[Note: This is a novel being presented in installments, one chapter per week, every Friday, from May 4 to August 24, 2012. The full novel will be published in its entirety in September 2012.]
When I said earlier that Jonathan was not writing a travel novel, I really did mean it. He was not planning to write about hostels and hotels, food or attractions. He was just trying to put together a novel about his youth. All of his university experiences he thought carried value and weight. They helped define who Jonathan was, and he believed they helped define who he is. Part of that time involved travelling. Like so many young people he went to Europe.
The Night Train
Jon took the tickets from the agent at the counter and thought this couldn’t be too bad. He had to ride a train for ten hours sitting upright. Spur of the moment things can sometimes surprise others, but Jon always felt there was an internal logic to foolish decisions. As was often said, it built character. He was not sure what kind of character he was building, but he found it to be entertaining at the time. When in need of killing two days while travelling by rail, but wanting to save on accommodations, it made terrific sense to ride two night trains. He would take one as far north as he could go, with a small layover, and then the other back south to Stockholm. In Stockholm he would meet up with his friends again. Some time alone was just what he needed after a few weeks of travelling with others. He hadn’t minded it, too much. Sweden was basically just a hipster version of Canada, filled with skinny jeans and fey indie rock.
As he entered the car, Jon realised that ten hours sitting upright would be the least of his problems. In nearly every aisle, if not every seat, there were dogs and cats. Jenny, with a soft J, had fucked him over with her ticket selection. Jon was allergic to basically every animal on the planet.
“Hi, I think I’m sitting right there.”
Jon let the man move his giant dog out of the way and stepped in to his seat. He could smell the dog, which was the first clue this was going to be horrible.
“My name is Jon, nice to meet you.”
“Hello Yon, my name is Danny. You are Canadian?”
“Wow, yes, thanks. I’m amazed you recognised my accent. Most people assume I’m American. Very nice to meet you Danny, where are you from?”
“It’s a very small town. You wouldn’t have heard of it.”
Jon felt insulted. He had always had a solid grasp of geography.
“No, no, go ahead. I’m pretty good with maps and so on.”
“It’s called Hagfors.”
“I’m not sure I have heard of it.”
“It’s in Värmland, near Karlstad.”
“Oh, I have heard of Karlstad.”
“Right, so from Karlstad, you go north through Forshaga, then Munkfors, and then you are in Hagfors.”
“It’s beautiful. You should really go.”
“When would be the best time to visit? I will be leaving Sweden in a few days so I won’t have time this trip. But, I want to come back.”
“You must come in February for the Swedish Rally. They are very exciting races.”
“Oh really? Are they the best drivers in Sweden?”
“The best in the world, Yon!”
“Oh, wow, I didn’t know.”
“Yes, it’s too bad those damn Finns keep winning. We once owned them.”
“Oh, in racing? The Swedes were better?”
“No, in real life. We used to own Finland, Sweden did.”
“Oh, that’s right, I think I knew that.”
“They find one goddamned Mensa member who can drive a car and they think that they are all smarter than us. I don’t think so. They have a hard time saying the letter H, too.”
Jonathan felt a small petty smug sense of satisfaction inserting obscure references in to his writing that he knew his readers wouldn’t get. I won’t let him do that to you. Marcus Grönholm was one of the most dominant rally drivers of his time, and as Jonathan’s bigoted friend Danny alludes to, Grönholm is also a member of Mensa.
Jon was trying to find the balance between encouraging Danny to speak about his country and avoid causing any further bigotry.
“Do any Swedish drivers do well?”
“Oh yes, Carlsson came third this year. It was the first time in five years that a Swede made the podium.”
“Okay, do you think he could win it?”
“Yes, of course, I think Carlsson will probably win two or three Swedish Rallies before he is done.”
Oh, Jonathan. You’ve done it again. You really are a sneaky bugger. Daniel Carlsson came third in 2006, five years after the last Swede to reach the podium. His driving career has been up and down ever since.
“Cool, well, if I ever come back, I will try to go to, go to Hagfors for the Rally.”
“And I want to cheer for Carlsson?”
“Yes, he is the best Swede.”
“Alright, very cool.”
“Where are you going on the train?”
“I’m going to Umeå.”
“You will like it Yon, you will like it.”
“Oh, yes, it’s very pretty.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“Are you going camping, Yon?”
“No, I thought I would just take a train north for the heck of it.”
“Is this American sarcasm?”
“No, no, no. I really did just have some time I needed to kill. I thought it would be fun.”
“Oh, fun. Watch out for the Sami peoples.”
Of all the overnight animal train cars Jon could have been forced to sit upright on for ten hours, he had to have been placed on the one next to Sweden’s least subtle bigot. Danny’s dog was not helping things at all either. Jon was not sure what was more irritating, Danny’s words or the dog’s dander. Jon’s eyes were beginning to water, while his nose began to drip. He had been on the train for thirty minutes so far.
They lurched along at a lazy pace, as if no one on the train truly wanted to head north. It seemed like the conductor was giving everyone an opportunity to suggest that they go no further. Every second town became an elongated stop. There was more than enough time for new passengers to board and departing passengers to disembark and for the remaining passengers to sit impatiently. Danny explained to Jon that they did this to allow time for the pet owners to take their animals outside to relieve themselves. While Jon welcomed any opportunity for relief from the animals, he was still in terrible shape sitting up in his chair, with the air clogged with dog hairs and cat whiskers. He swore he saw canary feathers float by at one point. This, this was torture. He blamed Jenny, with the soft J, at the ticket counter for inflicting such pain on him. He was supposed to be a guest in this country. It was as if his hosts had decided at all pains to treat him as terrible as possible in order to ensure a short visit. Jon was well aware of the three-day rule. He had known for a long time that the optimal amount of time to visit someone for was no longer than three days, unless extenuating circumstances prevailed. In planning his visit to Sweden, Jon had planned for three stops, each of only two days. He had respected the rules, but it seems that Sweden as a whole was offended by his overstayed welcome. Jenny, with a soft J, had figured it out on his third day when he bought the tickets to Umeå. She knew then that he was going north and then he was coming back and spending a couple days in Stockholm. He was admitting his overstay in his plans to her. Surely Bjorn, Marcus, Elin, Jens, Nicklas, Elias, Emma, Lina, Patrik, Freddy, Andreas, Linda, and all the other Swedes in the line up behind him had overheard. What choice did Jenny, with a soft J, have, but to force him to realise he had begun to irritate the nation? She had to force him to sleep on the metaphorical pullout couch with the iron bar down the middle. Jenny, with a soft J, had to make him uncomfortable. She couldn’t be rude. That’s not what good hosts do. They can’t be ill spoken of, so their hospitality has to be gracious and it has to seem genuinely welcome. But, Jenny, with a soft J, also had a responsibility to save her blonde haired, skinny jean wearing, hipster nation from an overbearing North American. Yes, by all accounts they would take his kroners, while they could, but if he wouldn’t mind leaving in the near future they would all feel some relief. Relief was not forthcoming for Jon in the railcar. He was battling too many attacks at once on his system. One dog, at a friend’s house, was a challenge, usually able to handle for a few hours, especially if combated with an allergy pill, but this was far too many. What was worse was that Jon had no allergy pills. Jenny, with a soft J, had forgot to mention this was the animal car. It was where they hid all the undesirable beasts from the other rail passengers. It was where they hid Jon.