Plaza Life

Image courtesy of Kelvin Anton Carlsson

When Sally saw the images of carnage on the news channels she didn’t think of Yousef, at first. She had tried to erase him from her mind. She thought instead about how she’d only been on the Stortorget plaza, what was it, six months ago? Yes, it was in June, high season. Now there was blood in the snow at the time of peace on earth and goodwill to all men. Of course it was labelled as a terror attack. Any event that could justify ramping up the war machine was getting that label these days.

Backpacking through Europe: a rite of passage for middle-class teenagers on their so-called gap years, and ironically, a matter of survival for Syrian refugees. For Sally, neither teenager nor refugee, it was a goal she set herself while working cash-in-hand at a harbour-side café and studying photography at uni. And when she found her boyfriend in bed with her best friend, just after final exams, everything fell into place. She admits now that she went a bit wild while OS. For goodness sakes, she pleads, I was faithful to that dickhead for what, ten bloody years? Yousef was just one of several casual acquaintances. He was the one who I let have his way in that laneway – in the middle of the day! Oh my God, what was I thinking?

Men are easy prey. You just let them think they are the hunters. They like a bit of a chase. Be it Stockholm, London, Berlin or Prague, there’s always one who’ll take the bait. Sally couldn’t come at the new wave of feminism that proclaims every man as a rapist – she’d seen some of her female uni mates in action. She didn’t realise it at the time, but she was being trained for her Europe romp. Though, she never thought she’d be ravaged by an Arab in Sweden; she would have predicted a Viking type on that leg of her journey.

Yousef was sitting on one of those plaza benches pretending to watch the tourists and the pigeons. He was making mental notes of the adjoining roads and lanes, estimating building heights, counting targets, scheming pandemonium. He dare not bring out a camera. He was of middle eastern appearance, he wore a taqiyah, and since Nice and London and Brussels, etcetera, etcetera, Stortorget was rimmed with security guards and closed-circuit cameras. Just look, make written notes and diagrams back in the pensión, he told himself. He looked with contempt at the blonde girl casually snapping pictures with impunity. The imam was right. The world is full of injustice, the West is debauched. Look at the way she is dressed. A harlot, no question. Look how she twirls and giggles as she snaps the plaza from all angles. She is the enemy, a servant of evil.

Sally thought about an exhibition she could put on when she got back to Sydney. Plaza Life she would call it. These photos of Stortorget could be a feature. Maybe one of the close-up shots she took of the plaque above the door of number 20 could be on the invitation card. What is the inscription? “Befiehl dem Herrn deine Wege und hoffe auf ihn, er wirds wohl machen”. Yes, sufficiently cryptic. That would do – German language on a Swedish building, religious sentiment in a secular nation. Perfect. Coffee time.

May I join you?” asked Yousef.

Sure.” He was good looking and the British accent was unexpected in this context.

I am most envious of your freedom.”

What do you mean?” asked Sally.

There is no way I could stand out in middle of the plaza and take photographs like you just did.”

Really?”

Yes, really.”

Yousef explained how he was watched anywhere he went. Sally professed her empathy for Muslim people in this day and age. Yousef asked if she could email him the photos she just took. Sally did it then and there on the spot. Bluetooth and Wifi making it all possible.

You are most kind, Sally. I wish I could do something for you.”

Can you walk me down the laneway?” she asked. Her eyes invited something else.

Six days later Sally did get her intimate Viking encounter: a Nordic doctor diagnosed anal gonorrhoea. Yousef didn’t ask to go there in particular, but in that recessed doorway she did turn around and lift her skirt to reveal she was not wearing underwear. And even though he was rougher than she expected and she’d never had it that way before, she put it all down as a part of her adventure, part of her new care-free self. Getting the clap though and the email reply she got back from Yousef after she dutifully informed him of the disease, changed everything. She deleted it immediately, but the words slut, pig and super-bug, still stick in her mind from time to time. It wasn’t a super-bug, thank God, or perhaps in this case, thank Allah may be more appropriate.

The traditional Christmas market at Stortorget draws large crowds. Lots of tourists, and lots of local families. It’s one of those must do things, if you happen to be in Stockholm during Yuletide. Many people mistook the initial explosions as part of the festivities. But the men charging through the crowd, slashing away with knifes taped to their hands left no doubt as to what was happening. Another attack. ISIS claiming responsibility. Western leaders declaring: They will never defeat us. No serious analysis, just lazy limbic reptilian reaction.

Sally’s Plaza Life exhibition preparation had all been in vain. Months of editing and curating her shots from all over Europe, a waste of time. Hours and hours in front of the computer. Stortorget was the centre-piece, now it has joined a list of places never again to be celebrated nor associated with joy and beauty. The translated inscription from above number 20 had become a theme of sorts for her big debut as a photographer: “Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him, and He will bring it to pass.” What a joke, she thought. I never should have put a religious slant on this. I’m an atheist. This must be karma. What an ungrateful and callous person I am, she immediately corrected. People are dead, and I’m only thinking of myself.

She looked back to the television. The coverage was horrific and relentless. Over and over again. It had been planned for months, they said. Bluetooth and Wifi making it all possible, they added. A vision of sitting in the Scandinavian sun, sipping coffee and emailing photos, flashed into Sally’s mind. She dry retched.

Yousef’s face appeared on the television screen just as there was a knock on her door.