Ulf Varg, of the Department of Sensitive Crimes, drove his silver-grey Saab through a landscape of short distances. He was heading for a psychotherapeutic day at a rural wellness centre, and the drive, he thought, was part of the therapy. Southern Sweden lay before him, parcelled out into farms that had been in the ownership of the same families for generations. Here and there, dots of white amidst the green, were the houses of the people who worked this land. They were settled people, of long memories and equally long jealousies, whose metaphorical horizons stopped where the sky met the land, which sometimes seemed only a stone’s throw away; who had never gone anywhere very much, and who had no desire to do so.
He thought of the life these people led, which was so different from his own in Malmö. Nothing was particularly urgent here; nobody had targets to meet, or reports to write. There would be no talk of inputs and outputs and communicative objectives. Most people worked for themselves and no other; they knew what their neighbours would say, about any subject, as they had heard it all before, time upon time, and it was all as familiar as the weather. They knew, too, exactly who liked, or disliked, whom; they knew who was not be trusted; who had done what, years back, and what the consequences had been. It would be simple to be a policeman here, thought Ulf, as there were no secrets to speak of. You would know about crimes almost before they were committed, although there would be few of those. People here were law-abiding and conformist, leading lives that ran narrowly and correctly to the grave—and they knew where that grave would be, right next to those of their parents and their parents’ parents.
Ulf opened his car window and took a deep breath: the country air bore notes of something floral—gorse, he thought, or the flowering trees of an orchard that ran beside the road. Trees were not his strong point, and Ulf could never remember which fruit tree was which, although he believed that he was now in apple-growing country—or was it peach? Whatever it might be, it was in blossom, a little later than usual, he had heard, because spring had been slow in Sweden that year. Everything had been slow, in fact, including promotion. Ulf had been told—unofficially—that he was in line for advancement within Malmö’s Department of Sensitive Crimes, but that had been months ago and nothing had come of it since then.
It had been a bad idea to spend the anticipated rise in salary on the purchase of a new living-room suite, especially one that was upholstered in soft Florentine leather. It had been ruinously expensive, and when his salary remained obstinately the same, he had been obliged to transfer funds out of his savings account into his current account in order to cover the cost. Ulf hated doing that, as he had vowed not to touch his savings account until his sixtieth birthday, which was exactly twenty years away. Yet twenty years seemed such a long time, and he wondered whether he would still be around then.
Ulf was not one to dwell on such melancholy reflections about our human situation. There was a limit to what one could take on in life; his job was to protect people from others who would harm them in some way—to fight crime, even if at a rather odd end of the criminal spectrum. He could not do everything, he decided, and take all the troubles of the world on his shoulders. Who could? It was not that he was an uninvolved and irresponsible citizen, one of those who do not care about plastic bags. He was as careful as anyone to keep his ecological footprint as small as possible—apart from the Saab, of course, that ran on fossil fuel rather than electricity. If you took the Saab out of the equation, though, Ulf could hold his head high in the company of conservationists, including that of his colleague, Erik, who went on and on about fishing stocks while at the same time doing his best every weekend to seek such fish as remained. Erik made much of his habit of returning to the water any fish he caught, but Ulf pointed out that these fish were traumatised and were possibly never the same again. “It’s a big thing for a fish to be caught,” he said to Erik. “Even if you put him back, that fish is bound to feel insecure.”
Erik had simply dismissed his objection, although Ulf could tell that his remark had hit home. And that he immediately regretted, because it was only too easy to make somebody like Erik feel ill at ease. It was hard enough to be Erik, Ulf reflected, without having to fend off criticism from people like me. Ulf was a kind man, and even if Erik’s talk about fish was trying, he would take care not to show it. He would listen patiently, and might even learn something—although that, he thought, was rather unlikely.
As he drove the Saab along that quiet country road, Ulf was not thinking about conservation and the long-term prospects of humanity so much as of an awkward issue that had arisen as a result of one of his recent cases. The Department of Sensitive Crimes usually steered clear of day-to-day offences, leaving those to the uniformed officers of the local police. From time to time, though, a particular political or social connotation to an otherwise mundane incident meant that it was diverted to the department. This was the case with a minor assault committed by a Lutheran clergyman, who had bloodied the nose of his victim one Saturday morning in full view of at least fifteen witnesses. That was unusual enough, as Lutheran ministers do not figure prominently in the criminal statistics, but what singled this out for the attentions of the Department of Sensitive Crimes was not so much the identity of the perpetrator of the assault, but that of the victim. The nose that had been the target of the assault belonged to the leader of a group of Rom travellers.
“Protected species,” observed Ulf’s colleague, Carl. “Tatarre,”
mused Erik, only to be sharply corrected by their colleague, Anna, who rolled her eyes at the unfashionable, disparaging name. Anna, more than the others in the department, knew the contours of the permissible. “They are not Tartars, Erik,” she said. “They are Reasande,
a travelling minority.”
Ulf had defused the situation. “Erik is only referring to the insensitivity of others,” he said. “He’s drawing our attention to the sort of attitude that leads to incidents like this.”
“Unless he deserved it,” muttered Erik.
Ulf ignored this, looking instead at the photographs in the folder of the nose in question. These had been taken in the hospital emergency department, when the blood was still trickling out of the left nostril. In other respects, the nose appeared unexceptional, although Ulf noticed that the pores on either side of the curve of the nostril were slightly enlarged.
“There are odd little holes here,” he said, getting up from his desk to hand the file to Anna, whose desk, one of four in the room, was closest to his. “Look at this poor man’s skin.”
Anna examined the photograph. “Enlarged pores,” she said. “An oily complexion.”
Carl looked up from a report he was writing. “Can anything be done about that?” asked Carl. “Sometimes when I look in the mirror—I mean, look closely at my nose—I see little pinpricks. I’ve wondered about them.”
Anna nodded. “Same thing—and perfectly normal. You find them in places where the skin is naturally greasy. They act as a sort of drain.”
Carl seemed interested. His hand went up to touch the skin around his nose. “And can you do anything about them?”
Anna handed the file back to Ulf. “Wash your face,” she said. “Use a cleanser. And then, for special occasions, you can put an ice cube on them. It tightens the skin and will make your pores look smaller.”
“Oh,” said Carl. “Ice?”
“Yes,” said Anna. “But the most important thing is to keep the skin clean. You don’t wear make-up, I take it . . .”
Carl smiled. “Not yet.”
Anna pointed out that some men did. “You can wear anything these days. There’s that man in the café over the road—have you noticed him? He wears blusher—quite a lot of it. He’ll have to be careful—he could get blocked pores if he doesn’t remove the make-up carefully enough.”
“Why does he wear the stuff?” asked Carl. “I can’t imagine caking my face with chemicals.”
“Because he wants to look his best,” said Anna. “Most people, you know, don’t look the way they’d like to. It’s a bit sad, I suppose, but that’s the way it is.”
Ulf said, “Very strange.” He was thinking of the case, rather than cosmetics.
The assault on the traveller might have led to a swift and uncomplicated prosecution of the assailant were it not for the fact that not one of the fifteen witnesses was prepared to give evidence. Four of them said that they had been looking the other way at the time; five said that their eyes happened to be closed when the assault took place, one actually claiming to have been asleep; and the remainder said that they could not remember anything about the incident and that they very much doubted whether it had taken place at all. This left the victim and the Lutheran minister. The victim was clear as to what had happened: he had been attending to his own business in the town’s public square when a stranger in clerical garb had walked up to him and punched him in the nose. This was purely because he was a traveller, he said. “We’re used to the settled community treating us in this way. They resent our freedom.”
For the minister’s part, he claimed that he had been suddenly confronted by a complete stranger who became so animated in some unfathomable diatribe that he had banged his nose on a lamp-post. He had been so concerned about this unfortunate’s injury that he had offered him his own handkerchief to mop up the blood. This offer had been spurned in a most ungracious way. Any allegation that he had assaulted this man was abhorrent and patently false. “Some people are terrible liars,” the minister concluded. “Bless them, but they really have no shame at all. Not that I’m picking on any particular group, you’ll understand.”
Ulf suggested to the victim and the assailant that it might be best to let the whole thing be resolved through the extraction of a mutual apology. “When it’s impossible for us to tell what actually happened,” he explained, “then it is sometimes best to move on. There are different understandings of conflict—as in this case—and if both sides can see their way to patching things up . . .”
The victim’s body language made it apparent that this suggestion was not going down well. He appeared to swell, his neck inflating in what looked like a dangerous build-up of pressure, and his eyes narrowing in fury. “So, a Rom nose counts for less than anybody else’s,” he hissed. “Is that what you’re telling me?”
“I am not passing judgement on your nose,” said Ulf calmly. “And all noses are equal as far as we’re concerned—let me assure you of that.”
“That’s what you say,” snapped the victim. “But when it comes to the church, it’s a rather different story, isn’t it?” His voice rose petulantly. He glared at Ulf, then he went on, “My nose is as Swedish as yours.”
Ulf stared back. He was always irritated by aggression, and this man, he thought, was needlessly confrontational. At the same time, he was aware that he was dealing with a member of a minority disliked by so many. That must change your attitude. His reply was placatory. “Of course it is. I didn’t say otherwise.”
“But you want to let him off, don’t you? Justified assault? Is that it?”
This stung Ulf. “Vili . . .” He trailed off, realising that he did not know the complainant’s name. It was recorded in the file, but he did not have that to hand. It was a particularly unfortunate lapsus memoriae,
given that he was being accused of discrimination. He remembered the name of the minister, but not of this man. “Vili . . .”
“See!” hissed the victim. “You can’t even be bothered to learn my name.”
Ulf swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.” He remembered now, and wondered how he could have forgotten. Viligot Danior. “I’m sorry, Viligot. I’m very busy with all sorts of problems. Things come at me from every direction, and I sometimes find it difficult to master the details. What I want to say to you is this: I am not going to let this go. I understand how you feel and I am determined that the minister should be held to account.”
Viligot visibly relaxed. “Good. That is very good.”
“And so I’m going to propose that we charge him. It will then be up to the magistrate to decide whom to believe. It will be one word against another, but we’ll just have to hope that the court can work out who’s telling the truth.”
“Which is me,” said Viligot hurriedly.
“If that’s what you say,” said Ulf, “then I shall believe you unless otherwise persuaded to the contrary. After all, you don’t get a bloody nose from nowhere.”
“Especially when there are no lamp-posts in the square in question,” said Viligot.
Copyright © 2020 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.