Since I was a writer, it was easy for me to put aside some time to solve the mystery. I called it “research” to silence my guilty conscience, which wasn’t that guilty to begin with. After all, I was “between projects”, the creative term for being unemployed.
Now, when I said that he was always at the mall during Christmas, I was using the phrase in a casual way. I obviously meant that he was there every time I was therebut surely he couldn’t have always been there. It was a shopping mall, he couldn’t live there.
Or could he?
It only took me two days, eight cups of coffee, two sandwiches, three croissants, and four (!) chocolate chip cookies to figure out his schedule. Two days because I had to make sure I could detect a pattern (and the four chocolate chip cookies simply because I love them).
Both days, he showed up at 10am, and at 7.45pm, he packed things up. He had his table all set up by 10.15am, and he left at 8 pm, his table and chairs in one hand and the basket of tea in the other which he put down when he tipped his hat to me as he walked by the coffee shop at the end of my first day of stakeout.
On the third day, I stood outside the commuter train station exit at 9.45. I guessed that if he took the train to Sollentuna, and wanted to be inside the mall by 10, he’d arrive around then. Now, I didn’t know whether he’d come from Stockholm, which is to the south of Sollentuna, or from the airport, which is to the north.
Or whether he took the train at all.
Besides the fact that I didn’t know which direction he’d be coming from, my problem was that there were two exits at the station. His table was always on the landing in the middle of the mall, and the difference in distance from the two exits was minimal. The station platform was as long as the train (naturally), which meant that I couldn’t see the other exit from where I was standing.
I waited for twenty minutes. Three trains arrived and left the station. When I walked in the mall, he was already there. The next day, I stood in the middle of the platform, binoculars at the ready.
That night, as I went through my notes, I realized what an idiot I had been trying to catch him arriving to the mall when it would have been so much easier to follow him when he leftt he mall at 8pm.
The next day, I sat at the same coffeeshop, with a cup of coffee and a stack of chocolate chip cookies and waited for the clock to strike 8. (Yes, I there at 5pm even though I knew he’d be leaving at 8pm but … Did I mention the chocolate chip cookies?)
I watched him pack things up and walk toward the exit. I gave him a minute’s head start before I got up and rushed toward the exit myself, but by the time I got to the revolving door, he was nowhere to be seen. I think we both knew that it had turned into a game of cat and mouse.
I watched him take the escalator down. I pulled the newspaper in front of my face and followed his journey through the eye holes. He did not tip his hat toward me – a good sign. I shadowed him all the way to the exit, and down the walk path towards the station.
I saw him wait for the elevator to the platform and I made my move. I dumped the newspaper into a trash can and adjusted my fake moustache and sunglasses. Just as his elevator was on its way up, I sprinted up the stairs and made my way through the turnstile.
I pretended to be buying a cup of coffee while tracking Story Man on the reflection of my mirrored sunglasses in my hand. However, the barista behind the counter didn’t think it was polite to pretendto be buying coffee, and to avoid drawing attention to myself, I ordered a cappuccino – and cursed myself afterwards for not taking a straight up espresso or an americano. Hot coffee spilling all over my clothes, I rushed out the door and dove through the doors just as they closed.
The first thing I saw on the train were Story Man’s black leather boots. As I got up, I saw a big smile on his face.
“Rough day?” he said.
“Yours was probably rougher, you’re putting in long hours there.” I nodded toward the mall, now slightly behind us.
“My day was good,” he said. “A very good day.”
“What’s a good day for you? More deposits than withdrawals?” I said, and added quickly, “if you don’t mind my asking.”
“All days are good, and very good days are those when there are many stories traveling across the table.”
“I see. Going home now?”
“Taking the train to work … maybe there’s a mall closer to home?”
“I go to other places, too,” he said, with a smile.
I made a mental note of that. It was interesting that even with a full eight-hour shift in Sollentuna, he somehow managed to be somewhere else. Or at least he claimed to go elsewhere as well.
“So, what’s your story?” I asked him, thinking he might answer it instinctively.
He just smiled and looked out the window.
“My story? Stories aren’t yours or mine, they belong to everyone!”
“But why Sollentuna?” I went on.
“Why not?” he said.
“What’s the point? Are you making money on this? Why not? Why not use your popularity to get rich? I know you have a large customer base, and there must be an easy way to monetize it.”
“Monetize it? Customer base?” He chuckled and started to pick up his basket and table and chairs.
“Need a hand?”
“Yes, please. If you could just take the table and carry it to the door, I can take it from there.”
“I can carry it all the way to your house.”
“I’m sure,” he said.
I took the table to the train door, and as we waited for the doors to open, he made a hand gesture and said, “after you”. I stepped out, and just as I did that, he grabbed the table from me, and stepped back inside. As the doors closed, he tipped his hat.
The next day, I was on the train waiting for himand when the train arrived in Rotebro, I made him step out first. Rotebro, a part of Sollentuna, was two stops from the mall’s station, and mostly famous for its yeast factory by the sea.
I was in mid-sentence talking to him when I lost him.
We had just passed two buses at the bus terminal but ended up walking on different sides of them. I continued my chatting, not realizing he never replied to me and once I came to the front end of the second bus, I saw that I was by myself again. I didn’t see Story Man anywhere.
He had never told me to stop following him, and if anything, he seemed slightly amused by me. , but it was just as obvious that he didn’t want me to find out where he lived and what he did when he wasn’t at the mall.
Was I a stalker? Was I invading a stranger’s privacy? Of course I was. I was shadowing an old man … but I didn’t want to give up, not after everything I had already done. I had gone beyond the point of no return.
So, on Christmas Eve, at around 3pm, when the mall closed doors because the entire nation gathered around TVs to watch Donald Duck, I followed him from the Sollentuna mall to the train station, from the station to the train – I stayed in a different car – all the way to the Rotebro station, then down the stairs, around the small mall, through a gravel soccer pitch, up the hill, past a hockey rink, through a schoolyard, never letting him out of my sight, not even for a second, as we walked all the way to a small yellow house that stood alone, just slightly off the bike path.
I slowed down so that he wouldn’t see me. I expected to see the old man, out of breath, looking for his keys on the front steps, maybe smiling at the sight of me. Walking up the hill had also made my heart race and I wanted to get my own heartbeat down. I leaned on my knees and panted for a while.
But there was no old man in a hat and a tweed jacket. Not anywhere.
I walked around the house but didn’t see him anywhere. In the garden behind the house, there was a white wooden table and three chairs. The paint on the table and chairs had chipped and had there not been a dirty coffee cup, I would have guessed that nobody had sat there in ages.
I jumped up, trying to get a peek through the window, but didn’t see anybody inside the house, either. I walked back around and carefully tried the handle.
The front door was open.
I wiped my feet on the welcome mat, and walked in. The house smelled of lemon furnish polish, and pipe tobacco, which is not a great combination, but one that seemed very familiar to me.
“Hel-lo,” I said, loudly.
No answer, except a kettle whistling on the stove. I turned it off and walked into the living room where I saw a big brown leather couch. Leaning against it, there was a foldable table, two camping chairs, and a basket with a thermos, tea cups, tea, and two laminated pieces of paper that said, “Withdrawals” and “Deposits.”
“Oh, you Story Man, what have you done?” I said out loud. “All I ever wanted was to hear your story.”
All I could do was shake my head and laugh. I unfolded one of the camping chairs and sat down. I laughed until I was out of breath again.
The chase was over. I knew I wouldn’t see him in Sollentuna next Christmas.
In fact, I never saw him again.
What did I get out of it all?
I like Christmas again, for one. So before I forget: Merry Christmas! Joyeux Noël! Frohe Weinachten! Feliz Navidad! Buon Natale! Vrolijk kerstfeest! Hyvää joulua! God jul!
Secondly, my writer’s block is gone although I’m one hundred percent sure that there will never be a novel and that I’ve filed my last piece for the Sollentuna paper.
But I have my stories.
Of yes, the stories that jump-started my brain when I was bored and sat down at Story Man’s table here at the Sollentuna mall. Stories that gave me some peace of mind when I had stood upstairs at the mall for hours, frustrated with life, and stories that simply entertained me.
I now have my wonderful stories, all of them different: some are short, others long and winding. Some are sad, others make me roar with laughter.
Would you like to hear one?
Have a seat, bitte. ¿Una taza de té, maybe?
Of course, you’ll have to make a deposit first. That is the rule, you see.