Three short stories

Issue 2/1987 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

from Väärinkäsityksiä (‘Misconceptions’). Interview by Markku Huotari

Love

Kaija couldn’t understand why she felt like laughing all the time.

‘As for me, what I stand for is good old-fashioned courtesy,’ he pointed out.

He’d got a soft, low, caressing voice. He rested his hand on Kaija’s shoulder. They’d got that far already. Kaija had decided to say yes, even though he hadn’t suggested anything yet. She was beginning to picture luxurious rooms, gourmet dishes, expensive drinks, and tender, passionate love­making.

‘Socially I’m a radical,’ he said. ‘Culturally a liberal, but in personal things an unshakeable conservative. A woman, in my view, is to be respected – I don’t consider that damaging to her independence. Too often, in today’s world, equality’s used to justify what are quite simply bad manners.’

A Viennese waltz was playing with the volume turned down through hidden loudspeakers. Outside it was growing dark already, and the city lights had come on.

‘You know what, you’re an original,’ Kaija said. ‘Really and truly. You don’t often hear anything like that nowadays.’

He suggested they should go on to his place. Kaija agreed. He insisted on paying the bill. He hastened to help her on with her fur coat and gave the attendant an excessive tip, and even more at the door.

Through the taxi window the early night looked like a film, made in some other country. The swarms of young people in the centre might have been from anywhere. The weatherworn boozers, cadging and standing or sitting in corners, could have been Indians from big cities in South America. The police cars were patrolling the city centre. They were keeping a sharp eye on the outsize American cars, reconstructed from clapped-out ones, that were cruising around the blocks. Kaija felt opulent and secure when he put his arm round her waist. They didn’t speak on the short journey. The driver glanced at them in the mirror without saying anything.

His drawing room wall had a large poster on it, framed in glass, from a Salvador Dali exhibition in Brussels. It was weird. A large grimacing head stared at a bright blue sky. A dreadful-looking hand, as if leprous, was squeezing a woman’s breast hard. There was no human body, just a repulsive conglomeration of organs tearing at each other convulsively. Kaija went to take a closer look. It was skilfully done. A little further along the wall there were framed prints, pages removed from some book. They showed people being stabbed, hanged, shot and mutilated.

‘Great art,’ he said. ‘The more modern pictures are in my bedroom. Man in our time they reflect, I reckon.’ Kaija went and sat down.

‘It’s only an Egri, this wine, but it’s not bad at all, provided you leave it open for about an hour.’

They were sitting close together. He was more relaxed than in the restaurant. He caressed Kaija’s hair.

‘Did you hear the one about the man who went to the maternity ward to see his baby? Well, the nurse brought in a little bundle wrapped up in baby clothes. The man went up to peep closer, and the nurse smashed the baby’s head to bits against the wall. The man began to cry. So the nurse burst out laughing and said “April fool! It was stillborn!”‘

He kissed Kaija’s neck and ear. He panted quietly against Kaija’s cheek and caressed her stomach under her shirt with one hand. That went on for a long time. Kaija closed her eyes and leant back. She felt very lonely. It was as if they were in glistening transparent cocoons, each in his own, close together and yet completely isolated. She began to weep docile inaudible tears. In the darkness behind her tightly closed eyes she could see a savannah with a lonely rhinoceros cantering across it.

Yves Montand

‘Anyway it all falls on the wife. Bringing up the kids, looking after the house, the lot. Won’t catch me tying myself down to that sort of slavery.’

The wine-bar was brightly illuminated by fake-antique wall-brackets. The stone floor screeched under the metal frames of the red-plush chairs, as the customers shoved them backwards and forwards, plying the self­service counter.

‘Men use women. She gets pregnant, and he goes off with someone else. I want to live a full life.’

Pentti hadn’t met her before. She’d come to sit at his table, drunk already, carrying her half-bottle of wine. She’s started to burble on about this and that: between the loud bare walls of a busy room, she said, many a painfully concealed loneliness met another without realising it. Pentti’s job was to agree. The woman was young and good-looking, and Pentti was pleased to be seen in such company. He was shy and awkward with women. Usually he hung about alone or stayed up late reading novels from the municipal library, unless his childhood friend was in town and rang up to invite him out. Then they went to the races, punting, as his friend thought that was a proper pursuit for men of the world. With women he was as awkward as Pentti, but he concealed it under a noisy braggadocio, whereas Pentti was content to be quiet and spend his time with books. They didn’t meet a lot, but it was the friend who’d introduced Pentti to the wine-bar he was sitting in now, listening to the drunk young beauty.

Pentti rested his chin in his hand, half-covering his mouth with his palm, to conceal the lip-scar that gave his mouth a twist. He’d have liked a beard, but the sparse colourless hairs he managed to grow only made matters worse. So he was always close-shaven. The woman made him forget his shame.

‘Everything has two sides to it,’ Pentti said.

‘Ah, you’re the brainy type, I see. But I’m deliberately being aggravating. I want to keep things simple. Can you see the point?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘You’re sweet.’

Pentti didn’t have to invite the woman to come round to his place, she did it for him. Pentti had at his disposal one room in an enormous flat occupied by about ten young men, all poorly paid and going through a phase that made for disturbance in the house. It had been raided a couple of times, after the neighbours rang the police. Pentti’s room was at the back, at the end of a long corridor. The glazed tiles of an old-style furnace gleamed in the swaying nocturnal light of the streetlamps outside. From the street below, which ran along the shore, the sounds drifted up of cars, footsteps, running, pursuit, soliciting, door-banging, and the whining of the wind in the bare lime-trees and the tramwires. They didn’t draw the curtains on the high windows; they kept the lights out and moved about in the light from outside, drinking, occasionally lighting a candle and chatting nervously.

‘All my life I’ve been used. I’ve had twenty-two men, but I’d swap all twenty-two for one I could trust.’

She squeezed hungrily up to Pentti and mumbled his mouth. Soon after it was over, Pentti fell asleep. The last thing he saw was the woman sitting on the end of the bed, wrapped in a sheet, the tip of her cigarette glowing in the dark. He was oblivious to her sitting near him for hours, chain-smoking and filling the room with fug.

They woke around noon and drained the rest of the bottle of booze they’d got the night before and only half-drunk.

Drunkenness began to rear its head again. It was warm and cloudy outside, which felt good to their weary eyes, as they walked back to the wine-bar where they’d met the previous evening. Pentti didn’t go to work.

They spoke about how it had been before and how it was now they knew each other. The woman squeezed Pentti’s hand tenderly.

‘You’ve got this wonderful ironical smile. Know who you remind me of? Yves Montand. You’ve got that quiet, masculine charm. Oh, if only I’d got to know you before. I can’t marry just anybody, someone who doesn’t understand me, and give him children.’

‘Are you talking about setting up a family?’

‘That’s it. I’ve got to sort things out, so I can begin a new life. You can see that, can’t you?’

‘Oh yes, I can.’

Pentti worked out that the woman had been betrayed, and it had shaken her. He wanted to get her to trust in people again.

As evening came down, they started to go back to Pentti’s room. As they were going through the yard gateway, a man leaped out of the shadows and grabbed Pentti. Pentti punched him to the ground and hit him in the face and belly. The police dragged him off.

‘It’s all his fault,’ the man said, pointing at Pentti. ‘She’s my wife, and she can prove it.’

‘Get away with you,’ Pentti said.

Everyone began to talk at once. The police checked their papers. The woman was the stranger’s wife.

‘Just because she’s pregnant,’ the man said, deeply concerned, ‘she shouldn’t get so upset.’

Looking out of the back window of the police car, Pentti saw the woman go off with the man. The man tenderly put his arm round her shoulders.

God’s clear sky

‘In the war I was certain of it, I was going to die. Dragged my mate out of the line of fire, I did, when he got his. Died anyway. After the war I wept, all on my own, pissed out of my mind. I was alive. Here we are, the two of us, sitting nattering, and death’s not come between us. Rather like you, he was. Hollow cheeks, unshaven. He got his lot, and me, I’ll be an old geezer before long. An old man. Be my turn very soon, I expect.’

The old man was sitting a yard or two off on the boarding running along the roof-ridge. He dug a cigarette packet out of his pocket and lit up. Then he threw the packet over to Pentti.

‘Come over to my place.’

The man wasn’t looking at Pentti but at the fading sea, from which the colours were already beginning to drop as the sun disappeared. Pentti made no reply. He filled his lungs with as much smoke as he could and held his breath. He began to get dizzy. He let the cigarette drop and watched it roll down to the edge of the roof and out of sight.

The time was sunset. The half-clouded sky was taking on strange colours. The red glow on the ocean horizon had a yellow fire in it, topped by a huge soft cloud of hanging brilliant orange. Higher still the sky was bright green and the green went right up to the heights, changing colour till, reaching the zenith, it had become dark blue clouded with grey. Pentti felt like a smoke. The opposite horizon was purple. The ground was invisible, except further off. The gulfs of the streets below were going dim and lights kept coming on in the windows.

‘God’s clear sky,’ Pentti remarked.

‘Clear, yes. But you won’t find anything up there but ice-cold castles in the air – fog in the evening sun.’

‘What if they’ve got the angels inside. Sitting up there, and us sitting down here. Why no heaven? That’s where people want to go, isn’t it? Me at least. Instead of that, here we are, in hell on earth.’

‘You can ask me,’ the old man said cautiously.

‘Nice that you came to have a word, spite of the bust-up we had down there,’ Pentti said.

‘Yep, saw you climbing up here, and not going down to the street. Shouldn’t be here either, though.’

‘Shouldn’t sleep on the staircase either,’ Pentti went on. ‘Strict house. All the houses are. Most likely shouldn’t be anywhere.’

‘It’s where the old soaks are always kipping down and messing the place up. Last week it was my landing they shitted up. That’s why I lost my top when you were sleeping there. Wasn’t nice of me to kick you, but if I’d gone to get the caretaker he’d have called in the bluebottles. I wasn’t intending to hurt you.’

‘Forget it. Not worth thinking about. Nothing in this to blame yourself about.’

‘It’s where the old soaks are always kipping down and making the place shitty.’

‘I wouldn’t have done. I’m no old soak, it’s just that I’ve about come to the end of it.’

‘I can see that. But you’re a good lad. You’re very like that mate of mine, the one that got killed. Funny I didn’t see it straight away. Come round to my place. I’ll make us some coffee.’

‘Do you really believe that?’

‘Sure I do. You’re a good lad. Come on round.’

‘You go first, then.’

The old man went cautiously along the boarding on all fours. Pentti stood up. He folded his arms and pressed them tight against his chest. Then he flung himself onto the steep roof and rolled down. The old man went back to his flat. He made the coffee and sat there the whole night thinking about the boy.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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