The attentive lover

Issue 4/1988 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

In this short story, from his collection Pronssikausi (‘The bronze age’, 1988, on the Finlandia Prize shortlist in 1989), Martti Joenpolvi takes up the subject of the problematic transportation of a human cargo

He braked abruptly; the woman lurched forward, straining against the seat belt, and the car drove into the parking space. The only vehicle parked there was a solitary trailer loaded with timber: a resinous pulpwood-odour came wafting through their open window, so physical, it was as if someone were snooping into the car’s most intimate interior. When they stopped, they got the whiff of a yellow refuse bin, incubated in the heat of the day.

‘What’s up?’

‘We’ve got a problem.’

He opened the door, and the ‘headlights-on’ alarm went off with a screech.

It was obvious enough that they were close to a summer villa site. The refuse bin was pullulating with plastic bags; the lid wouldn’t shut: it looked like a sort of open mouth stuffed with filthy obscenities. A folded mattress lay beside it, and in the grass behind there was a sofa-back. The seat was lolling further off still, shaded by a grove of young birches.

The man waded through the knee-high grass and disappeared into the trees near the ruined sofa. Soon he was back.

‘So that was the problem?’ the woman asked.

He sat pondering, his fingers caressing the steering wheel. A clear, sticky honey was oozing from the smashed abdomen of a bee stuck to the windscreen.

‘Can’t go straight there,’ he said. ‘Have to abandon the usual route.’

‘Why so?’

‘Because it’d mean we’d start off in full view. And after that there’s three hundred yards of open field.’

‘And that’s not on?’

‘By no means.’

‘They don’t know me, do they?’

‘That’s just the point. They know me and Mirkku.’

‘So I could be your cousin, for instance.’

‘Worse still, I’m afraid. Incest. And you certainly don’t give the impression of being any sort of cousin.’

She slapped her bare thigh with the back of her hand. She was wearing white shorts. A red blotch slowly expanded across her skin.

‘So why did we come here?’

‘Because,’ he said, without further explanation.

‘So what’ll I do? Fly?’

‘Of course not. But you could swim from the opposite shore. The lake’s narrow there, and the water’s got warm.’

‘Swim! I haven’t swum for years! I don’t even know if I can any more. I’m certainly not going to start now.’

‘Is that definite?’

‘Definite.’

‘So that possibility’s out then.’

‘Had you really thought I would?’

‘Certainly.’

‘Since when?’

‘Since we were in town. Well, I was getting hold of the wrong end of the string, I must admit. And besides it wouldn’t be a particularly safe solution anyway.’

‘You’ve said it. I might drown!’

‘That’s not what I meant. But they can certainly tell the difference between a woman’s head and a great-crested grebe.’

‘They? Who’s they?’

‘The neighbours, of course. And then there’s getting ashore.’

‘And besides I don’t have a costume.’

‘Yes, the whole notion’s impossible.’

He lit a cigarette. He eyed her. ‘You excite me.’

‘You bet. I’ll be pretty worked up myself, soon.’

‘Really? About me?’

‘About that problem of yours.’

‘Problems are a part of life. One’s bound to run into them every now and then. But listen, this is what I’ll do, I’ll come and pick you up in a boat at an agreed spot. How does that sound?’

‘Fine,’ she agreed, already enjoying the prospect of a lovely boat trip. ‘But what a shitty concept of morality you have! Talk about a double standard!’

‘The most reliable, that. A double standard is a safe standard. If one standard lets you down, the other will hold. Like having double instrumentation.’

‘Please drive me out of this stench!’

He stubbed out his cigarette with punctilious slowness. Some distance along the road, he indicated for the turn-off. The side-road’s shale was badly ravaged by frost. Less than a hundred yards from the junction he stopped, staring intently ahead.

‘See that man and tractor? – over there by the road, on the edge of the field?’

‘Well, what of it?’

‘It’s Mekkonen. And Mekkonen’s rape field. He’s spraying it with insecticide. Filling up the tank.’

‘So what’s that got to do with us?’

‘Never mind now. Get down, and curl up there in the leg space. You’ll fit in easily. You’re small and slender.’

‘Well, I’m not going to get as small and slender as that.’

‘Yes you are,’ he said in a slightly altered voice. ‘There’s excellent leg space here in front.’

‘It’s meant for legs.’

‘Nevertheless. Soon we’ll be in the village. Chances are, even the shopkeeper’ll be out on the street. I’ve got so many acquaintances.’

She crouched low down in the excellent leg space, encouraged by a persuasive caress of his hand on her neck. The crown of her head was crushed against the bottom of the glove compartment. Her tummy told her when the car went over the crest of a hill. She could hear him talking:

‘Best view of the area you get, from here, by the way.’

‘I’m sure you do.’

From down there her voice appeared to be coming out of stereo amplifiers.

‘Why didn’t you stuff me in the boot when we left? Can we expect lots more of your friends and acquaintances?’

‘Naturally. I was just thirty when I started to get known around here. It’s some time since then.’

‘Wonderful to have good friends,’ she said out of the engine-hum.

‘Acquaintances can be a bother, and friends have their drawbacks too,’ he said. ‘Could be better if people didn’t proclaim themselves friends at all. Just tried to get along with each other. Friendship institutionalises. Life’s a matter of getting along, and that applies just as much to human relationships.’

‘It’s hellish uncomfortable down here, especially for a lecture on philosophy.’

‘You might just as well come back up now,’ he said.

As soon as she straightened up she saw a young squirrel darting on to the road and under the car. She wailed.

‘Stop! We’ve got to go and see what’s happened to it.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Why ever not?’ She stamped her sandalled foot on the car floor.

‘The hand-brake doesn’t hold, as you see, we’re going downhill. I’d like to keep this car a bit longer.’

‘Stop!’

‘All right, all right, very well.’

The car stopped. They looked back up the hill. No sign of the squirrel.

‘Let’s go and make sure,’ she insisted. ‘That would really put a stopper on it, if I thought the poor thing was lying there in agony.’

‘Go and fetch a stone, then, from somewhere – about the size of a head. Meanwhile I’ll keep my foot on the brake.’

‘A stone! Why a stone?’

‘To put under the front wheel. Get the point?’

She scanned the edges of the ditch, shook her head, scrambled up the opposite side and thrust her way into the bushes. Her first stone he rejected.

‘I didn’t say a baby’s head. See what you can find in those junipers.’

She disappeared into the junipers. Several minutes went by before she reappeared awkwardly supporting a largish stone against her stomach.

‘Gosh, a woman’s at her loveliest when she’s carrying something,’ he called from the window. ‘Down there, in front of the right wheel please, tight.’

He released the brake and the car eased into the obstacle. They walked over to where the squirrel had been seen. No squirrel, no bloodstains. They were both delighted the squirrel had got away. The woman’s delight was short-lived, however:

‘Now look! I’ll have to set to washing as soon as I get there.’

There was a big stain on her white shorts from the dirty stone. He pointed out a red pine at the roadside, supposed to be two hundred years old. Had a preservation order on it, he said.

‘These pines don’t know who you are, then?’ she asked.

‘Hardly on speaking terms.’

His manner became hasty, and back at the car he started briskly up and began to drive off. The offside listed violently upwards, and there came a crack from below. The headlight alarm screeched as he opened the door.

‘Terrible row.’

‘Pity you haven’t a device that’d go off to remind you of a stone in front.’

‘Well, you didn’t, did you? Move over here. Put your foot on the brake. It’s the one on the right.’

He went to the front wheel, came back with the mudflap in his hand and threw it into the rear.

‘That my fault too?’

‘Partly. But the responsibility is with me.’

‘Always the more moral-sounding line you take, I expect, don’t you?’

After a short passage through the forest he stopped the car at a bridge.

‘Let’s get out here. I’ll find a place for you.’

‘What place?’

‘A safe place. For you to wait.’ He peeped over the parapet.

‘Deserted. No swimmers.’

‘Is that a river.’

‘A river is what it is.’

They climbed down the steep dusty grass of the bridge-embankment. The place he’d chosen turned out to be a small flat clearing among some alders. In the centre there were the blackened remains of a campfire, and over on one side the grass was flattened down, as if by tents.

‘Just here. Good stones for sitting on.’

‘And for getting cystitis.’

‘On a day like this?’

‘Why’ve I got to be sitting here in the sticks? Call this keeping me company? Soon you’ll be out of sight for ever.’

‘Never be sure round here, you can’t. Think you’re alone, and Oops! And great ones, they are, too, for jumping to conclusions.’

‘So how long shall I be left here – jumping to conclusions in this pine swamp?’

‘Let’s see, not more than a good half hour. Might take a full three­ quarters… if I have to natter a bit with Eerola. Then I’ve got to get the boat in shape, fetch the oars, unlock the chains – oh, and the plug. Then rowing here as well, that’ll take a good ten minutes.’

‘Meanwhile I could be raped here in this thicket!’

‘Not in these parts. Round here they’re all calm, stable types. Talkative they are, yes, and that doesn’t help matters.’

After he’d gone a few steps he turned round:

‘Absolutely nothing to worry about. No sexual maniacs here.’

For the first time she looked at him as if she didn’t believe him.

The water lilies hadn’t started blossoming yet. The palms of their leaves and their stems rose on the oar-blades, and when he turned the boat cross­ wise, the river-channel was scarcely broad enough to take the boat. He’d changed into waders; he stepped unsteadily out of the swaying boat into the swampy water and tugged the bow ashore.

‘The neighbours are installed, the lot of them,’ he burst out. ‘Wallowing in the beach life.’

A large bird flapped out of a leaky nest on one of the shore trees. It made him jump. The woman pointed to some black plastic bags folded up on the front thwart.

‘What are you doing with those?’

‘Tiny little strategy, that’s all.’

‘You mean you’re going to stuff me in a sack?’

‘No, wouldn’t work. Just down there the river gives into the lake. From there onwards we’ll be sort of on a silver tray. Beach life’s an idle business, boring: nourishes human curiosity. This is what we’ll do.’

And getting things ready he explained his plan. She’d have to lie flat on the bottom of the boat. He settled the cushion he’d brought under the thwart: a good pillow, that.

‘No,’ she said.

He sat down on a tree trunk felled by the wind and lit up a cigarette.

‘Both neighbours are here. And their children. The kids in particular have eyes like hawks. Think it over from your own point of view. Wives are very eager to get their claws into mistresses.’

She knew. She’d had some experience of it: personal memories. The mosquitoes were pestering her, and she stopped resisting.

‘God help your ethics,’ she grumbled, getting into a lying position on the bottom of the boat.

‘As for that, I quite agree. Ethics are an encumbrance,’ he said, covering her body with smooth, glossy refuse bags. ‘They’re quite clean… completely unused … took them off a roll… straighten your knees… that’s it… plenty of space…’

He loosed the boat, it swayed badly as he got in, but soon settled on to an even course. She could hear the water lapping against the plastic sides.

‘Gorgeous weather just now,’ he said.

‘Really gorgeous scenery you’ve got here too,’ she said. What she could see above her was the underside of the thwart, with part of his bottom extruding over the edge, a glimpse of perhaps a willow overarching the river, a strip of blue sky and the soft breast of a white cloud.

‘There’s a brood of ducks paddling there,’ he rambled on in a low voice.

‘A hen and five ducklings. In the old days this river was much broader. Danger of it becoming eutrophic. It’s these fertilisers, you know.’

‘You’ll not be short of sacks then.’

‘Ancient historical district, this. Centuries, no, more, perhaps a thousand years ago, the ancient hunters passed this way in their boats. After quarry. Trading. Often I see them before my eyes, long boats…’

‘Ever seen any women in those boats?’

‘Skins, skins. Merchandise.’

‘Under the skins, no doubt,’ she said.

He announced they were coming to the end of the river. She’d guessed it already: the shade of trees had gone, the plastic was heating up, and when he pulled it over her face as well, the smell was unpleasantly pungent.

‘I’m frying down here!’

‘Ssh! This is the most critical bit.’

‘The boat bottom’s crucifying my shoulders.’

‘Quiet now,’ he hissed.

He was rowing earnestly. Beach sounds were audible, children’s shouts and splashings. An unfamiliar male voice said, surprisingly near:

‘Shipping a cargo, are you?’

‘Wood for the sauna.’

Then the mistress could only hear the sound of rowing, heavy breathing, and an occasional pit-a-pat, whose source she couldn’t make out: her lover’s sweat was dripping on to the plastic.

He was still drying it off his face and neck in the villa. There were patches of sweat on his shirt. Sipping the beer her lover had offered, the mistress began to feel life was coming back to normal. Just one more thing brought her out of her reverie:

‘Why are we sitting here inside? Aren’t we going out?’

‘Of course. Just one small formality, that’s all.’

He went over to the bag, he’d got the beer from. As his hand came out it was holding something curly.

‘Outside wear only,’ he said.

‘Oh my God,’ she said.

‘Only for outside. With this on, you can move about with absolute freedom.’

‘Mirkku’s, is it?’

‘No, no. My late mother’s. But she never used it, only tried it on. Good as new. So let’s try it for fit.’

The mistress slumped into a kind of catatonic trance suddenly shattered by a fit of uncontrollable laughter. It was no ordinary laughter. Fussing about with the fitting, the lover got a little worried: he recognised it as hysterical.

‘That’s the way… a little further down… you’ll pass for Mirkku perfectly… there’s a blonde bit poking through here… but it won’t be seen from further off… so long as you don’t shout too much… variety is the spice of life… even for a blonde… now, take a peep in the mirror.’

The mistress’s laughter ended as suddenly as it had started. It left her with an odd look on her face, which the lover noticed in both the mirror­ image and its source.

‘So? Make yourself at home. OK?’

‘Well, fuck you, mate!’

‘Precisely. At last.’

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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