It was such an incredible amount, 5,700,000 kronor. Impossible to take seriously. I assumed it must be one of those fake invoices, the sort you hear about on television and in the papers. Unscrupulous companies trying to defraud people, often the elderly, out of their money.
It was very well done. There was no denying that. The logo looked genuine, at least to me. I don’t really know, I don’t get much post, apart from the usual bills. This one looked pretty similar. Except for the amount, of course. W.R.D., it said in large letters, and the bit about conditions of payment was very convincing. The whole thing had that dry, factual tone, just like something from a genuine organization.
But if it was genuine, there must have been a massive mistake. Some computer must have gotten me mixed up with a big company, or maybe a foreign consortium. 5,700,000 kronor. Who gets bills like that? I chuckled at the thought that someone might actually pay that amount of money by mistake and never question it.
I drank a glass of juice, dropped some advertising leaflets into the recycling box, all those offers and brochures that somehow managed to get past the “No Ads, Please” sign, then put on my jacket and went off to work.
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I worked part time in a video shop for enthusiasts. There were two of us who took it in turns to stand there two or three days each week, placing orders, sorting films as they came in, cataloguing and putting them on the shelves. Every now and then I was able to help a customer find the right film or explain why a special edition with extra material hadn’t come in yet, or possibly didn’t include a specific interview that the customer had seen online and which they thought cast the director in question in an entirely new light, and which he or she (usually he) could reproduce pretty much verbatim for me if I felt like listening. Mostly, though, I just stood there thinking about other things.
The walk was a bit windy, but it was the start of light-jacket weather, and most of the trees already had plenty of leaves on their branches. As I walked I thought about the invoice, and wondered how they had managed to get hold of my name and address. Did they just pick the first one they came across? Unless perhaps there was someone else with very similar details?
The windows of the shop were covered by a greenish-yellow layer of pollen, and the door was tricky to open. It didn’t seem to matter how we adjusted the closing mechanism. Either the door was hard to shift or it flew open at the slightest touch. Today it stopped halfway.
The floor felt sticky under my feet as I walked to the counter to hang my jacket on the hook beneath it. I put a pot of coffee on to brew in the little kitchen behind the desk. Something had burned onto the bottom of the jug, and Tomas—who worked the other days—said he never drank anything out of it, but I didn’t think it was that much of a problem. Quite the opposite, in fact—it gave a bit of a kick to what was otherwise a pretty insipid drink.
I pushed the door of the cupboard under the sink several times because it wouldn’t shut properly—it was missing its little magnet thing. Each time it swung open again a couple of centimeters. In the end I got a bit of sticky tape, rolled it up, and stuck it to the inside of the door, and that kept it closed.
Under the counter there was a basket containing the films that had been returned last week, the ones Tomas hadn’t bothered to put back on the shelves. I sat there looking at them as I waited for the coffee. There was a Kubrick, a Godard, and The Spanish Prisoner by David Mamet. I turned the case over and read the back. It had been a long time since I’d watched it. That was when I was still with the love of my life, Sunita, and we would take turns to show each other our favorite films. I’m not even sure if we managed to get to the end of it. She didn’t think it was that great.
When the coffee was ready I found a bit of milk in the fridge that was only a couple of days old. I poured some in and drank as I put the rest of the films out.
As I was on my way back to the counter, I felt my shoes sticking to the floor again. I assumed someone must have spilled some Coke or something similar, because wherever I walked my shoes seemed to stick to the lino flooring. It sounded kind of funny, actually. Well, it did if you moved with the right sort of rhythm.
I sat for a while behind the counter and pondered the possibility that someone had stolen my identity— cloned it, or whatever the word was. And had then ordered something and let the company invoice me for that insane amount. But what could you order that cost 5,700,000 kronor? It seemed to me that they ought to have better safeguards in place for this sort of thing.
Sometime between eleven and half past we usually got a brief period of direct sunlight in the shop. I tried leaning over and tilting my head to see if I could work out what was making the floor sticky, and, sure enough, from the right angle you could see little islands of a spilled soft drink. I stared at it for a while. It looked a bit like a map of the world, if you removed parts of Asia and Australia. I squinted. Africa looked really good. Not to mention what were probably Greenland and Alaska. But, I reasoned, that’s only because we’re not so familiar with the geographic details of those regions. I thought for a while about which countries’ shapes I knew best, apart from Sweden, of course, and came to the conclusion that they were probably still the ones in northern Europe. A short while later the sun disappeared over the rooftops. But the stickiness was still there; I could hear it clearly every time I walked across it.
I called Jörgen, my boss, and asked if we could buy a mop. He said that was fine. And that it was probably good to have one for future use, and that it would be nice if I could clean the whole floor.
“Just keep the receipt,” he said.
So I went to the hardware shop and bought one of those buckets with a strainer where you can squeeze the water out of the mop that comes with it. I filled it with warm water and realized that I should have bought some sort of floor cleaner or dishwashing liquid, then reasoned that it would probably be okay as long as the water was hot enough. I cleaned every bit of floor in the shop. It looked pretty good. The whole shop felt nicer. Almost a bit luxurious. I changed the water a couple of times, then, finally, mopped the soles of my shoes as well. Then I sat for a while, changing the background on my cell phone. I switched it off, then on again, and changed the background once more.
Just in time for lunch my friend Roger came in. When I emerged from the toilet he was standing there talking on his phone. He nodded in my direction. Then he disappeared back out into the street. Twenty minutes later he came back in and asked if he could eat the rest of my takeout. “You don’t mind, do you?” he said, and I told him I didn’t.
He sat down on the stool behind the counter and slurped up the remaining noodles and meat. He said he’d had a cold for almost three weeks, but that it finally seemed to be on the way out.
“To start with, it was like just a bit of a sore throat,” he said as he chewed the food. “Then it turned into a really bad sore throat, the sort where it hurts to swallow. Then it went down my tubes and turned into one of those real bastard coughs, the tickly sort where you can’t sleep properly. I called the doctor and said I needed penicillin, but by the time I got there my temperature had gone down and the cough was a bit better. So they refused to give me a prescription. They told me to take paracetamol instead, and come back if it got worse. But it didn’t. It just got better.”
He tried to cough, but couldn’t really manage it. He sighed and shook his head. Then he went on eating until the aluminum tray was scraped clean. Then he pushed it away and asked if we’d gotten any new films in, then, when I said we hadn’t, he sighed again and looked out through the window.
“Well,” he said, “I’d better get going.”
He grabbed a handful of the sweets we keep to offer children, then disappeared out through the door. I followed him, thinking I might as well hang up the faded red “Open” flag.
No customers came in that afternoon either, so I had a chance to sort some invoices. I added the receipt for the mop and bucket. I punched holes and put everything in folders. Jörgen had a particular way he wanted things organized. Receipts in a green folder and unpaid invoices in a blue one. Then he would pay those himself and transfer them to the green folder.
As I was sitting there leafing through the folders, I found myself thinking once more about the odd invoice I’d received. I noticed that some companies printed the full amount, down to the last öre. That made it look like a very long number. Sometimes it was hard to see the little decimal point between the zeroes. Maybe that’s what had happened to me, I thought. Maybe they’d just missed the decimal point, unless perhaps I hadn’t noticed it? No, that couldn’t be right. Because even if you removed two of the zeroes, it was still an insanely large amount. I certainly hadn’t ordered anything that cost 57,000. I’d remember something like that. And what did W.R.D. stand for? I had a bit of a look to see if I could find anything similar among the shop’s invoices, but there was nothing like it there. No, I thought. There must have been some sort of mistake somewhere, simple as that.
Pretty much exactly a month later, a reminder arrived. With a surcharge for late payment. The amount had risen to 5,700,150 kronor. I looked at the sheet of paper more closely. There was no question that it was my name and my address on it. And there was no missing decimal point. There was no doubt about the amount. This time the invoice was from a payment clearance company, SweEx.
We cannot enter into correspondence, it stated clearly in the middle of the page. All appeals should be directed to our client. Then a telephone number.
I called the number that was printed at the bottom of the page and found myself listening to an automated voice that welcomed me and said: “Please describe the reason for your call in your own words.”
I made an attempt to explain why I was ringing, but before I had finished the automated voice interrupted me and said I would be put through to an operator.
“You are currently number thirty-six in the queue. Waiting time is estimated to be two hours and twenty-five minutes.”
When I had been waiting quarter of an hour, the automated voice declared that the waiting time was now estimated to be two hours and forty minutes. I smiled at the absurdity of a waiting time that just kept growing, and seeing as the whole thing was really all a mistake I decided to let them work it out for themselves while I went out and bought myself an ice cream.
It was a gloriously sunny day. Not a cloud in the sky, and the temperature was approaching thirty degrees in the shade. Down by the kiosk people were crowded into the shadow of the projecting roof, as if taking cover from rain. I stood and waited out in the square for a while, but fairly quickly felt the sun burning my scalp and neck, so I too pushed my way in under the little roof. People were chatting about all sorts of subjects, then suddenly I heard an older woman say to a young man of seventeen or eighteen: “How much was yours?”
I didn’t hear his reply, but her reaction was clear enough: “Oh, well, you were lucky, then.”
The young man muttered again. It was impossible to make out what he was saying because his mouth was full of ice cream, and he also had his back to me.
The woman went on: “Yes, but compared to a lot of other people you’ve gotten off pretty lightly.”
I wondered what they were talking about, but it was difficult to draw any conclusions when I could only hear her side of the conversation. “That’s because you haven’t been around long enough to get very old yet,” the woman suddenly declared. “It’s supposed to be worst for people around forty or so.”
The young man mumbled something, short and unintelligible.
“I know,” the woman went on, “because they’ve just carried on regardless, not expecting this at all. They thought everything was going to last forever and that the state was going to pay for the whole thing. Imagine! Well, it’ll only take you four or five years, then you’ll have caught up. But for them . . . well . . . !”
She was holding her jacket over one arm, and was facing in my direction as she waited for her son, or grandson, or whatever he was, to finish his ice cream. The young man went on muttering in a hopelessly low voice. I tried to move closer so I could hear better, but it was practically impossible to make out a single word. “Still a lot of money,” I thought it sounded like.
Eventually it was my turn. As usual I went for a small tub with two scoops. Mint chocolate and raspberry. My two favorites.
On my way back up in the lift, I couldn’t help over-hearing a girl with several different necklaces on as she talked on her phone. She seemed very stressed. She pulled out a big leatherbound diary from her handbag, then leafed through it aimlessly, back and forth, making her necklaces jangle against each other, and even though her hair was tied up she kept brushing a loose strand from her face as she talked.
“Okay, could I borrow half the amount then? . . . No, I realize that . . . Okay, but what about half the amount? . . . Yes. Right. Yes. I’ve checked with my bank, and they’ve promised ten, but that’s still . . . Yes.”
She made a small note in her diary.
“But if I could borrow half the amount from you, then . . . Yes. The invoice comes to—”
She caught my eye and suddenly fell silent. As if she had only just noticed that I was standing there. The person at the other end went on talking as the girl murmured in reply.
For some reason these two overheard conversations left me feeling uneasy. It was as though they were talking about something that ought to concern me, something I’d missed. A bit like when you’ve been away and come back to find everyone talking about a celebrity who’s said something funny, or humming an infectious summer hit that everyone else has heard but you’ve got no idea about.
By the time I got back to my apartment there was hardly any ice cream left. I scraped out the last drips and managed to spill some on the payment reminder that was still lying there. It struck me that if you don’t pay companies like that you end up with a black mark on your credit record—the sort of thing that can be hard to get rid of, even if it later turns out to have been a mistake.
The next time I called the queue was only an hour. But after a while the wait was recalculated once more, and had soon risen to two hours and seven minutes. At one point I got down to half an hour, and at worst it was up at six hours. I switched to speakerphone, put my phone down on the coffee table, and left it there as the call went on. I plugged the charger into the wall while
I played Fallout: New Vegas and listened to the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Afternoon turned to evening, and evening turned to night, and eventually I slid into my gloomiest mood. A state that could easily last for hours. Sometimes I would put on particularly mournful music, melancholic songs by Jeff Buckley or Bon Iver, preferably some tormented young man singing about his broken heart and crushed dreams, so I could really wallow in pain and sadness. Just sit there and sink deeper into longing and misery. It had its own quite specific feeling of satisfaction. A bit like when you pick at an old wound, a scab—you just can’t help it. But after a while I got fed up and dug out a couple of old magazines to reread. I managed to doze off on the sofa in the middle of a long article about projectors and wireless media players.
It was eight o’clock the following morning when I finally got through. A high-pitched, slightly hoarse female voice answered. I started by asking what the hell was wrong with their queuing system.
“It’s completely insane,” I said. “First it’s an hour, then all of a sudden it’s twice that. Then it halves again, but before you know it the waiting time’s gone up to three hours.”
She apologized and said that the system was still under development.
“There are still a few teething problems,” she said. “The idea was to develop a more dynamic, customer-centered queuing service. At the moment it takes the length of the current call and adjusts the estimated waiting time from that. But sometimes it can be a little misleading . . .”
“No kidding,” I said.
“Well,” she said, “what can I do for you?”
I said I’d received an invoice, and that there must be
some mistake, and would she mind correcting it? She listened carefully, then explained that everything was in order. There was no mistake, and no, I wasn’t the first person to call. I said I hadn’t ordered anything, or requested any services, but she maintained that the invoice was still correct. When I wondered what this was all about, she sighed and asked if I never read the papers, watched television, or listened to the radio? I had to admit that I didn’t really keep up with the news.
“Well,” she said, and I got the impression that she could have been smiling at the other end of the line. “It’s time to pay up now.”