The Confirmation Present

Issue 2/1980 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An excerpt from Rakas rouva K (‘Dear Mrs K.’, 1979). Introduction and interview by Auli Viikari

Lahtinen read through what he had written so far, and it pleased him, especially the quotation from Clausewitz. “It could be said,” he went on, “that the victories of the French Revolution during those two decades were due in most cases to the mistaken policies of its opponents, even though the actual coup that shook the world took place within the framework of war.” His article was about the British attitude to Germany’s expansionist policies. There would not be another Munich, he felt sure: the House of Commons had cheered Chamberlain for the last time. Where, he asked himself, would England eventually abandon the role of passive onlooker? At Danzig, surely. It would not be like Poland to give something for nothing. She would set a world war in motion, of that he had no doubt. And he could see Poland dissolving into ruin before his very eyes.

“About Marjukka’s confirmation present,” his wife’s voice broke in, as she removed the ashtray from the desk and took it out into the hall, cleared the newspapers from various chairs and made a dump of them by the door. “All right, all right, I’ll take them away later,” she said, noticing Lahtinen’s expression. Her blue check apron hung loosely from the tapes tied at the back of her neck: under it she was wearing a dressing-gown, with the belt undone.

“I don’t approve of confirmation presents.” Lahtinen did not feel inclined to explain his reasons. He was tired of these everlasting conversations with his wife about questions of principle. He ran his hand through his hair, caught the faint whiff of hair tonic, tonight he would have a bath, heat up the water in the big copper tub, after the others had gone to bed. “She must feel it, you know, she sees what the other girls are wearing, they’re all so nicely dressed,” and there followed a catalogue of the various school friends who called for Marjukka from time to time, standing in the dimly lit hall, curtseying politely when Lahtinen walked past. “And you talk about self-control! What do you mean, self-control? You can’t demand that of a little girl.”

Lahtinen placed his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. His eyes were tired, they were smarting and he couldn’t easily adjust to a new focus. A sign of advancing age. Forty-seven, and his wife the same age.

His wife’s name was Aino. It made him think of Gallen’s painting, the Aino in the picture, no more than a child really, slipping from the rock into the water. Drowning herself. Aino, like a wraith, escaping from the aged Väinämöinen, the amorous hands reaching out after her. In the picture she looks about sixteen, or even younger, the clear skin, the delicate limbs, the forest reddened by the evening sun. When the sun sets the red glow will vanish, and it will be night. His wife was standing in sunlight, the light was like a transparent garment, a veil. A compassionate light, Lahtinen thought. It shimmered, there was movement in it. The branches swaying outside the window, that would be it. His wife’s mop of red hair, bunched into a knot, blazed like a beacon on the top of her head.

“I just can’t afford that kind of present.”

“So you say. But I can.” There was a note of defiance in her voice. Been to see her mother, Lahtinen thought. He decided not to lose his temper, and lost it at once. His wife’s mother, widow of a station booking-clerk, small pension, meagre savings, and a daughter always trying to cadge them from her. Aino went to see her every so often, the two women sat facing each other across the kitchen table, the mother wary, with pursed lips, sourly eying the daughter. She knew Aino only too well, was not fooled by her talk. Aino had her own softening-up technique: it seldom bore fruit, and Lahtinen found it intensely irritating. She began by enquiring about her mother’s health, how was the knee today, the ankle, the back, the fingers. At first there were no answers, merely grunts and murmurs from behind closed lips, but after a while the old lady stretched out her hand, fumbled for a phial on the bureau behind her, set it on the table and told Aino to look at the label and read out the instructions. “What does it say? Read me the subscription.” A woman with a school education, and she called it a subscription – Lahtinen could recall occasions when he had completely misunderstood her meaning. Aino read it out, her mother nodded, repeated the instructions, reached out and took a second bottle, put it beside the other, listened as Aino read out the prescription, then produced a jar of tablets. “And then there’s my heart drops as well, but they’re in the drawer of the bedside table,” she went on in the querulous tones of old age, her fingers still fussing and fiddling with the little bottles and tubes. “Aspirin goes all fizzy in my stomach” – at once Aino was all anxiety, how is the tummy, do you go regularly? The answers came slowly, confidentially, like important secrets. “Oy, hoy” – a deep sigh – “I can’t get about, my legs won’t carry me, and even if I could there’s all these different medicines, three times a day, four times, five times a day, how on earth can I remember? I set the alarm clock, when it goes off I take my medicine re-set the clock, wait till it rings again, take more medicine, wind it up and set it again so as not to sleep through and miss the proper time. And then having to remember each time, which one I have to take.” She threw Aino a reproachful look. “Nobody ever comes to see me, I could be dying for all some people care.” “Oh but I come, don’t I?” said Aino, patting her mother’s hand. “When it suits you,” the old lady replied, moving her hand out of reach.

It was like an operatic duet. Lahtinen had forbidden Aino to talk about money, but when enough time had elapsed she began, without looking in his direction, to talk in a melancholy tone about how hard up they were, “what with debts, promissory notes …” “What, has he still got debts?” the old lady asked, as though Lahtinen were miles away. “Hasn’t he paid them off yet?” “No, I haven’t,” Lahtinen remembered saying, and his mother-in-law had looked at him, shaking her head. “I still have debts, but you needn’t be afraid that I’ll call upon you to pay them.” “What I think is what I think,” the old lady snapped, and Aino glared angrily at her husband. His mother-in-law gave him a searching look. “You and your comings and your goings, I know you: come or go, it’s always the same, it’s my money you’re after.” Lahtinen took his coat and hat, paused for a second in the doorway and looked at the two women. He had always thought that Aino took after her father, but now that she was older it was her mother’s features that were more noticeable, the expression in the eyes, the mouth. He turned and went out into the hall, closing the door behind him. Through the door he could hear their raised voices.

After that Aino had gone alone to see her mother, except at Christmas and the New Year, and on the old lady’s birthday and name-day. On these occasions the whole family sat at the round table in the sitting-room: if it was her name-day, the old lady’s friends were there too, two widows and the man from across the road with his wife. Aino and Marjukka made the coffee, the old lady sat at the head of the table, handing out the cups, passing round dishes of little cakes and biscuits. On each such occasion the furniture had been rearranged since their last visit, the table moved from one end of the room to the other, the sofa shifted to the opposite wall, shelves, chairs and flower-stands all in new places, as though some kind of stately round-dance had been in progress. “However do you manage it?” moaned the widows, and Lahtinen could tell that his mother-in-law was enjoying herself. “I have to manage, don’t I?” she said. “There’s no one here to help me.” The friends exchanged glances, and carefully did not look at Aino or her husband, which made it clear to him that she had been talking about them, complaining of their lack of concern for her. Lahtinen took a careful look at her: had they really been neglecting her, he wondered? As he stared he shook his head slowly, causing his mother-in-law to gaze back at him in bewilderment, her coffee-cup poised in mid-air. Aino was forty-seven, her mother seventy­-two. At that age some people really did need help, but mother-in-law preferred to run things herself, she had a little garden-plot out in the yard, and got really annoyed if anyone tried to help. When she moved the furniture she would put a rag rug under the legs and drag it across from one wall to the other, it was surprising how easily it could be moved that way. Lahtinen remembered how he had once taken part in this operation; first everything was moved into the middle, so that it looked as if the removal men had just brought it in, and then the things were dragged one by one into their new positions. At least five different arrangements had to be tried before the old lady was satisfied.

Lahtinen recalled how he had once spent a long time repairing the floor in the hall, and on another occasion he had installed a shower for her, in what had been the clothes cupboard. He was no handyman, his fingers were all thumbs, and the floor, by the time he had finished with it, was a shambles. His efforts to patch up the rotten floorboards with pieces of plywood were completely unsuccessful, and in the end they had had to call in the man who owned the house across the road, who took up the floor and repaired it properly. His mother-in-law had been none too pleased. It was much the same with the shower. He had started to line the cupboard walls with cardboard, which he then intended to cover with waterproof paint. But the cardboard refused to lie flat, sags and bulges developed everywhere, and around the new shower and wash-basin the result was truly hideous. Once again the same neighbour had to be brought in: he surveyed the scene with a smile and said, as if to himself, that it was a pity all that cardboard had been wasted. The old lady heard this, as of course she was meant to, and went on and on about all the good money she had spent on the sheets of cardboard, which her neighbour was now ripping from the walls. Lahtinen knew that the women always talked about him, there wasn’t much else they had in common to talk about. He could exactly imagine his mother-in-law’s gesture, fist thrust into palm, as she gloated. “There you are, didn’t I know it all along, didn’t I say so right at the start, when he came to ask your father? But no, you had to get married, whatever the cost.” And Lahtinen knew, too, that inevitably his mother-in-law would start talking about that other young fellow, the carpentry teacher, who had kept company with Aino before he and she had met. This man had taught at the local folk-school, but later he had applied for an instructorship at the Turku County Jail. “Went to prison, he did, after you turned him down.” And she never forgot to add what a hard-working fellow he had been, so good with his hands. “He made me this little bookcase,” she would say, stroking its grained sides, “it was meant for you, of course, but he gave it to me, because he knew you would have it one day, and the table and the chair and that lovely sewing-box, they were all meant for you, too.”

The table and the chair were kept in the bedroom, the box was on a shelf under the table. It was quite large, and had all kinds of drawers and compartments. On the lid, in poker-work, were Aino’s initials and a flower design. The whole thing was lacquered in yellow, and Lahtinen thought it looked hideous. The old lady had shown him the man’s photograph in an album, he had blonde hair and pale eyes, the face was long and he had a pale moustache, badly trimmed. “He was a good man,” his mother-in-law had repeated. “Was he?” Lahtinen had asked, turning to Aino. “Yes,” she had said.

Lahtinen sighed. Things were going from bad to worse. If I told her the paper was on the rocks, she’d go out of her mind. For two years now he had been looking for the right moment to tell her that he would soon be out of a job. The paper was dying, the work had been cut down, the staff had shrunk, part of the office premises had been let off. The editor-in­ chief, and some of the junior editors, had got out in time, but he, like an old stick-in-the-mud, was still there, and, he supposed, would be there till the bitter end. He looked at his wife, who, for her part, was staring out of the window. Why can’t she understand, he thought, can she really be so blind that she sees nothing? Perhaps she doesn’t want to see anything, doesn’t ask because she doesn’t want to be told. Even her back had an obstinate look about it. And now what was all this nonsense about expensive confirmation presents? For weeks Aino had been talking about Marjukka’s confirmation, how many people shall we invite, what shall we give them to eat, what do we buy her for a present? “What sort of thing do we have to buy?” Lahtinen had wearily asked. “Something special,” his wife had replied, “something she’s never had before and never even dreamt of having.” “Why?” he had asked. What on earth was all this about? Why all this fuss and ceremony just because somebody was getting confirmed? “It’s only the once,” Aino had gone on in a plaintive, tearful voice. At the time of this conversation they had been in bed together. Lahtinen had sighed, turned his back, and pulled the blanket over his head, but Aino had pulled it down again. “Oh, shut up,” in the end he had said in a rage, and had got out of bed and stormed out of the room with his pillow under his arm. He had spent the rest of the night on the sitting-room sofa. The sun was still shining. Lahtinen looked at his wife’s back. Getting a bit broad in the beam, he thought. The frayed dressing-gown was hunched up in folds across her back, the hem dangling loosely round her calves. Suddenly she turned, went into the hall, and came back carrying a grey squirrel fur coat. “I’ve bought it already,” she said, holding it over her shoulders and displaying it, with much twisting and turning, like a salesgirl in a fashion shop. “Isn’t it lovely?”

Translated by David Barrett