ShortRead of 23rd April 2014
The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden
Author: Jonas Jonasson
What's the story: Jonasson doesn't do short titles. We're still impressed they managed to fit The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared on the spine of the Swedish author's début novel. But then, having sold over 1.3 million copies worldwide, it clearly didn't put people off.
The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is Jonasson's similarly mischievous second work. Following the tale of the young Nombeko Mayeki from Soweto, The Girl features a cast of eccentrics in a plot that weaves through years and continents: a nerve-damaged American Vietnam deserter, twin brothers who are officially only one person, three careless Chinese girls, an angry young woman, a potato-growing Baroness, and the Swedish King and Prime Minister.
Release date: 29 April 2014
According to Engelbrecht van der Westhuizen’s lawyer, the black girl had walked right out into the street, and the lawyer’s client had had no choice but to swerve. Thus the accident was the girl’s fault, not his. Engineer van der Westhuizen was a victim, nothing more. Besides, she had been walking on a pavement meant for whites.
The girl’s assigned lawyer offered no defence because he had forgotten to show up in court. And the girl herself preferred not to say anything, largely because she had a jaw fracture that was not conducive to conversation.
Instead, the judge was the one to defend Nombeko. He informed Mr van der Westhuizen that he’d had at least five times the legal limit of alcohol in his bloodstream, and that blacks were certainly allowed to use that pavement, even if it wasn’t considered proper. But if the girl had wandered into the street – and there was no reason to doubt that she had, since Mr van der Westhuizen had said under oath that this was the case – then the blame rested largely on her.
Mr van der Westhuizen was awarded five thousand rand for bodily injury as well as another two thousand rand for the dents the girl had caused to appear on his car.
Nombeko had enough money to pay the fine and the cost of any number of dents. She could also have bought him a new car, for that matter. Or ten new cars. The fact was, she was extremely wealthy, but no one in the courtroom or anywhere else would have had reason to assume this. Back in the hospital she had used her one functioning arm to make sure that the diamonds were still in the seam of her jacket.
But her main reason for keeping this quiet was not her frac- tured jaw. In some sense, after all, the diamonds were stolen. From a dead man, but still. And as yet they were diamonds, not cash. If she were to remove one of them, all of them would be taken from her. At best, she would be locked up for theft; at worst, for conspiracy to robbery and murder. In short, the situation she found herself in was not simple.
The judge studied Nombeko and read something else in her expression of concern. He stated that the girl didn’t appear to have any assets to speak of and that he could sentence her to pay off her debt in the service of Mr van der Westhuizen, if the engineer found this to be a suitable arrangement. The judge and the engineer had made a similar arrangement once before, and that was working out satisfactorily, wasn’t it?
Engelbrecht van der Westhuizen shuddered at the memory of what had happened when he ended up with three Chinks in his employ, but these days they were useful to a certain extent – and by all means, perhaps throwing a darky into the mix would liven things up. Even if this particular one, with a broken leg, broken arm and her jaw in pieces might mostly be in the way.
‘At half salary, in that case,’ he said. ‘Just look at her, Your Honour.’ Engineer Engelbrecht van der Westhuizen suggested a salary of five hundred rand per month minus four hundred and twenty rand for room and board. The judge nodded his assent.
Nombeko almost burst out laughing. But only almost, because she hurt all over. What that fat-arse of a judge and liar of an engineer had just suggested was that she work for free for the engineer for more than seven years. This, instead of paying a fine that would hardly add up to a measurable fraction of her collected wealth, no matter how absurdly large and unreasonable it was.
But perhaps this arrangement was the solution to Nombeko’s dilemma. She could move in with the engineer, let her wounds heal and run away on the day she felt that the National Library in Pretoria could no longer wait. After all, she was about to be sentenced to domestic service, not prison.
She was considering accepting the judge’s suggestion, but she bought herself a few extra seconds to think by arguing a little bit, despite her aching jaw: ‘That would mean eighty rand per month net pay. I would have to work for the engineer for seven years, three months and twenty days in order to pay it all back. Your Honour, don’t you think that’s a rather harsh sentence for a person who happened to get run over on a pavement by someone who shouldn’t even have been driving on the street, given his alcohol intake?’
The judge was completely taken aback. It wasn’t just that the girl had expressed herself. And expressed herself well. And called the engineer’s sworn description of events into question. She had also calculated the extent of the sentence before anyone else in the room had been close to doing so. He ought to chastise the girl, but... he was too curious to know whether her calculations were correct. So he turned to the court aide, who confirmed, after a few minutes, that ‘Indeed, it looks like we’re talking about – as we heard – seven years, three months, and... yes... about twenty days or so.’
Engelbrecht van der Westhuizen took a gulp from the small brown bottle of cough medicine he always had with him in situations where one couldn’t simply drink brandy. He explained this gulp by saying that the shock of the horrible accident must have exacerbated his asthma.
But the medicine did him good: ‘I think we’ll round down,’ he said. ‘Exactly seven years will do. And anyway, the dents on the car can be hammered out.’
Nombeko decided that a few weeks or so with this Westhuizen was better than thirty years in prison. Yes, it was too bad that the library would have to wait, but it was a very long walk there, and most people would prefer not to under- take such a journey with a broken leg. Not to mention all the rest. Including the blister that had formed as a result of the first sixteen miles.
In other words, a little break couldn’t hurt, assuming the engineer didn’t run her over a second time.
‘Thanks, that’s generous of you, Engineer van der Westhuizen,’ she said, thereby accepting the judge’s decision.
‘Engineer van der Westhuizen’ would have to do. She had no intention of calling him ‘baas.’
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(Image: Flickr/Kate Hiscock)