out dodgy CDs to anyone and everyone. No one is safe. Old men at zebra crossings, people in supermarkets, black, white, gay, straight, Grubby-Bowie doesn’t discriminate. After an hour or two he tells me I should have a go and I politely decline, saying that I don’t think I’ve quite got the hang of it yet.

He smokes more of my cigarettes and then just when I think I will never be rid of him I see my opportunity. We are at a cross-roads and he spots a bicycle shop. We walk over to it and I tell him I’m going to stay outside and finish my cigarette but that he should go in and do his thing. The second he walks through the door I drop the sports bag and run as fast as I can up the road towards home. I don’t look back and I don’t stop running until I am positive that I have put a lot of ground between the two of us.

I never hear from Grubby-Bowie again. I’m guessing people run away from him all the time. A few weeks later I saw Lesser-Baldwin on the high street carrying a zip-up bag and confronting people about their taste in music.

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