In the north

Issue 3/1988 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Luvaton elämä (‘Forbidden life’, 1987). Introduction by Tero Liukkonen

I

I went up north in a sleeping car. It was a relief to see that even in Tampere there was a sign on the car saying ‘Kemijärvi’. That meant I could sleep the whole way. I had the lower berth; a couple more like me were sleeping in the same compartment – just ordinary women. I was nevertheless silent and reserved, so that neither of them would want to make me into a travelling companion. And they did leave me in peace.

I read for a bit, till I began to feel more at home, and settled down to sleep with my woollen socks on. I deliberately went almost to sleep while not wanting to drop off completely; and I gradually reached a point where I didn’t know which direction the train was going in. That was liberating. It was all the same which direction we were going in. The motion of the train got through to my nerves and started releasing things.

Almost asleep, I thought about the stations I’d come to as I slept. At certain intervals there’d always be some sleepy guard, lamp in hand. Casually he’d wave, and the train would start up. Arbitrary, but right. Some brisk busybody would/step out of the frost into the train, but soon the other passengers’ tiredness would get hold of him, and he’d sink into silence too. The doors would slam purposefully at certain intervals; everything would be in proper order.

I’d be asleep, I’d be an insouciant individual carried across snowy and frosty landscapes where only the creatures of the night moved, with nothing but tree boles and sleepy houses by the railside. Everything would sink away into unconsciousness. The train would be a supernumerary moving object on the landscape, a sugar loaf rocking on the rails, and only the night would be real.

And when I wanted to sleep, I did sleep and woke up in Rovaniemi. I went to the restaurant car for a coffee and saw some wooded hills and a fell rising through the mist. It felt so good waking with something transpired like that, absolutely in secret.

II

Far off, then, in the north, in a freezing and apparently isolated town, I set to straight away, packing up my friend’s things and washing the walls of this one-room flat in an old stone block.

Doors slammed gloomily in the corridors and the front door had a sign on: ‘Please Shut the Door’ in black out-of date official lettering on a white background. The shower was miles away in another part of the building along endless corridors and past closed doors. It was then that the thought first hit me: I’d never get out of this.

I wove my way around the flat between boxes, piles of rugs, plants, keys and mattresses, mountains of discomfort, even though the furniture had been removed. I listened to my ascetic friend’s long formalised account of human relationships: ‘I said, and he said, so I said, and he said, and so I said…’ This woman was as bright and fascinating as Miss Marple, charmingly sceptical, spoke an almost perfect literary dialect, loved complications, was meticulous and logical and at once able and human. I was very fond of her; a friend like her I’d never had before. She was always surrounded by an atmosphere it was lovely to be in and where you could be immediately understood; and even though she had a seriousness and old-fashionedness that complemented these other qualities, you could nevertheless get into funny and astounding adventures in her company, for she was, astonishingly enough, both absentminded and precise, mostly in the very same things. But all these qualities seemed to turn into their very opposites in that milieu, into tiresome disadvantages. I began to get claustrophobia. I listened to the same old story, tried to empathise, but felt myself going numb and longed to get away. I began to feel a debilitating homesickness.

I sat on the floor on a pile of mattresses and ate some soup made out of tinned meat. I’d added carrots and potatoes, but the metallic smell of tinned meat was pervading everything.

The Arctic winter darkness was not just a matter of twilight and blackness but cold tin. My teeth ached, it was icy cold and there was such a severe frost it made me want to cry. The northerners walked towards you just as in any other town, mostly with fur on their heads or round their necks, nearly all wrapped up in something. Nevertheless I fled to the library, the cafes and the streets; I scampered from one telephone box to another, calling up friends and complaining. The Voluntary Fire Brigade’s mustard-yellow building stood like a huge monument to Cold in the centre of the town.

I gradually began to feel as if I were guilty of everything in the world, the whole universe was after me. Even the frost was my fault, and the Arctic darkness, and the winter, which was a sheer, glaring-blue needle, insidiously piercing my temples. The guilt feeling was everywhere, like a sort of resounding hoar-frost – in the trees, the bushes, the snow, the pavements, the kiosks and the stones of the cemetery wall. It was an invisible, impending, piercing, predatory scurf, refined beyond measure, penetrating everywhere. It clouded my cerebral fluids and set me running mindlessly from one place to another, and the world began to sway and stir with omens and fantasies.

How will it all look, how will you bear it, when the accident occurs, when you’re kicked in the head and the blood’s gushing, when you’re raped and lying unconscious in the snow, or cruelly betrayed, or your loved one has died, or you’re highjacked, flooded out, starving to death or run over? And what then, what about coming back to consciousness, waking up – that’s always the worst: and then the stretcher, and then the ambulance men, who never have anything but one expression, and then the hospital, and the worry and despair in the hospital, and the shocked family, the useless questions, to which there’s never any answer, the desperate convulsions, those eyes, lying awake for weeks, and that sudden tightening in the pit of the stomach, and coming back to it again and again in one’s mind, endlessly.

III

I didn’t tell my friend what I was feeling, I kept myself to myself, I wanted to, and anyway it wouldn’t have helped. I lost all hope: we’ll never get away from here, I thought, we’re stranded here. I carried three motor tyres from the attic to the yard; the whole business scarified me: How I hate being in other people’s attics… they’re weird. I wrapped a kantele in a rug, and its strings went on resounding weirdly for ages. A crystal chandelier glittered in a box. I stared at it for a long time and began to feel we were collecting items for some long-drawn-out horror movie. I champed on pieces of rye crispbread like a machine. I was becoming hysterical. I gaped at the large plants being carefully wrapped in layers and layers of newspaper so that they wouldn’t be affected by the frost; but when they didn’t fit into the car, the were brought back, the plants were flung into the rubbish bin, and only the pots were kept. I also packed a knapsack. I put an axe and some matches in.

Everything was methodical, methodical. I cooked another lot of tinned-meat soup. I waited. Everything that had to be done, the packing, the precautions, all seemed to have been put into slow motion in advance, to ensure that we shouldn’t get away. I was both supernumerary and essential. My friend emphasised that my sort of person doesn’t do social work, and I didn’t either.

IV

So it was incredible that the red Wartburg was finally loaded and was waiting, bursting at the seams, in the apartment-house yard, and that the last sweepings had been swept, the friends said goodbye to, the keys handed in, the tea drunk – God knows how many times – the Wartburg towed a couple of spasms, every possible trick tried to get it started, that the inevitable faces had appeared at the windows, the frozen petrol pump had been fixed, and the hours had gone by at the garage in a quiet industrial area, surrounded by unknown repair men and a host of wisecrackers. In the dispiriting smell of petrol, straps, belts, oils and cars.

We’d stuffed ourselves with sweets. We’d rung up spare-part firms, friends, railway stations, bus stations, and various information offices between Kemijärvi and Tampere with timetable enquiries. We’d booked sleepers and then cancelled them. We’d planned unloading, buying a new car, we’d counted money, written cheques and thought about places to stay. I’d already lost my temper and gone to sit on the bus to Rovaniemi, from which my friend hoicked me at the last minute before the bus left, when the Wartburg had been got going.

My friend had already managed to drive round town, collecting frozen foods she’d forgotten, bumping into a traffic light, getting stuck with a jammed gear, and leaving the car. She’d gone for help to the nearest house, where unfortunately there was only an old couple living, who were not up to pushing the car. The old gentleman insisted on going to throw sand on the slope, even though my friend swore it wasn’t question of sand. She rang round friends and finally got a whole gang of them together, who shoved and shoved to get the car going.

Apathy, waiting about and persistence. And finally departure: two women in a red Wartburg, on the road to the south and night, a twelve-hour journey ahead, 30 degrees centigrade below freezing, through the wildernesses of Ranua.

I sat on the Wartburg’s front seat, wrapped in a large blanket. My friend drove and talked, I listened. I was exhausted and scared, my feet cold. I had driven like that before, somewhat similarly, with another woman, but then it had been different, safer. Then we’d been driving through North Karelia, often in November, when the country was frozen, but snow had not yet fallen. There were trees, bushes and grassy stalks by the roadside, reassuring sights against the dark lifeless landscape. Then too I sat in the front seat doing nothing, in a beetroot-red poncho. We drove somewhere, turned round and drove back again. We never spoke, we never said a word to each other, but nevertheless everything seemed just as it should be.

V

‘Ah yes, yes, afraid so.’

‘What?’

‘Nothing, yes, yes it is. Afraid so.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Yes, if I’ve said it once I’ve said it a dozen times.’

‘Said what?’

‘I dunno. Afraid so, yes…that’s it. Is there that same smell of burning?’

‘Well, there is something. Not the engine, I hope? Is there something burning there in front? God, I do hope this will hold up!’

Inside the Wartburg life was coming into distorted focus. If the car began to act up and broke down, we’d be in another dimension – cold and helplessness. We’d not want to believe it at first, we’d hang back for a while, longing to postpone everything. So long as the car was going, we were safe. Even so, every time a lorry went past, my skin broke out in goosepimples, and in the latter part of the journey dozens of lorries had been hurtling past. Recently, almost finished with exhaustion, I’d begun envisaging lorry lights every time I saw any light on the road ahead.

We were driving along a line where even a tiny slip would be fatal. Then I saw the weasel. It was crossing the road with its prey in its mouth. It escaped by the merest squeak. We were at the coldest point of the Ranua wilderness. A small furry white omen had carried a message across the road. I understood. And I began to give in. That’s how things happen. Nothing you can do.

In that cold car, sitting next to my friend, I began to learn the art of sinking, how to be depressed. I succeeded. There’s more power in depression than you’d think.

I noticed it even at twenty, when, starting as a student, I spent two years under the sheets in a rented attic. At that time I’d never have believed I’d turn into a human being. It was wonderful to regress. I haven’t often felt so good, not up to now. I just slept. Then I nibbled a little, if there was anything to eat, or just drank water and went back to sleep. I didn’t wake until two or three in the afternoon and then I set off sleepily to do a bit of shopping. It was a wonder I was able to buy anything. All the rest of the town seemed alien and unreal, the university a ghost palace. I don’t think I ever went to lectures, unless they were in the evening.

I could grasp nothing, I avoided people and I didn’t have a single friend. There was just an acquaintance who came to see how I was getting on out of duty – and was worried, astonished. Yet I didn’t think I needed attention. In the evening I stirred about a bit more, and often I got up to watch the pines briskly swaying in the wind, their branches grazing the wall of my accommodation. Then I went back to bed at the same time as everyone else.

At weekends I travelled home, numb, sleepy, and then slept again at home. I don’t remember a single morning.

Then, after two years, I woke up, having made up my mind to. I went to work and was astounded at myself, getting up like anyone else early in the morning. It was something new.

I set my life in order, laboured away, and studied hard. I finished my degree, began to live a normal life and forgot the time I’d spent sleeping. Many of my fondest wishes seemed to realise themselves as if on their own. I got a lot done. I’d pulled through and could manage things. I thought I was well-turned-out, even chic, and cheerful. How gracious life is!

VI

But gradually I noticed I was vulnerable in my cheerfulness, for things are only right for me when they bring grief and distress in their train, when they pile up guilt feelings, harsh self-criticism and self-denial. I was on the lookout for grimness; I wasn’t capable of feeling exaltation. Bad. I want to be abased, but without a drop of irresponsible flightiness, fury or straightforward sin, and therefore no distinction. All my life I’ll be deprived of something, always – full of cares, fears, terrible agonies. I’ve no right to live.

I got home from the trip, the last bit on the early morning train. Chilled, sleepless and utterly done-up. I was dreaming of a warm bed, my husband’s arm and his sleepy eyes. But at home the bed was empty. Even though the lamp was on and clothes were scattered all over the place, my hand couldn’t find a warm spot in the bed, however much I tried. No one had slept there the whole night. For that night my husband had cheated on me for the first time.

I crept under the sheet alone. I felt an irresistible urge to sleep again, for years: this time I was really worn-out. It went through my head that in my world there was nothing but frost and scuttling weasels, little scurrying beasts that break the veil from time to time, slipping into view as omens, always of evil, evil.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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