THE THOUSAND TINY MIRACLES OF LIVING TWICE
ANGEL AID BOOK 1
Meet Irene Nylander, a frumpy housewife from Finland … and a yo-yo dieter. She feels trapped in an unhappy marriage, looking after her domineering mother-in-law and living vicariously through romantic movies.
Meanwhile, in Florence, Mimi Kavanough’s star is rising. She has the body of a Barbie princess, the iron will of an army sergeant – and Hollywood in her sights.
On her fiftieth birthday, Irene discovers her husband is having an affair. Devastated, she prays for a way out: she wants to die.
In heaven, a mischievous angel called Aaron hears her prayers. He decides to make Irene and Mimi swap bodies.
How will the two women cope with their unexpected, and very different, second lives? And will Aaron’s meddling get him evicted from heaven? What will happen if he has to transform into a human being and live on Earth?
COMING OUT 15 JUNE, 2017
1. Clothing Problems
The Thursday when Irene Nylander’s first life comes to an end is sunny. It is the first hot day of the year, the kind of cloudless Nordic summer’s day you come across in tourist-board brochures, Pippi Longstocking books and old Ingmar Bergman films. A classic Scandinavian sunny summer’s day; the sort of day when buxom milkmaids with blonde pigtails get kissed behind the barn, barefoot children smudge their faces with wild strawberries, and the nearby lake twinkles in the sunshine, glimmering with the promise of a long summer to come.
And since hot summer days are something of a rarity in Finland, today everyone is obliged to be happy. Oh yes – it’s the law. After all, winters in the North are so ruthless that when a fine day eventually materialises, every honest taxpayer must peel off their clothes, wear sunglasses, show off that recently acquired Greek suntan and flirt with strangers.
For Irene, however, shy and chubby as she is, days like this are hellish. That’s why at four o’clock in the afternoon she is still fussing around in the sparkling Nylander kitchen, even though she should be on her way to Helsinki for a girls’ evening out with Saara. Cold dread has engulfed her heart, thick and hard, like a layer of February ice.
Her mother-in-law keeps tapping the granite worktop with her manicured finger, not bothering to hide her impatience. Finally she sighs loudly. ‘For heaven’s sake,’ she announces in her haughty drawl, ‘all you need to do is warm up some Saarioinen tuna pasta.’ Being terribly image-conscious, she prefers French and Italian food, even if it’s just a ready-meal from the supermarket. Irene looks at her mother-in-law and plasters a smile across her face. She feels irritation fizzing in her stomach and rising towards her head. Ignore it, she tells herself. Have some compassion. She’s old and unwell. But somehow it’s easier to be compassionate at Soups4Smiles, the Helsinki canteen for people on the breadline where Irene volunteers twice a week.
Her mother-in-law peers at her, her eyebrows raised. With her cream-coloured Ralph Lauren blouse, string of pearls, and wavy blonde hair coiffed to perfection, Harriet (or Horrible Harriet, as Irene has nicknamed her, like in the children’s books) looks like all the other elderly ladies in Helsinki’s well-to-do Swedish-speaking circles. She has lived with Irene and Henrik for years now, and Irene spends most of her free time catering to her needs. But Horrible Harriet is never satisfied – and nothing gives her more pleasure than to let it be known that her beloved son Henrik married beneath him.
Just then the microwave oven plinks. Irene snaps back into the present and serves her mother-in-law the steaming pasta. Horrible Harriet picks up a fork and stares at Irene suspiciously. It seems that she has finally noticed that, instead of her customary uniform of baggy leggings and oversized T-shirts, Irene is wearing a flowery dress. The contours of her round hips are clearly visible under the rose-patterned fabric.
‘Where are you going?’ Horrible Harriet asks, her voice tense
all of a sudden.
Evidently Harriet hasn’t remembered that it is her birthday – her fiftieth birthday, in fact. Actually, it’s better that way. The less she knows, the less she has to carp at. ‘I’m off to Helsinki,’ she says hastily. ‘Remember? I’m having a girls’ evening with Saara.’ ‘And you’re leaving an old woman all alone?’ Harriet’s nostrils widen with righteous indignation. ‘I’m just going for a quick dinner somewhere.’ Irene’s voice is desperate. ‘Well, as long as you eat a light salad,’ Harriet concedes, looking critically at Irene’s generous figure. ‘You know, that dress is way too small for you.’
Instinctively Irene touches her stomach. A hot swell of humiliation rushes through her, then turns into irritation, for the second time. She tries to ignore both, lest her eyes get moist. But the worst thing is that Harriet is right: the fabric is so tight around the stomach that she can hardly breathe. And Harriet does know about these things. The entire Nylander family is awfully stylish, her own regional-tennis-champion of a husband included.
Irene racks her brain for something to say. When nothing materialises in her head, not even a movie quote (which is strange, because Irene is a sucker for movie quotes, even if she never gets them quite right), she hurries off to the bedroom.
Usually the Nylander master bedroom looks like a showroom in an anonymous mail-order catalogue, but today it is in complete disarray and smells fusty. The double bed is still unmade, with blankets and pillows lying rumpled at its foot and chocolate wrappers scattered all over the baby-blue sheet. Glossy magazines are lying higgledy-piggledy on the floor, mixed with Cate Blanchett Blu-ray movies. And then there’s that Häagen-Dazs carton, the one that seduced Irene into ending her diet yesterday evening. Now it is empty, and the spoon inside it is brown with dried chocolate ice cream.
Only her husband’s side of the bedroom looks neat. Which makes sense, because Henrik has been in Stockholm on business for the last three days. Though Irene knows that there’s more to his absence than business.
‘Irene!’ comes her mother-in-law’s voice from the kitchen. ‘I can’t find my reading glasses.’
Feeling almost rebellious now, Irene ignores her and instead stares at her image in the full-length Ikea mirror. Mirror moments are always critical for Irene. Sometimes, if she is on a diet, she pulls down the Venetian blinds before observing herself. The low light makes everything softer, more tolerable. It gives her hope. That someday, even she… But on other days, when she’s at her most despondent, she forces herself to look at herself just the way she is. She opens the blinds so that the bedroom is washed with light. Then she studies her colourless skin, her dishevelled hair, the puffy bags under her eyes. She stares at her double chin, that soft roll under her jaw that refuses to go away no matter how little she eats.
She doesn’t know if all of this is merely a reality check or a way of punishing herself. Either way, it invariably makes her so disappointed with what she sees that she then has to head straight for the kitchen to get some Häagen-Dazs.
Today is no different. She looks like Kathy Bates in Misery. But without any make-up or shiny, professionally blow-dried hair. And with an extra dozen kilos to boot. And a flowery dress so tight that it is slowly strangling her.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. You can’t eat Häagen-Dazs and watch Cate Blanchett movies till the small hours without looking like death warmed up the following day. Not when you’ve lived for half a century, anyway.
But that’s exactly what she did last night. Because Henrik didn’t
come back early from Stockholm, even though he promised he
would and even though it was the night before Irene’s birthday
and she had been cooking all afternoon.
Irene sighs and looks out of the bedroom window at the Olari
shopping centre, the epitome of suburban paradise, some fifteen
kilometres from Helsinki, and the place where she works as a
shop assistant. Only today she has the afternoon off.
It’s her birthday, after all.
That last train of thought makes her unexpectedly determined. She grabs her mobile and dials Henrik’s number, adamant now that he must come home, because dammit, it is her birthday, her fiftieth birthday, and that should mean something, shouldn’t it? But his mobile goes straight to voicemail.
Irene’s heart grows cold. She closes her eyes. She wants to forget it all, the grim reality of her wretched marriage, even if just for one day. When she opens her eyes again, her gaze focuses on the pile of gossip magazines on the floor. She studies the perfectly chiselled celebrity faces smiling out from the covers. There’s Angelina Jolie giving a speech in front of the blue-on-white UNHCR logo. Angelina is one of Irene’s idols; occasionally at Soups4Smiles she feels a bit like her, even though she never… Anyway, never mind. Below the photo of Angelina is one of Natalie Portman, spotted on the streets of New York, checking her mobile. Plus there’s that brunette starlet, whatshername? The one who is rumoured to be dating Leonardo DiCaprio.
Irene racks her brain, momentarily forgetting her own problems. Ah, yes. Mimi Kavanough.
Irene stares at Natalie Portman, her heart so full of longing, it feels as if it’s bursting. If only, she thinks, not daring to finish the thought. She bends down to pick up the magazine. She needs to see Natalie Portman’s face better, to suck in all that glossy perfection.
‘Irene.’ Harriet’s voice is ever so polite, despite the undeniable undercurrent of resentment. ‘Irene!’
Irene raises her head. She smiles resignedly at her image in the mirror, her heart tight with something she can’t quite explain. ‘Happy birthday,’ she whispers to herself. Then she walks towards the kitchen.
Want to know more about The Thousand Tiny Miracles of Living Twice?
An angel who becomes a human being. A middle-aged housewife who becomes a Hollywood celebrity. A spoilt movie star who becomes a suburban housewife. How did you start thinking about this story?
It was the Cinderella theme that fascinated me. What if there was a modest and unassuming fifty-something woman, who’s never asked for anything for herself… and then she gets everything? What would happen, then?
Suddenly you’re living a life that is opposite to your previous one.
Yes, that’s right. I mean, think. Yesterday morning you were waiting for the bus in the rush-hour traffic, and everyone was elbowing you. And now, all of a sudden, you’re… I don’t know… Angelina Jolie or Kate Middleton. How would that feel? And I don’t mean the obvious glam side of it all, but little details. Little human details. So, would it make you happier? How would you handle it?
So, a fifty-something Cinderella.
You know what? This premise really prompted heated conversations among the women I know. Everyone had an opinion about how Irene’s Cinderella life should end. Or whether it should end.
An angel who becomes a human being.
Because in her new body, she falls in love with a Justin Timberlake lookalike twenty years her junior.
And he falls in love with her. But does he fall in love with her – Irene – or with her gorgeous, new body? And if he knew who she really was, would he still love her?
How did you weave this with the Angel Aid saga, and the added fantasy dimension of heaven?
In the beginning, angels had a minor role in the story. Sure, it was Aaron who started it all, but he was not supposed to become a protagonist. But, somehow, he just willed himself into life. He refused to play a minor role.
In a matter of weeks, perhaps a month, the entire Kingdom of Heaven had come into being. I wrote frantically every day, and even if I changed many details later on, it was on those days that the world of Angel Aid was born. After that it was evident that The Thousand Tiny Miracles of Living Twice was just the first book of a series.
What made you portray heaven as a battlefield of competing political parties?
I was reading about Vatican politics. There was a Synod on the Family in Rome in 2015, and different Church factions seemed to be plotting and manoeuvring in order to have their view printed in the final communique. And I thought, if it’s like this on Earth, who can guarantee it’s any calmer in heaven?
It is never too late to start again.
Then came 2016…
And the UK voted to opt out of the European Union, and Donald Trump won the presidential elections in the USA. Everyone was talking about building walls and closing borders. Suddenly the chaos of my heavenly politics was reality on Earth.
You have three protagonists in the Angel Aid series: Mimi, Aaron and Irene. Who’s your favourite?
I’ve grown to love them all. Even Mimi, the capricious celebrity, has her weaker side, and I love to explore that. No, honestly – they’re all such good company and I can hardly wait to start writing Book 2 in the Angel Aid series.
Can you say something about it?
It’s called A Little History of Wickedness, and the Devil himself makes a guest appearance in it!
An unruly angel, ready to make mischief.