Published by Oi Polloi of Cottonopolis


Secret Shame

Words and photographs by Sam Waller


I arrived in Sweden on a Tuesday. The landing was impeccable, the airport was spotless and the train that took me into Gothenburg arrived exactly on time. The city itself was a picture of cleanliness. There was no litter, no dog muck and even the bins were clean.

On top of all this, everyone was considerably better looking than me. Whereas back home I’m a regular Adonis, here I felt like Joseph Merrick’s less handsome brother. With crooked teeth, crossed eyes and blotchy skin, I stood out like an ugly thumb. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I was about half the size of the locals, scurrying around the streets with small, shuffling steps as they casually cantered past me like majestic blond horses.

With no idea where anything was, my first day was spent harassing locals to tell me where places were. I’d scamper up to them like a loveable urchin, before describing slowly (with hand actions) where I wanted to go. They’d then laugh heartily before replying in English. Better English than I (an official English person with an English passport and everything) spoke myself.

They’d then happily walk me through the streets to my desired location. This happened about three times on the Tuesday, and each time I was escorted I half expected that they were going to lift me up on their shoulders or give me a piggy back. They never did, mind. Once they’d got me to the art gallery or the park or the bus station or wherever it was I was going to, they seemed genuinely sad to see me go, and would often press a few Kronor into my hands before they left, just to make sure I’d be okay.

By Wednesday, I was starting to suspect something. What sort of place was this? Nothing was tacky, crude or bawdy. And where were the normal people, the average, slightly overweight and unattractive normal people? No matter where I looked, I couldn’t find them. Was this some sort of utopia where tall and beautiful people discussed furniture design, lived well into their hundreds and always wore running shoes?

In films about utopia, there’s always a catch. In the two-part made-for-TV bank-holiday Monday bonanza that is Gulliver’s Travels, Ted Danson discovers a group of immortals, but later finds out that although they get to live forever, they still age, and are destined to spend eternity stumbling around and wetting themselves in public. In Logan’s Run, Michael York’s life of space-age sleaze was marred by the fact that he’d be vapourized at 30. And in The Time Machine, the price for a cosy life was occasionally getting eaten by something called a morlock. So what’s the catch in Sweden?

Thursday was the day I found the bottle. I’d gotten up in decent time and taken a bus out to the seaside. I knew there was no chance of finding Sweden’s answer to Morecambe, but at least out there I could avoid feeling quite so clumsy. The beach was just as you’d expect. It was cold, but clean. There were no weird smells and you could walk freely without the fear of stepping on a dead seagull. The water itself looked spotless, and although it was no doubt freezing, it was the sort of stuff you could happily swim in on New Year’s Day.

I think it was because the water was so immaculate that I noticed the bottle in the first place. Back in England I wouldn’t think anything of it, but litter in Sweden? Surely not. I kicked my shoes off and waded into the crisp seas.

And as you’d expect from a bottle found floating in the sea, there was a rolled up message inside. I splashed my way back to the shore and once the feeling had come back in my feet, I wrestled the plastic lid off. The message was written in Swedish, but it was unlike any Swedish I’d seen before. Not only did it look like it had been scribbled by the left hand of a three year old, but there was no spaces, and near enough every other word had been lined out and rewritten in scratchy blue biro.

I couldn’t read Swedish at the best of times, so there was no chance of me deciphering this bizarre scripture. Luckily I’d spotted an impeccably-dressed fisherman out of the corner of my eye — surely he could translate? I charged towards him with all the grace of a three-legged puppy.

“What’s this say? What’s this say?” I barked at him. He smiled courteously and then took the message from me with his smooth, yet well-worked hands.

“Hello to you Sir. And why of course, I’d be honoured to translate it.” He said, in his perfect English.

“It says, ‘Help. Please help. You must tell the world. I’m writing from a small island just off the west coast of Sweden. There are thousands of us here — all banished from our homeland for being less than perfect Swedes. We’re all average and normal and…’” The fisherman stopped abruptly, scrunched the note up and stared at me. He’d clearly read more than he’d meant too.

“Where did you find this? Tell me what you know.” He shouted at me, with all trademark courtesy out of the window.

Before I had time to answer, he’d turned his back to me, dialled a number on his phone and started to speak frantically in Swedish. Seconds later the horizon was busy with hordes of figures, advancing towards me. Sirens echoed across the shore, helicopters whirled above me and speedboats speeded speedily in my direction. With nowhere to run I fought the swarms of impeccable beings for as long as I could, but they were stronger than me and their diets were better, and I was soon pinned on the floor. The last thing I remember was a flexible yet supportive running shoe sole making contact with the back of my head.

It’s been three years since I was banished to the island, and if you’re looking for Scandinavian vistas, without the feeling of inferiority, then I’d wholeheartedly recommend it.

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