Read The Unit Online

Authors: Ninni Holmqvist

Tags: #Psychological Fiction, #Dystopias, #Health facilities, #Middle aged women, #General, #Literary, #Fiction, #Middle-aged women, #Human experimentation in medicine, #Fiction - General, #Fantasy

The Unit



It was more comfortable than I could have imagined. A room of my own with a bathroom, or rather an apartment of my own, because there were two rooms: a bedroom and a living room with a kitchenette. It was light and spacious, furnished in a modern style and tastefully decorated in muted colors. True, the tiniest nook or cranny was monitored by cameras, and I would soon realize there were hidden microphones there too. But the cameras weren’t hidden. There was one in each corner of the ceiling —small but perfectly visible—and in every corner and every hallway that wasn’t visible from the ceiling; inside the closets, for example, and behind doors and protruding cabinets. Even under the bed and under the sink in the kitchenette. Anywhere a person might crawl in or curl up, there was a camera. Sometimes as you moved through a room they followed you with their one-eyed stare. A faint humming noise gave away the fact that at that particular moment someone on the surveillance team was paying close attention to what you were doing. Even the bathroom was monitored. There were no fewer than three cameras within that small space, two on the ceiling and one underneath the washbasin. This meticulous surveillance applied not only to the private apartments, but also to the communal areas. And of course nothing less was to be expected. It was not the intention that those who lived here should be able to take their own lives or harm themselves in some other way. Not once you were here. You should have sorted that out beforehand, if you were thinking along those lines.

I was, for a while. I thought about hanging myself or jumping in front of a speeding train or doing a U-turn on the highway and driving toward the oncoming traffic at full speed. Or simply driving off the road. But I didn’t have the courage. Instead I just obediently allowed myself to be picked up at the agreed time outside my house.

The first snowdrops had just appeared in my flowerbeds, which had been blazing with yellow winter aconite for several weeks now. It was a Saturday morning. I had lit the fire earlier. A transparent, quivering plume of smoke was still rising from the chimney as I stood waiting by the side of the road outside the gate. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and the air was cold and clear.

The SUV was a metallic wine red, so shiny that it cast reflections of the sun as it slowly moved down the hill and through the village, then stopped in front of me. All the windows except the windshield and the front side windows were tinted black; apart from that the car was completely anonymous, with no logo or sticker to reveal where it had come from or where it was going. The driver, a woman in a black quilted jacket, climbed out and greeted me with a nod and a friendly smile. She hoisted my large suitcase into the trunk and waved me into the back seat. I fastened my seat belt and placed my shoulder bag on my knee, my arms around it. The driver put the car in first gear, released the handbrake, and we moved off. There were only the two of us in the car. We didn’t say anything to each other.

After a drive of about two hours, behind those windows that were so dark I would have found it difficult to follow our route even if I’d tried, or to work out in which direction I was being taken, we suddenly plunged downward and the sound of the engine and the tires changed and became muted and echoing at the same time, as if we were traveling through a tunnel. First it became darker, then lighter on the other side of the windows, then the car stopped and the engine was switched off. The door by the back seat where I was sitting was opened from the outside. I saw a man’s face and a woman’s face. The woman’s face was smiling, her mouth open, and she said:

“Hi there, Dorrit! You’ve arrived.”

I got out of the car and saw that I was in a parking lot, an underground one from the look of things. The man and the woman were both dressed in green shirts the color of linden flowers, with the logo of the unit in white on the breast pocket—I recognized it from the information packet that had been sent to me at home a few months earlier. The man and woman introduced themselves as Dick and Henrietta. Henrietta added:

“We’re your section orderlies.”

She went around the car, opened the trunk, lifted out my suitcase and set off toward a row of elevators at one end of the parking lot where some fifty cars were parked, most of them ordinary family cars, SUVs or minibuses, but I also saw a couple of ambulances. Dick picked up my shoulder bag from the concrete floor where I’d put it while I shook hands. I would have preferred to carry it myself, as it contained my most private possessions, but he insisted and I didn’t want to make a scene, so I shrugged my shoulders and let him take it. He gestured toward the elevators. I followed Henrietta empty-handed with him directly behind me.

The elevator went up only one floor. When we got out, Dick said:

“We’re on level K1 now. That’s the upper basement floor.”

We walked along a wide corridor with a red ceiling, floor, and walls until we reached another row of elevators. We got into one of them, went up several floors and came out into something that resembled an ordinary stairwell with two doors that looked like ordinary apartment doors, one at each end. Dick, who had less to carry of the two functionaries, went ahead and pushed open one of the doors labeled SECTION H3 and held it open for me. I walked into an open common room of the kind usually found in hospital wards or student corridors, a lounge really. On a sofa in the corner sat a woman with red frizzy hair, just starting to turn gray, reading a magazine. In front of her on the table was a steaming cup of tea. Judging by the aroma, it was peppermint. The woman looked up, smiling.

“This is Majken,” said Henrietta. “And this is Dorrit.”

I managed to croak something that was supposed to be hello, and noticed that my mouth was completely dry.

“I live two doors down from you,” said Majken. “If there’s anything you’re not sure about, or if you just want to talk—or not even that; if you want to be quiet in someone’s company, or anything at all—then I’m either here or in my room for the next few hours. It says Majken Ohlsson on my door.”

“Okay,” I managed to get out.

She looked at me, her gaze steady. Her eyes were flecked with green.

“Don’t hesitate,” she added. “You mustn’t feel you’re disturbing me. We always have time for each other here.”

“Okay,” I said again. Then I thought I ought to say something else, so I said: “Thanks.”

A hallway led off the lounge, with five doors along one side. On the second door was my name. Dick pushed down the door handle, opened the door, and we walked straight into the living room.

Henrietta put my suitcase down on the floor. Dick placed the shoulder bag on top of it, then turned to me and asked pleasantly:

“Would you like us to stay for a while?”

“No,” I replied, a fraction less pleasantly.

“In that case we’ll leave you in peace,” he said. “Just don’t forget the orientation meeting at two o’clock.”

He looked at me searchingly, as if to check that I could really manage all on my own until two o’clock. I couldn’t help snorting. Then they left, closing the door behind them.

So there I stood.

It was warm in the room; it must have been about seventy degrees. I wasn’t used to such a high temperature indoors, especially not at this time of year. I shrugged off my peacoat, untied my winter boots, took off my cardigan and finally my socks. For the time being I just left everything lying in a heap on the floor. I stood next to the heap, barefoot, contemplating a simple beechwood dining room set, a deep sofa and two armchairs upholstered in eggshell white; at the far side of the room in an alcove was a desk. To my left, the kitchenette, to my right, the bathroom door, and next to that the bedroom, with the door standing open. To my surprise I saw that there was a double bed in there. I’d never had a double bed in my entire life. I laughed, and that was when I heard the faint hum of one of the cameras for the first time, as it turned its little dark eye toward me and—or so I imagined—zoomed in on my face. I automatically looked away.


Yes, I did actually have a house. When I say that I was picked up outside my house, I don’t just mean my home, my residence, but my actual house. Despite my very low and irregular income, I had managed to get a bank loan some eight years earlier, just before I turned forty-two, to buy a little place I’d been to look at several times, and one of my life’s dreams had been fulfilled: a house of my own and a garden of my own on the open, rolling plain between the Romele Ridge and the south coast.

But I hadn’t been able to afford to maintain the house. The bargeboards and the window frames were rotten, the paint was flaking, the roof leaked in at least two places, and new drainage was needed all the way around the house. My income just about covered the interest on the loan, paying it off in the smallest possible installments; wood and electricity and maintenance costs, plus insurance, taxes, gas, and food for myself and my dog. And I don’t think it could have made much difference to the state coffers when the confiscation authority sold the house at auction—that is if they managed to sell it at all in its present condition.

But despite the fact that I’d let the house get so run down, and despite the fact that it was old-fashioned and impractical, and cold and drafty in the winter and damp and stuffy in the summer, at least it was my very own home, my sanctuary, a place over which I and no one else had control, where my dog could run free and I could work in peace most of the time: no noisy neighbors on the other side of the wall, no footsteps clattering up and down an echoing stairwell, no squabbling kids in the shared courtyard, no communal outdoor spaces where families with children or friends could come along and sit down just as I was relaxing in the sun, noisily snacking or partying around me as if I didn’t exist. I felt at home here, both indoors and outdoors; this was my domain, and if anyone—a neighbor or a friend who happened to be passing by—noticed that I was sitting in the garden, and stepped in through the gate for a chat or a cup of coffee, then at least it was me they wanted to talk to or drink coffee with. And if I didn’t have the time or the inclination for a chat, then I had the right to tell them that, and they would have to go away.

It very rarely happened that I would ask someone to go. I didn’t have very many friends, and not so many neighbors either, and if visitors turned up unannounced at an inconvenient moment, I usually let them stay for a little while anyway. If you live alone in the country you can’t afford to push away your neighbors, or fall out with them. In fact, the way I see it, you can’t afford to fall out with anyone at all if you live alone and no one needs you. Therefore I was friendly and welcoming from the very start each time someone turned up in my garden or at my door, even those times when I was absorbed in my work and they really were disturbing me.

At that time, when I’d just moved in, I still regarded the future with optimism. I still believed and hoped that it wasn’t too late to have a child. Or at least to start earning money from my profession and become financially secure, or find a partner, someone who would love me and want to live with me. Almost to the very end I had hopes, futile and desperate hopes, of Nils.

Nils was several years younger than me, tall and strong and with tremendous sexual vitality. We had the same secret desire. The same sexual fantasies. The same hopelessly politically incorrect attitude. We were like a hand in a glove. He was actually living with another woman already; they had a child together, a boy. He never said he loved me, but for him, as for me, the word “love” was a big thing to say. But he said he “almost loved me”—he said it many times—and for me that was wonderful to hear. To be almost loved is as close as you can get to being loved without actually being loved.

Perhaps it was because of this “almost loving” that as late as six weeks before my fiftieth birthday, in a final attempt at least to gain a dispensation with regard to the date, I turned to him and asked him to save me—yes, in my desperation I actually used that expression—by separating from his partner and becoming mine instead, and, regardless of whether it was true or not, supplying a written declaration to the authorities stating that he loved me. When I asked him this outright he became terribly upset. In fact, he cried. He sat there naked on the edge of my bed, and that was the first and last time I saw him cry. He sat there with his eyes glistening, sobbing, and he pulled a corner of the duvet over his penis, apparently unconsciously, and said:

“Dorrit, I think more of you than I’ve ever thought of any other woman, and it isn’t just sexual feelings, you know that. I admire you and respect you, I almost love you, and I would be more than happy to live with you and share my life with you. But for one thing, I want my son to grow up with both parents living in the same house. And for another, I can’t actually say I love you, because I can’t lie. I … I’m just not made that way. I can’t say it to you, and I can’t say it to the authorities; I can’t put my name to something that isn’t true. That would be perjury. I would be committing a crime. You have to understand this, Dorrit. I …”

He paused, took a deep breath, swallowed a few times, sniveled, rubbed his finger under his nose, and went on, virtually breathless, almost whispering:

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I … you know what you’ve meant … what you mean to me. I’ll miss you so much, I …”

And he wept and wept. He put his arms around me, clung to me, howling like a child. I didn’t cry. Not then.

I didn’t cry until I said good-bye to Jock, my dog; we’d been so close for so many years. He’s a Danish-Swedish farm dog, white with black and brown patches, brown eyes, and ears that are as soft as velvet, one black and one white. I gave him to a family I knew and trusted, not far from where I lived. Lisa and Sten and their three children. They’ve got a smallholding with horses and chickens, and they were very fond of Jock. The children loved him. I knew he liked them too, and that he’d have a good life there. But even so. He was mine, after all. And I was his. Between him and me you really could—without committing perjury —talk about love. The feeling was mutual, I’m convinced of that. But dogs don’t count; a dog’s dependence and devotion are not enough. And it was when I had left Jock at Sten and Lisa’s and I was driving away that I wept.

Loving and leaving don’t go together. They are two irreconcilable concepts, and when they are forced together by outside circumstances they require an explanation. But I was unable to give Jock that explanation. Because how do you explain something like that—or anything at all—to a dog? Nils could at least explain to me why he couldn’t be with me properly and make me a needed person, and I could understand that. But how will Jock, if he’s still alive, ever be able to understand why I drove away without him that day? How will he ever be able to understand why I never came back?

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