The Comb

Issue 3/1981 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Tilanteita (‘Situations’, 1962). Introduction by Vesa Karonen

The young man’s comb dropped behind the radiator under the window. The young man crouched down to look and felt with his fingers in between the pipes and along the floor. No trace of the comb.

Lose something on a train and it eludes you. A train ticket I left once – just placed it long enough on the window ledge for it, too, to fall behind the radiator. Couldn’t find it. The conductor came along, said “Any new fares! Tickets please.” I just sat still, totally unconcerned, until he’d gone. I’m sure there are little details which give the game away to conductors, they know who’s just got on.

New passengers are always somehow fresher, more alert. In winter, I hear, they look at the passengers’ feet. If there’s snow round the edges of the shoes, no need to hesitate. A lot of people are done for by looking straight in their eyes. Offenders always look straight back and then in the middle try to look somewhere else entirely. I was careful not to look steadily into the conductor’s eyes. It was easy when I concentrated on the way the long ventilator cords swung back and forth from the ceiling. They all swung in the same direction but some cords were a bit behind the others. Perhaps it was because the cords were all slightly different in weight and length. Now I remember – it’s not the weight that counts, just as it’s not weight that affects the way a pendulum swings. When the conductor had gone I began to look for my ticket again. I went on looking for it all the way to Tampere. The young man, too, would obviously go on looking for his comb until he got where he was going, without finding it.

Once a chap selling lottery tickets got on the tram at Hämeenlinna. He towed himself along as though the seats were invisible. I bought a ticket: it didn’t win anything – not even another go. The fellow had a thick flat wad of lottery tickets, held together by a thin red rubber band. It split and shot through the air, landing on the back of my seat just beside me. It stuck fast to the material. Once I’d catapulted a rubber band like that and it had stuck to the wallpaper, at the corner of the ceiling. I wondered what made it stick there like that. Sometime in the night it fell down.

The bunches of lottery tickets slipped out of the man’s hands, all over the floor. He began retrieving them as though they’d fallen into a fire. Of course, he’d probably no right to be selling them on a train. I daren’t try to help: he’d see how easy it’d be for me to pinch them. The man got off at Riihimäki. I stayed on for Helsinki. I leant back in relief. Then I noticed that underneath the seat opposite me there was a lottery ticket. I picked it up and opened it. No luck. Then I noticed another underneath the radiator. Bending down to pick it up, I spotted three more under the seat. I got them all up and tore them open. With two of them I could have won another try. I got very excited and really began to look. I found a whole pile of tickets under the seat. I picked them up, tore them open and looked at the numbers. There were about thirty of them.

Not a single one would have won me a bike, or a radio or a camera, but I’d have won ten more tries. The half-cylinder of the tin rubbish bin gradually began to fill with opened lottery tickets.

They were extremely long, each one had five folds. Eventually I got fed up with looking for more, as I hadn’t tasted victory. But when I got up to put my coat on at Helsinki I saw that I’d been sitting on four more tickets. Standing there, I tore them open. They were all empty.

I’m not claiming that all lotteries are duds. Once I took part in a raffle at a student dinner dance – a minor charity one, so no licence was needed. The professor won it – as through the organisers had rigged it.

The prize was a litre bottle of white wine. The label was so large and colourful that I couldn’t read it when they showed it round the room. They didn’t want to show it to the professor because they knew he was by principle a teetotaller; they thought of giving him a table lamp from the student president’s room. However, as the prize had been shown to everyone beforehand, they hadn’t the nerve to carry it off. Everyone was amused, the professor held up the bottle for all to see and joined in the laughter, a little more than was necessary. He left before the dancing started. He’d just stepped out onto the staircase when he dropped the bottle. It smashed into pieces, some of which eventually found their way into the street. There are probably still bits of that bottle around. They should have given the professor a case, so he needn’t have tucked his prize under his overcoat like an old boozer with his secret poison.

I was reminiscing like this because the young man kept on looking for his comb all the time. Occasionally, he’d sit back as though he couldn’t have cared less, but soon he’d begin again, as though he’d convinced himself that really he hadn’t been looking for it yet. Only now was he beginning to look for it – otherwise he wouldn’t be able to believe there was a chance of him finding it, after the thorough search he’d already made. And no one can be bothered to look for something they’re certain they’re not going to find.

He didn’t stop until we got to Tampere, where he got off. But even in the corridor he turned to bend down and have a last look under the seats. That was when I saw the other side of him for the first time. The comb had fallen into the turn-up of his right trouser leg: the ends of the teeth were just visible along the edge. I didn’t dare say anything, however, for fear of making him feel a fool. It also crossed my mind that it might be another comb or that I hadn’t really seen it. Perhaps the turn-up had been stitched with black cotton.

When the train started again I went to sit in the young man’s place and started looking. I wanted to know if the comb was really in his turn-up. I had a long pencil. I scraped it in all the openings, but couldn’t find the comb. It began to look as if it had fallen into the turn-up. Once I found an ear-ring in a turn-up – the whole party had been looking for it for ages. I didn’t dare return it to its owner. That particular female would never have believed what I said. At the very least I’d have been under suspicion of originally intending to keep it. In cases like this you can do whatever you like and it won’t work. For instance, try to tell a woman, any way you like, that she’s become more beautiful, you’ll get nothing for your pains but a sour feeling inside. However you put it, she’ll think what you mean is that really she was ugly before.

I knew a woman once, ex-university, who lost her gold graduation ring, the sort only MAs are allowed to wear. She searched for it a fortnight. Gave her flat a complete spring clean – after which she was convinced she’d lost the ring outside when she was airing the bedclothes. That at least had the advantage that she stopped looking for the ring. Then one day a private pupil of hers came round for a maths test. The pupil was sitting writing at a small round table in the sitting room. The table was covered with a thick, heavy linen cloth, embroidered with all sorts of multi-coloured leaves, garlands and humming-birds. The pupil cleared some tiny object off the table so that it wouldn’t make a bump under the writing paper. The ‘tiny object’ was the gold ring. It had lain on the cloth in such a way that it appeared to be a part of the design. I still don’t understand about that spring cleaning – what kind of a job could it have been if she hadn’t even taken the tablecloth out to air? Well, that’s her business.

I was scraping along the radiator brackets with my pencil when a somewhat middle-aged man with a somewhat middle-aged spread came and sat opposite me – a commercial traveller probably – at any rate he kept wiping the sweat off his forehead with a bunch of brightly checked cloth samples which had been clipped together in a little folder.

“Lost something?” he asked.

“A comb fell down in there.”

He, too, bent down to look on the floor and moved his feet out of the way.

“Nothing special about it,” I said. “Just an ordinary cheap effort. But as there’s nothing else much to do here, I thought I might as well have a look for it.”

“It’s always worth having a good look. If you bought a new comb every time one ever went missing, the pence’d soon start mounting up.”

That’s how they all talk, people in business. No doubt they’re one up if they can get people to believe they keep good care of things – it’s at least not their responsibility if the sum total of goods in the world diminishes.

He soon began to warm to the work, trying to help me with more than words. He unstrapped his belt and poked about with that, saying it would be more use, as it bent and would reach into all the crannies. He said that, three times out of four, he could break into locked houses with this belt. Most people, when they were locked out, tended to remove the letter-box and enlarge the opening until a hand, or at any rate a child’s hand, could reach through. The metal covering of the letter-box hid the opening, so you couldn’t tell – but definitely, with at least three out of four doors, that was the case.

I got off the train at Haapamäki, but he stayed on. It was pretty clear that he was looking for that comb, because as I walked past bur compartment along the platform I couldn’t see his head in the window. Could be he was doing up his shoe lace, of course; one was undone when he came into the compartment. Fat men often have unfastened shoe laces.

Translated by Mary Lomas and Herbert Lomas

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