The family sends me to the big Swedish store to buy a wall unit. I’ve seen the brochure; it’s a handsome thing, tidy, somehow compact while commodious. Elegant actually. It has a first name, something like Edmund. The e-savvy ones (my family) who despatch me to the big shop have checked, and yes, they have Edmund in stock
It’s a big place. You should ask for directions when you arrive.
This should worry me. I am willing but stupid. I was born with one organ missing – a sense of direction.
They have parking there.
This is intended to reassure but it simply reminds me that I have to get this Edmund bastard into the vehicle. I have seen the dimensions: Edmund is large, Howard is not.
They’ll help you load up.
Well, that’s good. But they won’t be at the other end when I need to unload the monster.
I find the parking lot. I park my son’s vehicle, a sort of truck pretending to be a car. They call it an SUV.
Emerging from the parking lot I walk to the street and look for the Swedish shop. I can see it clearly from the street – only about 2 kilometres distant.
Wrong car park.
I drive to Sweden and park again. This car park is a multi-storey affair, like the one at the airport, only bigger. It turns out that I have arrived at a mall, a place where shops metastasise, where the air is a thick substance imported from the natural world and treated to a muzak consistency. If you have never visited a mall, allow me to congratulate you. A mall is a maze designed to amaze – meaning to lock you into a mental state and a physical state. COSTCO is such a state. It is one of the states of the American Union. You need your passport to get out.
But I digress.
In this particular mall-state the Swedish shop is a city. Designed by Dante: give up all hope, ye who enter here.
I look for the Information Desk. There isn’t one. Instead a route map advises me: You are here. Edmund lives at 19. Follow the numbers.
I follow numbers all the way to 4, a dead end.
I need directions. There are no shopkeeper people in sight, but there are plenty of shoppers, gathering coat hangers, light fittings, pillows. All of them push trolleys. Where did they get those? I suppose I’ll need one if they do. Who told them about the trolley phenomenon?
Whom to approach? All the shoppers are young women, all somehow pregnant yet skinny. Slim catlike creatures, they wear black leggings and tops. Leopards in leotards.
They walk quietly in the altered mental state, the amazed state that is the mall phenomenon. How to ask directions from a person in a trance?
Hello, here is a shopkeeper person. Fair of skin and hair, healthy and unmalled looking, she wears a shirt that is a Swedish flag. She speaks in a Swedish accent. Charming. She smiles and points the way to 19 and utters the fatal words: You can’t miss it.
I follow pregnant trolley-pushing women through 4 to 12.
No more numbers. A Swedish person – male – listens courteously to my problem. He looks at me kindly; he has helped the mentally infirm before. The numbers resume “down the stairs, one level, maybe two.” Of course. Stupid of me. Mister Sweden doesn’t actually know the whereabouts of the staircase: “Should be there, somewhere.” Vasco de Garma setting out on oceans unknown, I find the stairs.
Now in a basement in the Underworld I follow numbers to 18. Here, at the end of the counting, is a cafeteria. “Foods from Sweden”, reads the notice. No sign of Edmund.
A third Swede directs me to 19. Nineteen exists in its own suburb, an unpeopled wilderness like Docklands. It has no connection to 18. Nineteen is a unique destination at the end of the world, a cavernous space traversed only by nomadic tribes of pregnant women.
Someone tells me there is a blue desk where someone will help me. The blue desk is sighted in the distance. One kilometre further on I approach the desk with racing heart and altered breathing: this is either a panic attack or orgasm.
There is indeed someone at the blue desk. A good bloke. Yes, he knows Edmund. Yep, Edmund comes in white and a desert sand colour. Yep, we should get supplies again soon – possibly in four weeks. World shortage. None in this store, none in any store in Australia. None in Japan or China or Malaysia either. Those well-known offshore provinces of Sweden.
“But we checked on the net. Your website says it’s in stock.”
“When did you check?”
The good bloke shakes his head. “You don’t want to look at our website, not at night. Better to check on the morning- before you come in.”
So no Edmund. “Would anything else do? Since you’re here, look around…”
I do. Billy is available. I call my son who lives in the outside world, on the surface. He checks the net. Yes, Billy will do.
Billy is a bookcase two metres in height and three metric tonnes in weight. Howard is 1.7 metres high and 72 kilograms. We will need two Billies. One Howard: an unequal proposition.
The good bloke directs me to the suburb, kilometres back, where the wise have collected their trolleys. When I return he helps me lug the two long flat boxes that are Billy Incognito onto my trolley. “How do I pay you?”
He smiles, shakes his head, directs me towards Payment: I know, I know, I can’t miss it.
I pay with plastic. Naturally.
Ms Payment sings me “have a nice day’ in Swedish singsong.
There is a way to get out. I go there.
No escape. I haven’t validated my parking ticket.
Back to the payment-accepting Swede who is my validator. Once valid I head for Loading Help. The helper is a tall, bulky bloke, built like a centre half back. He’d match up ok on Dermott Brereton or Wayne Carey. He’ll guard my trolley and my two Billies until I return with my SUV.
Back to the car park. I know where my vehicle is parked – close to the entrance. I can’t find the Entrance. I don’t know my son’s rego number. There are columns with helpful letters of the alphabet that register your vehicle’s whereabouts. But my particular column letter did not register with me. Keep calm.
There are three hectares of car park. Mine is not the only SUV. In fact every vehicle is an SUV. I walk the three hectares in a cunning grid devised by myself as I go. Whenever a dark SUV looms before me in the underworld dark I click the electronic gadget that unlocks an SUV without touching it. A lot of vehicles have these remote gadgets; you click and your car lights up, sometimes farting a short musical beep to cheer you. I click but nothing lights light up. No music either.
I keep calm, keep walking, keep breathing exhaust fumes that cheer me; they remind me of real life. Outside.
Calmly, I ascend one level, walk the alphabetic columns, walk the clever grid. Nothing.
There remain two more levels. More calm ambulation, more gridding.
Here is a vehicle that looks just like my son’s. (Down here they all do.) I click like mad – no light. I peer inside and sight my red striped jumper. I click again. No lights, but the door opens to my touch. I examine the remote controller. I have been pressing the wrong button, the button you press when you want nothing to happen.
I drive out. Well, no I don’t, actually. Instead I find myself driving in circles – wrong level. The same happens on the next two levels. The circling offers a comforting familiarity.
On the fourth level I find the Centre Half Back who will help with the Billies. He bends, hoists, grunts, herniates a disc and retires, allowing me to complete the job alone. I do so.
It is time to say farewell to Sweden. Travel broadens one. A better and a broader being, I drive carefully, calmly, out into the sunlight.