Sollentuna is a 15-minute commuter train ride from downtown Stockholm, Sweden, with a population of about 70,000. We had everything: fancy restaurants, middle-of-the-road restaurants, pubs, a mall, public swimming pool, gyms, grocery stores, teams in all sports divisions, trains and buses to – and with the arrival of the old man, a celebrity.
A celebrity that didn’t seem to like publicity, as it was. The next time I saw him was a year later when he set up his table and chairs in the middle of our mall and traded stories with people until Christmas Eve. Then he disappeared – only to return a year later.
I sat in his chair twice in the next three years and maybe six times in the next seven tears. Time flies, it’s hard to keep track.
All I know is that every I went to the gym or – more often – to the mall around Christmas, he was sitting there, on his small chair behind his foldable table, wearing his brown tweed jacket, his thermos of tea on the floor next to his right foot and a basket of tea cups.
He was never alone.
People in Sweden don’t like standing in line but they do like order which is why when you go to the post office, for example, you get an queue number. The old man didn’t use that system. He didn’t need it because even though there was a constant stream of people, somehow everybody always found his or her slot.
I heard of people who had visited his table and seen the light, so to say. One banker and a stay-at-home Mom, for example, credited the man as their impetus to make a life change. The banker bought up Big Mag, the magazine that homeless people sell in downtown Stockholm, and turned it into one of the country’s most read publications that was so successful that he could build several apartment buildings for the formerly homeless. And the Mom, well, her name was Alice, and she wrote a best-selling novel. I read that in the local paper.
And, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that those articles were written by yours truly.
That’s right, my writer’s block wasn’t as complete as before. My novel still wasn’t going anywhere, but I had pitched a story of the old man to The New Yorker and Esquire – both in the US and the UK. Yes, they both turned it down, but at least I was trying to get back in the saddle.
I mostly made withdrawals, sipping my tea as the man told me exactly the story that I needed to hear, but whenever I did tell him a story, he listened with such intensity that I felt like I was the only person in the world.
Well, one of only two people in the world.
Every year I went back several times, trying to learn more about him – where he came from, how old he was, why he was doing what he was doing, what was it that he was doing, had he been doing it for long – but he never revealed anything from his past. I did ask him what his name was, and he said, “you can call me Al” which I took to be a joke, and kept on calling him Story Man.
He never mentioned Jesus or God, so he wasn’t religious, and he didn’t want to convert anyone, even though I did see some priests sitting at his table. He didn’t talk about money or politics, even though I saw local politicians – and once, a man who was a spitting image of the King of Sweden – at the table..
I don’t know if he told my three silly stories to someone else, but I do know that he never took any notes, and as far as I could tell, he didn’t record anything, either.
Every year, I wrote about him for the Sollentuna paper. I spoke about him to everyone I knew. For every Christmas that passes, I became more and more obsessed with him because I couldn’t wrap my head around the concept. There he was, a man telling stories in the middle of my local shopping mall, and people actually sat down and exchanged stories. It was funny, weird, beautiful, romantic, interesting, idealistic, and, well, weird again.
I sent my friends to the mall to see it for themselves, and I insisted that they all sit down and have tea with him. They did, and they returned satisfied – but not one of them told me what they had heard.
What was shared at that table, stayed at the table except that in their hearts, people carried every story they heard, just like the old man carried away his table and chairs at the end of each day.
Seven years is a long time. The video store closed down, the tanning centre disappeared, and the H&M store took over both stores and doubled in size. The bakery changed ownership, the mall changed its entire color scheme, and two other stores turned into coffeeshops, of which only one was a Starbucks.
Personally, I had gone through some changes as well. For example, I had first gone down two sizes and then found all the weight I had lost. I used slightly lighter weights at the gym, and my visits there had gotten shorter and were farther apart. There were times when I just took the elevator up to the gym, and stood on the treadmill, thinking about the man and his stories.
The man himself, however, never changed. Granted, he had looked ancient when he walked in that first day, and maybe ancient plus seven years wasn’t that big of a difference, but I thought it was curious.
And I became curious.
I didn’t know what he was there for. All I knew was that he made people happy.
In fact, it had been seven years, and I didn’t even know his name. I just called him the “Story Man”, and I heard others call him that, too. (In my pitch he was “The Story Man of Sollentuna”).
I only knew three things about him: 1) That his stories always began with “What you’re about to hear”, 2) That he showed up around Christmas, and 3) that he spoke at least a dozen languages. At least.
I didn’t know why he returned to Sollentuna, Sweden. Why there, why then? Our mall was nothing special, surely. Who was he, where did he come from, and where did he go to at the end of the day?
I needed to find answers. I wasn’t a detective, just a writer, but I’d read a lot of detective novels and even written a couple – as “Mads Cramble” back when Danish mystery writers were all the rage – so I knew some of the techniques and tricks to use.
And thus, the game, as Sherlock Holmes would have put it, was afoot.
(To be continued)