The report

Issue 3/1984 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Kesä ja keski-ikäinen nainen (‘Summer and the middle-aged woman’) Introduction by Margareta N. Deschner

Dear Colleague,

First of all, I want to thank you and your wife for the pleasant evening I and my wife had in your summer villa in August. Briitta (since we are old acquaintances: with two i’s and two t’s, remember?) especially wants me to mention that she will never forget the half moon climbing the hill behind your sauna, surprising us with its speed. The next time we looked it was half-way up the sky! Without doubt, your fine tequila had something to do with the matter, one shouldn’t forget that. Even so, it was quite a show, just like the time a bunch of us guys had gone skiing and you bragged that you had arranged for the barn to catch fire. I hope that you and your wife – I mean Alli – will be able to visit us next winter and taste a superb Mallorca red wine called Comas, which we brought home. It is by far the best red I have ever tasted and indecently cheap to boot. I hope you will come soon. The wine won’t keep indefinitely, as you well know. We’ll save it for you. So thanks again.

The reason I am writing, or rather the second reason, has to do with the Richel preparation LVM 500 which you gave me to try out. You mentioned, if I remember correctly, that it isn’t yet available. At least I couldn’t find it in any catalog. The brochure is quite general, as you pointed out, but undeniably interesting. If the indications are valid at all, we have here a substance of far-reaching potential. You asked for a formal report on it by spring, and why not? But just now I want to give you an informal and confidential account of an incident, since the medication, if I understand correctly, is of personal interest to you.

We have an acquaintance, or rather, she is a friend of my wife’s, a little over forty, divorced a few years ago. We are old friends and used to see the couple rather often. I mention this to indicate that I have known her for some time and more closely than one would know an ordinary patient. She is a very pleasant person, calm and intelligent, and she handled her divorce very well. (Her husband is an engineer; they have one child; their other child lived only one year, a sad cerebral palsy case.) Our friend has an academic degree, a B.A., I believe, and works in the central office of The Statistics Corporation. Her financial affairs are in order and she gets along well with her ex-husband. The child visits her father, and the father often comes to see his former family. He takes the child to the movies, etc. It seems that all have done their very best in the matter. At least, so I’ve been told. And my wife is such good friends with this woman – let’s call her Annikki – that I consider the information reliable.

In addition, Annikki generally talks quite frankly, with no attempt to cover things up, although I have had the feeling that she is avoiding people of late, and often does not answer questions put to her. We have tried as best we can to keep her in touch with life. Whenever possible, we invite her to our home, and she and Briitta have long heart-to-heart talks over the phone. My wife has done her best to encourage Annikki to seek company and new contacts. I think the two have even gone to some dances together. She is a charming woman: no problem there. She hasn’t really been my patient because, as she puts it I haven’t let her pay. You know my policy. In fact, I don’t even know whether she had any counseling during the divorce crisis. She likes to boast that she is her own psychiatrist.

Sometimes she is very quiet. Then again she can use quite blunt language. She once said: ‘Feel quite free to poke my liver and my gall bladder for that matter any openings you find in me, and cut away any lumps you discover. But my soul you don’t poke. That at least is mine, with all its twists and hang-ups. Hands off my soul!’

All this was in fun, of course, and a psychiatrist who happened to be present found her an interesting and amusing case. As a rule, he said, people force their hardships on others. And later he said that this sort of boasting withdrawal from other people could also be a mask, one of those walls that a mental illness builds around itself in order to develop undisturbed. It belongs to its struggle for existence, so to speak. And the tougher the case the more the patient, or should I use the word ‘victim’, cooperates with the illness and defends it.

Well. This is getting too wordy, but you know my weakness for writing. This is my way of relaxing, as painting is for others – your bird paintings, incidentally, are really excellent, especially the series of the ducks alighting; you should have an exhibition! – and I believe you complained once that people no longer write letters. (But I will let my secretary transcribe the parts that are on the tape. She does not know the person in question, so the matter will remain between us.)

Back to Mrs. A. She complained about insomnia the last time she visited us. Actually she didn’t complain, she just mentioned it. She said that it really bothered her, since she often works past midnight and needs the sleep to have strength to wake up early enough in the morning. She had experimented with various sleeping pills without much success. She mentioned the medications most people use. Then I remembered the capsules which you had given me, and since the brochure mentioned among other symptoms insomnia and restlessness in the legs I decided to let her try them. She hesitated, at first. You know the usual: ‘Oh, could I really? Just like that, without paying? Many, many thanks.’ And so on. But when she heard that the capsules were only in experimental use, that they were not yet commercially available, and that her using them and reporting the results would be of help, she said she would be glad to try. She immediately started to look over the brochure, and when she read that the capsules should be taken a couple of hours before retiring, she swallowed one immediately. One is certainly not expected to sit in bed for two hours with folded hands waiting for sleep, she said.

At first we noticed nothing special in her behavior, and almost forgot about the capsule. I too, though I had intended to watch its effect on the pupils of her eyes. Sometimes the effect of just a small dose is noticeable. The children came to say goodnight. Give a kiss to Aunt Annikki, my wife said to our little daughter, and the child hugged Mrs. A. and pressed her lips to her cheek. Mrs. A. put her arms around the girl and offered her cheek to be kissed, but, as I think about it now, there was already something odd about her. Though she was smiling, she looked distant and aloof. When she leaned back against the pillow of the easy chair, after the child had one, it struck me that this is how she might look in her own bed: languid, body quite present but spirit far away, beyond reach. You know, one can at times forget everything, even one’s own home and the busy family all around. You are alone, climbing the ladder of your own thought-structures, higher and higher. And suddenly, when you begin to speak, nobody comprehends a word. I have experienced it often. Afterwards I have marveled that I got so far in just a few seconds, and had reached the end of a long chain of thoughts. Sometimes it seems that in the time it takes for a lump of sugar to fall from my fingers into a coffee cup, I have been to some far-off place. Perhaps this happens because I experience a great need to be alone, and I so seldom have the opportunity. If I escape from my work, I have the family all around me; and I can escape from my family with a good conscience only in my work.

I don’t know what struck me, but when I saw Annikki’s expression, I turned on my tape recorder. This is nothing unusual in our family. We use the recorder a lot and often tape all sorts of things for fun. Annikki saw that I put the mike on the table, but she paid no attention to it. She just smiled, her eyes transfixed as if fatigued into that position. The pupils were wide open, and the iris could only be seen as a thin rim around them. She started to talk in her usual voice, so at first we paid no attention to her words. If, by accident, I had not caught the following on tape, I might even now think that I had only imagined the whole thing. She smiled sweetly between her words, stirred sugar into her tea, accepted sandwiches when offered, used her napkin and behaved properly in every respect. Looking at her I got the impression that she might have been discussing the latest fashion with Briitta, where the hemline would be next spring. After a while she became more serious. (From here on, the text has been transcribed directly from the tape. We are tuning in at the point where my wife is saying that Annikki should visit us more often.)

‘…haven’t seen you, goodness knows, since when. You really must come whenever you feel lonesome.’

‘But it’s here I feel most lonesome, here in your home. In a family. I’m afraid of families. No, I hate families. These days all families are unbearably happy and sweet. Happy families make me sick.’

‘Heavens! You know that every single family has its own… ‘

‘Yes, I know that seventy-five per cent is bluff, showing off to guests, but it doesn’t help. Every time I go home from here I feel like vomiting. A couple of times I have actually thrown up.’

‘Annikki!’

‘I even hate your living-room set, this holy trinity: father, mother and sweet little children. If I’d had an axe, I’d have chopped up my own set after one of these family visits. But I acted in a civilized way. I donated every single piece of that miserable set to the church youth group. If they’d known my mood – but even there I had to pretend. Generosity. Well-being, wherever I go. Thank you, I’m just fine. Iamfineiamfine. Iamfineiamfine. I have to shout it in all directions that I’m just fine before I have a right to my own illness, to my own private pain. And hell.’

(Here she raised her voice a little, but the word ‘hell’ she said again with a sweet smile. We were shocked. I thought immediately that the capsule was having some effect. Briitta looked like someone had struck her in the face. I feared for a moment that she might do something rash. There was a glass table between them, and I had to grab Briitta by her hands before she realized what I was trying to tell her. The garbled place on the tape is my attempt to make clear to Briitta that Annikki wasn’t responsible for her words, but we were responsible as long as she was under the medication. The typist has done her best to transcribe the following:)

‘Annikki… Briitta, listen to me… out of this house… and I have been so concerned about you… she doesn’t know what… while the effect lasts… she’s crazy… we can only wait… crazy… ungrateful… no wonder that Simo… we can’t let her go, you understand?’

‘Annikki. Do you understand what you’re saying?’

‘Yes, I do. These are words I’ve wanted to say for a long time, it seems always, but that’s not so.’

‘Really? Feel free to walk out of this house right now.’

‘Briitta, please try to understand. Annikki, can’t you understand that Briitta is shocked at what you just said? That it’s shocking?’

‘Of course. That’s why I’ve never said it. I think it’s shocking, too. It’s shocking that we can’t say what we think. That we can’t say: No, I don’t want to come because I hurt. Leave me alone till it stops hurting. Don’t force me to play this part. Don’t force me to demonstrate how well I’ve managed, how gutsy I am in spite of it all, how well I look, almost rejuvenated. Don’t force me into this charade.’

‘Annikki, why do you say it now?’

‘Why do I say it now? Because I hate this theater. I hate it so badly that some day it’ll burst out of me. I’ve known it all the time. Maybe I’m tired now, or about to get sick. Perhaps I have the flu. With each cold I live through everything again. My resistance gets so low.’

‘Kauko, how long do I have to listen to this?’

‘Briitta dear, leave her alone. I don’t know this medication yet, and I can’t change the situation. Let her talk, let it blow over. We can’t send her home in this condition. Briitta, dear… ‘

‘Briitta dear. Do you know, Briitta dear, that we just about died of it? We both just about died of it. You and your male company, your escorts, your dances. God, I think on my death bed I’ll still hear your whispers: You’ve got to find male company. You must have fun, give parties, buy new clothes, a new dress, a new love… God almighty, you wouldn’t let me grieve one single moment. You’re allowed to grieve over the death of a dog, and that’s supposed to be a sign of great sensitivity. But you’ve no right to grieve when a human relationship breaks down. That’s considered bad form. We should always be ready to put on a show. Show how tough we are. Without feelings. Heartless. People appreciate that.’

‘Briitta, don’t say anything. Just listen.’

‘Only one person told me: Don’t suppress the pain. Let it come. Let it grow and mature and let it die a natural death. And when he saw that I could take it, he said my strength was my ability to receive everything. Now I know that I can endure enormous mental pressure. That’s my security. It’s terrible, but I can take it.’

‘That sounds like some sort of hare krishna. She’s probably drifted into the hands of those quacks.’

‘Nobody ever believes that I can think with my own brains. Nobody believes that we’re able to think. People are forever trying to paste labels on me.’

‘Annikki, you want something to drink? Here’s some water. Try to get it down.’

(She drank a glass of water and afterwards rubbed her face with both hands. Her movements were calm. The hands didn’t tremble, only the eyes seemed wider than usual, and her lips had that typical somber expression which no act of will can remove. It can always be detected underneath, if you look for it. I have sometimes thought it is the sure sign of a lonely woman. I have seen women patients with every kind of illness, gall bladder and heart ailments, ulcers and colitis, diabetics, migraine and arthritis patients, but this sign never fails. By this time, Briitta had already got over her worst shock. She smiled, with an expression of not wanting to say another word, ever. Her fingers trembled. I was hesitating, not quite sure if I ought to urge Annikki to continue and unravel everything, or leave her alone and see what would come out on its own. Those old interrupted studies in psychology came into my mind again. I noticed that she had broken a whole pile of matches onto her plate and was rolling them between her fingers with an obvious sense of satisfaction. Briitta was calming down. The words which follow she said to me in a low voice.)

‘It’s no wonder. I’ve felt in my bones there’s something pathological in her. Any normal person would’ve seized a number of opportunities by this time.’

‘What do you mean normal?’

‘Oh come on! Are you starting, too? One can sense what is normal, though it’s hard to define. Yes, somehow one can sense it. Crazy as we both may be, we’re normal.’

‘That’s right, Briitta. You are normal and there’s no need to be ashamed of it. You don’t have to explain in the same breath that you’re especially crazy, as if you would need more room for maneuver. You’re a normal social unit, noteworthy for the numbers you represent: two adults and two children. Especially the number of adults increases your social value. I often suffer from a quantitative inferiority complex. You’re many, you’re like a small fortress, just like some damn garrison.’

‘That’s no reason for hating us. We can’t help it.’

‘When you speak about your concerns, you always say so softly “we”: we’ll do, we’ll go, we think, we can’t help it. It sounds great. I have suffered especially from losing this “we”. I tried once to cultivate the plural consciously, in every possible place. I thought that we were also two, my daughter and I. But when I said: Now we’ll do our income tax, it sounded so ghastly that I gave it up. From that time on, I accepted being the basic unit, the single solitary I, not even the smallest social unit, which I’m told is two, as a young radical once explained. This is why I experience loneliness as something honest, at least.

Don’t be surprised if I hate. When you are afraid, you hate. You’re always on the alert, ready to defend yourself. Don’t exhibit your family bliss for my admiration. I don’t want to come and admire anybody’s family life. I want to know what is the other way to live, what are the other possibilities. How to stay alive alone without getting trampled on and depressed. How to get along without sex life. How to learn to tolerate casual relationships which you actually detest. And how can you even get hold of them, if you can’t stand late nights and liquor, traveling salesmen and sitting around in restaurants, and want to avoid married men? How can you take care of these relationships and where, when you have a child at home? And how can you escape the suffocating feeling of being a misfit that comes over you again and again, the feeling that everyone else belongs, is married, part of some group? That feeling hits me when my health is down, and then I panic because of my child. It’s as if I was still carrying it under my heart. Only now am I really pregnant. I couldn’t care less about what you have purchased and invested, what shape the thatched roof of your summer cabin is in and where you plan to travel together. I want to know how one can live alone. Can one live alone? Is it possible? Could it even be natural, this fundamental loneliness? Or is it unnatural, and is this suffering natural? Am I perhaps healthy just because I’m ill of this condition? Maybe it’s my only healthy reaction in years. But everyone wants to cure me of it. So that I would be ready, quite ready. But I refuse. I do refuse. I have a right to this pain. I have a right to this human being called I. That right, at least, I have. And I possess this pain. That is what I possess. Do you possess your spouse? Yes, I do possess my spouse. I am married to my loneliness and I am unfaithful to it, now and then, lying next to my pain. It’s easily done in this time of free love, and infidelity – don’t you remember? – only strengthens the union, it’s almost a condition for marital success. You search in vain, poke around in me in vain, but you won’t find the location of my pain. Only he found it right away, every time.’

Kauko paused, his fingers resting on the keyboard. He was wondering how to comment on this tape, on this situation where everything seemed askew, something that just ought not to be. Hearing it on tape made it all the more crude. Only now and again the clinking of a spoon brought some relief. But all the friendliness that surrounded the occasion was gone: the beautiful table setting with its decorated sandwiches, the red of the tomatoes, the delicious fresh cucumber slices, the indirect lighting that illumined the faces so favorably. The letter was giving a wrong impression; even authenticity leaves room for many different emphases and nuances. But he also felt satisfied: he certainly hadn’t spared Briitta or himself. They appeared in an ugly light, open to all kinds of criticism. At least he had been honest. But then he began to think about honesty. There are days when old virtues like honesty are self-evident, not especially appreciated. They are simply ways of behaving, not noteworthy qualities or special traits. But what did this thought have to do with Annikki? For some reason he recalled a rye field in the country. One day Briitta had wanted to stop at the roadside to pick some cornflowers and he had taken time to observe the field. How splendid it had looked, the solid greyish-green field, the color of rye just before it’s fully ripened. It was like a clear lake with a clay bottom, some lake in south Finland before pollution took over. It had brought to his mind something about honesty, something that had to do with confessing and being honest. But what does it help to be honest afterward … It bothered him that he couldn’t recall the thought now. It had seemed like a valuable insight, something he could have put to use.

The first summer in the country when Kauko had strolled in the woods around the cabin, he had found an old house foundation with a surrounding yard and a well. In his eagerness, he had started to clean it out. It was shallow and looked like a real wellspring, but from its bottom came up an endless amount of decaying wood and mud. That, too, brought Annikki to his mind, or did Annikki remind him of the well? – Should I write: ‘Of course we felt sorry for her, but also hurt’? Or: ‘We haven’t had the courage to invite her since’? But all that was unessential. The letter was about the capsules. ‘It is obvious that the medication has a powerfully relaxing and uninhibiting effect on some individuals, and compounds the effect of alcohol. Both the relaxing and the cumulative effects call for further study. Because of the above experience, I am not eager to experiment with it any further in my family circle.’

He reached for his cigarettes but changed his mind. He opened the middle drawer of his desk and took out his pipe. Better learn to smoke a pipe. To stuff his pipe, he walked to the window. In the open field, on an empty lot of this suburb, some girl had once cried out in the middle of the night: ‘Mother, don’t leave me, Mother, Mother, don’t leave me.’ People had been awakened in the surrounding houses and run to see what was the matter. The girl was about fifteen and next to her stood a boy of the same age, pale but brave, holding his motorcycle. Kauko had called an ambulance and sent the girl to the psychiatric clinic. Cases where someone is shouting and running around in the woods, or where people are at each others’ throats, are actually simpler. You can intervene: a raving person must calm down, the crying must stop crying, fighters must be separated. There are possibilities of immediate action when grief, depression or violence break certain limits, touch off the societal alarm system, break, for example, the night peace of a sleeping suburb. But if only laws of hospitality and good manners have been violated, nobody knows what to do. People become paralyzed.

Kauko started to light his pipe. It made hissing sounds like water dripping on cooling sauna stones. He felt an acrid taste on his tongue. Real inconvenience, this elasticity of the human brain in matters of time, he thought. Everything has a tendency to get stored up. My mind is no exception. Why should that girl have come to my mind now?

He turned on the tape recorder again. Annikki’s voice sounded calm, normal, one was tempted to say.

‘ … and all the time you would force on me your old boy friends, also that nitwit who could only babble about tequila.’

This sentence had been a signal for the typist. Here she was to stop. After this point one could only hear Briitta sigh about ‘paranoid hallucinations.’

‘Never mind all this. What’s past is past’, he heard his own voice say. This was the steady voice of an experienced man. He felt quite satisfied. One’s voice communicates a lot.

He rewound the tape a bit and listened again. No, the voice didn’t tremble in the least. Let the old boy listen, if he wants to. A little sting would do him good, if he was capable of getting the point at all. Kauko turned off the tape recorder and sat down to continue his letter.

Here you have the essential part of what took place. The tape continues but it is basically repetitive. You can listen to the full tape if it interests you. The first part is clearer. The sound of the latter part is poorer because we are moving out into the entrance hall. You understand our feelings, of course. Somehow we felt like crying, because we were so helpless and because of the whole thing. Also, to be honest, because the situation had to break up this way. It was as if some dish had broken in our hands, right in the middle of a pleasant get-together, as if some liquid, wine, coffee, syrup had suddenly poured over our fingers and dirtied up everything, some substance which one could handle in a container, but in spilling out made a mess of everything. I must also confess that I reacted on this occasion more like a human being than a doctor. I got more involved in what was happening than was good for a professional attitude, and couldn’t even act as I normally would. Perhaps with suitable questions and stimuli I could have directed her thoughts into more positive channels, but I was so thoroughly surprised and taken aback that I was not capable. The quick turn of events also had its share in my confusion.

At this time we find ourselves in a predicament. Briitta phoned her once to ask how she was doing. She answered: ‘Thanks, I am fine, how about you? Thanks for the evening. How is it going with the two of you? Is that thatch roof of your summer cabin still covered with autumn leaves?’

Kauko stood up and walked around in his study. The pipe had gone out. He knocked out the ashes and was about to fill it again, but, instead, bent over to the tape recorder and pressed the button. He remained at the window listening to it, and knocked the empty pipe against his shoe.

Briitta: ‘Kauko, my heart is bothering me.’

Annikki’s voice: ‘Listen, when you go to bed, hold your hand over your heart, like this.’

‘My own hand?’

‘Yes, that helps.’

Kauko suddenly wondered what might happen if he fell in love with Annikki. Really in love. Could such a thing still happen? It did happen to people. It certainly woudn’t be desirable. For the better part of one’s life falling in love wasn’t desirable. That happened mostly to people who had nothing else to do, who didn’t participate in any major events of their time, or whose value systems weren’t intact. And then, as so many times before in evening moments like these, he felt an irrepressible desire to make a final decision and announce that he was going to Africa. He had gathered all the necessary information, cleared the red tape … He had discussed it with Briitta: an eight-month orientation course in the fall in London and a three-year contract. Briitta had her nurse’s training and there were places in the world where their work was needed, where they would be of help in some concrete way.

Annikki’s voice spoke clearly and lucidly from the tape: ‘I don’t want to visit your summer cabin… ‘

Kauko suddenly felt how intensely he longed to be in the country, in the cabin, right now when winter was approaching and nobody else would be around, only the darkness and the mighty creaking of the trees. He was always content in the country. A summer cabin is no status symbol, he had thought last summer. Dog tired, he had squeezed out a two-week vacation for himself. For very few is a summer cabin a status symbol, after all. We flee to our cabins in order to be ourselves. We don’t dare be that in other places, only in the forest. Even for that we seem to need a special setting. Kauko had at that time been working on a research project about the mortality rate among males in Finland. One contributing stress-factor was the lack of a national sense of self-worth, the need for individual self-assertion among men in a small country which had waged and lost a war and was now practising a precarious political balancing act; this need to be somebody when no national strength is there to support you… The research project was not finished, but he would have time to bring it to a conclusion. He would talk the matter over with Briitta tomorrow. She had been for the Africa plan from the start. The children were not yet of school age.

He was overcome with a sense of awe. This is how a calling touches human beings. He stood there and knew: he could choose between playing at life in a Finnish summer cabin and the African reality. Everything in between meant messing around and he shied away from that. This couldn’t be only because he was, after all, a country boy.

‘ … Then again, I have always envied the smug middle-class, its peace and its self-satisfaction’, he heard Annikki say.

Yes, tomorrow he’d tell Briitta about the decision.

And again Annikki’s voice: ‘Heavens, how late it is. How in the world have I kept you up so late? I have really enjoyed this evening.’

The crazy thought struck Kauko that Annikki had done it all on purpose. People are capable of staging worse things, a suicide, for example. He remembered the young girls who had been brought semi-conscious to the clinic and how the doctors would sometimes cuss them out. Odd, this thought almost brought relief. Could it be possible?

The voices on the tape became indistinct. They had gone to the entrance hall. One could still hear how they offered to bring Annikki home. She didn’t want to accept, but finally agreed. Briitta’s voice sounded tearful. She had started to cry softly as soon as they got into the car and onto the darker streets. She had listened to Annikki’s voice: I hate family cars and families stuffed into these cars, the small kids who fight in the back seat and, more than anything else, the nagging wife, that protected creature, next to the driver.

They had been close to simply leaving Annikki at the roadside. Kauko could still sense the solidarity that had developed in the car between himself and Briitta.

Annikki’s voice could still be heard on the tape, this time quite weak, as she was going out: ‘I understand you all right, that you have meant it well. What else could you have done? Try to take it. I know how hard it is…’

Kauko was staring out. He saw his own mirror-image in the window, the doubled room, furniture, books. He saw himself standing in the midst of them, in his own home, with its mirrored double size. Was there any choice in life that wasn’t heavy…

He snapped out of it when the tape recorder automatically stopped at the end of the tape. Had it been running soundlessly for a while? During that time his decision had become firm. The matter was settled. He had the feeling that he was doing right.

He unplugged the tape recorder and sat down to read the pages he had written. Then he brought the letter to an end:

A few days later I called her up and asked openly if she remembered the capsule which she had taken and if she had anything to report about its effect. She said that she had slept well. And, guess what – she said – I dreamed that I loved the whole night through so that my body was sore and I felt well and satisfied in the morning. It was so real that all the rest seemed unreal when I woke up. That dream has given me strength for many days. Would you write me a prescription when the capsules become available?

What did Kauko still want to say? Oh yes: ‘Do you want me to make a formal report on this?’

He stopped and thought. He was troubled, as if something had not been thought to the end.

Translated by Margareta N Deschner

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