The funeral

Issue 4/1988 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Hannu Salama’s short story Hautajaiset (‘The funeral’) – taking place in Pispala, Tampere – in the volume Kesäleski, ‘Summer widow’, was published in 1969. Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

On Tuesday Venla came round: as Sulo was being lowered into the grave Vihtori had had a heart attack. The next day a letter arrived from father: funeral on Sunday, and Gunilla and Timo want you to speak at the grave. I telegraphed back: ‘Vikki too close to me. Unable to speak.’ Outside the post office I realised I could have sent fifty words for the same money.

Irma ordered a flower arrangement. Did I want to put an inscription? Part of the last stanza of a revolutionary song went through my head:

Sowing makes the corn come into ear:
Hundredfold higher that happier age will be.

I said not to put anything, I’d say something at the grave if it seemed the thing to do. I told her to put mother’s, father’s and Heikki’s names on, and we’d take these off if they’d sent their own wreath.

On Saturday I got slightly primed, watched Tabe Slioor on the telly with Irma and Tytti and told them about Tabe’s husband, who’d been a cadet at the Air Academy. On Sunday morning I swallowed a couple of tranquillisers and caught the seven o’clock train. It was packed, though this was no special Sunday, as far as I could make out.

Some girls came and sat, one opposite, the other next to me. I glanced at their legs; it was a dark morning. I went to buy a morning paper, ate a banana and sat in the corner reading. In the Soviet Union they were arranging the October celebrations of all time, and in Finland Gunilla and Vihtori’s sort of people would be finding the missile parades embarrassing and using facts about the CIA and imperialism to explain the necessity. The Fifties peace campaign was nearer the hearts of communists born in the first and second decades than armed revolution. Vihtori himself had collected thousands of names, was a lover of peace.

I had to shelter behind my paper for a bit. I lit a cigarette. The girls were smoking too, both about sixteen, and I went behind the glass partition for a beer; the girls got out at Riihimäki, and an old couple took their place. I paid for my couple of beers and the sandwich you had to have to get a drink, went back to the compartment and stretched out on the seat. The old couple were watching me. I thought of saying something, but if they’d been keen to talk, I’d have had to be muttering back for a couple of hours. Anyway, they began to eat their snacks as if that were the only reason they’d come, and I turned my face to the backrest, checking that the button on my wallet-pocket was fastened. I woke up at Toijala. The old couple had left. I went out into the corridor and took a plastic cup of water to wash down a couple more of the tranquillisers.

In Tampere it was raining. I hurried through the station, rang Järvinen from a corner box, then went back into the station for a couple of beers and some onion soup. I got the flower arrangement out of the left luggage and took a taxi to Rahola. The beer had lubricated my brain, and I kept going over those lines of the revolutionary song. Should I say the whole stanza at the grave, I wondered; but I could only remember the next couple of lines:

Then the little Finnish nation
Will thank the hero sons who made her free.

And that wouldn’t be a good point to stop at.

The Järvinens were leaving for Hämeenkyrö and said they’d take me to the cemetery. After an hour with them, we left. The box of the flower arrangement wouldn’t squeeze into the Volkswagen boot, so we took it off. The rain had stopped.

There were people I knew by the cemetery chapel, but I didn’t nod or start greeting anyone. Bertta left the group and came to shake hands: ‘Glad you could come too’. She’d aged, skin patchy. Then Gunilla came and Timo, both with red noses, and I almost burst into tears myself. I looked past them. Mother and father were standing on one side, with Veke and Jussi and Anja. Mother looked as if she’d been crying, and father kept blinking. I asked how they’d got there, and father said Anselmi had brought them. Jussi’s face had the same blank expression it often had after his car accident. I expressed my sorrow at Sulo’s death to Viivi and Armi.

‘Well, look what the cat’s brought,’ I said to Veke.

‘I’m looking,’ he said.

Terttu had to come out from behind the others to show herself, and she was pretty, all right – or young. She’d got her A levels last term, with A grades, and was studying languages at Jyväskylä – Bertta’s pride and joy.

Mother asked me to go as one of the bearers, and we went into the chapel, Timo, Jussi, Veke and me. We hung around in a corner of the chapel until two other bearers came, neighbours of Vihtori, and the verger led us down to the crypt. We carried the coffin up: white, and I wondered whether black ones were still being used. We lifted the coffin on to a bier with wheels and began to push it along behind the verger. Timo was in front of me, and I fell into step with him. On the other side, Veke was in front, and Jussi alongside me; the neighbours came last. At the chapel corner the mourners fell in behind us, and as we came on to the main path a tearful agitation could be heard from Gunilla, and it was easy to read Timo’s back: for Christ’s sake, ma, shut up now.

The verger stood at the head of the open grave. We lifted the coffin off the bier and carried it to the mouth of the grave and began to lower it. The choir was singing ‘Now the labourer’s task is o’er’. My strap was coming to its end: I had to stretch down, and when I let go, trying to make it miss the coffin, it was so solidly woven, with an even solider end, it thumped down smack on the middle of the coffin lid. Jussi hauled it up.

We stood for a second or two and then retreated, I went to the end of the front row, next to father, where I stood on someone’s grave, I didn’t look to see whose; I stared at the ground, regularly easing my shoes out of the mud, while the heel prints filled with water, and listened to the ad­ dress: Vihtori, a wonderful sportsman, a party member, father of a family, had met his end on an October Sunday in this very cemetery where, like so many others and ourselves, he was escorting another loved one to his final rest. The sound of weeping came from Viivi and Armi; it rose then fell. The speaker went on about Vihtori’s work for the party, and his illness, which had never stopped him being the best in the district at enlisting subscribers for the party paper.

That organ-grinder’s ditty of Turtiainen’s kept spinning through my head: ‘When darling mother kicked the bucket… ‘ The night before I’d bellowed ‘Was dying on someone else’s grave a nice thing to do?’ and Irma had accompanied me: ‘No it wasn’t, he stole the show’. Now Armi and Viivi were sobbing on Vihtori’s grave, and on the whole the speaker seemed pleased. It came to me that a wake was a time for cracking jokes about kicking the bucket, especially when the deceased had gone and kicked it on somebody else’s grave.

Gunilla and Timo laid their wreaths. Gunilla pressed her heart, and mother went to support her and help her down from the edge. Vihtori’s brother Kalle laid his wreath, and then Bertta. Terttu took to reading the inscriptions. No sounds came from her. I couldn’t help thinking, cousins can get married too, can’t they?

Mother took a red wreath to the grave and said quietly: ‘Thank you for everything, Vihtori.’ Heikki laid a bunch of violets on the grave, and remained standing on the planks. I went up with father, set down my flower arrangement, a dozen calla lilies, then examined the other wreaths and read the inscriptions. We came away. Jussi laid his wreath, with Anja at his side, then Veke, then the Athletics Club, and then the neighbours. I looked behind me: there were a lot of familiar faces, and I turned back to look in front. The choir sang another hymn.

Gunilla asked me to thank the choir and invite them all for coffee. I went up to the grave and said: ‘On behalf of the family, I should like to thank the singers and the mourners for coming, and invite all present to come to the memorial reception at the home of the departed, Kaskentie 2 D.’

It didn’t sound too good. I wondered whether it was customary to thank the mourners, and whether it was customary to call the serving of coffee a memorial reception. But probably it came up to scratch as far as they were concerned, most of them anyway, apart of course from the professional mourners, who knew what was what and were reading the inscriptions: ‘The day was long and the sky clear, the evening came and the sun went down; with you our light passed away, we were left with longing and your dear memory.’

I was a little irritated. We started moving away from the grave – perhaps half an hour had gone by. A couple of Vihtori’s neighbours from his time in Pispala came to greet me, Esko and Viska. We chatted as far as the chapel, then Timo came and asked me to come in his car, as he’d something he wanted to say to me. Anselmi and Veke had cars too; they settled that the others would go with them for coffee, and Timo would take Anja and mother home to get a meal ready. We squeezed into the car, and mother reminded us we were all going to have a bite to eat with her when the guests had gone.

On the way Timo asked, mumbling, if I’d help him to buy a tractor loader.

‘Sure.’

‘Veke promised to get me work.’

‘If Veke’s promised to get you work, no problem.’

We drove via a sandpit where he worked with a yellow bucket loader. He’d buy a similar one; it’d cost a hundred and twenty thousand new, and it wouldn’t be worthwhile to buy a second-hand one. He’d gotten thousand in the bank: he could get thirty more for the car and a mortgage on the flat; and the rest’d have to be loans. In three years a loader would pay for itself, but now that his father was dead those who’d offered to finance it had withdrawn their offers.

‘I’ll certainly guarantee a bank loan if Veke will guarantee the work.’

‘Ah well, it’s no easy matter getting money out of the bank.’

He looked disappointed: did he think I could shove eighty thousand in his fist just like that? When we drove into the yard and got out, I found out he’d drunk a bottle of Bacardi with my dad the night before.

He showed me round the ground floor. A novelty was an air raid shelter and its water tank. I said I thought they were compulsory nowadays. He didn’t deny it. Somewhere a radio was sending out Rautavaara: ‘Her pretty arm enfolds me like a scarf.’ We took the lift to the flat on the sixth floor.

It was crowded, the men on one side, the women on the other, with the little kitchen in between. Gunilla brought me a cup of coffee. Terttu pushed her way through to me and babbled on about how dopey the men students were. The coffee was good, I had another. In the men’s corner Dad was sitting at the extreme edge, with Veke, and Viska was sitting opposite. Veke was listening: he’d always liked listening to older men talking, and for him Viska had charisma. He’d wept at the funeral, and I remembered grannie’s funeral back in ’48: I wept a lot, Veke a bit, and Jussi not at all. And now Veke was an engineer, Jussi had stolen seven thousand of his company’s money, which Bertta and Anselmi had paid back, to save his reputation, and Veke had taken on his prodigal brother as a foreman at the Water Board’s Hydraulic Construction Works.

In spite of the tranquillisers and the beer I was a little uneasy. I told Gunilla why I hadn’t been able to give a speech at the grave, and she said she understood. I went over to Viivi to apologise for not being at Sulo’s funeral. Viivi and Armi left, and so did some others. I stood in the hall, talking to those leaving; they were curious to know if a book of mine was coming out, and I said yes, in a couple of weeks. I promised a couple of signed copies, said I’d call to do the signing. I walked round, making as if to see people, and exchanged a few words with Bertta, who was sitting in the midst of a bunch of old biddies and discussing a well-known bar whose opening hours she’d been helping to fix.

I went into the kitchen and said I felt in the way. Gunilla wanted me to try her buns, and I drank some coffee with her out of a cup with ‘Father’ on it. I thought she’d say something about Vihtori, but she didn’t. Esko’s daughter was washing up, had brought cups from her workplace; she was born the summer I spent my days babysitting Timo – Viki and Gunilla being out at work, and the infant school on holiday. That was in ’48.

The men talked, the women talked, people left. I promised to call on a couple more places and went into the larger room to sit by Jussi. Father and Anselmi were there as well, and we talked about how to lose weight if one felt like it: butter, milk and sugar out, and a mile or two extra movement every day. Even if it were only a hundred calories a day less, I said, it would add up to very nearly a couple of pounds in a month. Anselmi said that driving made you terribly hungry. It set me wondering what the effect on a professional driver was of forty to fifty miles an hour, eight hours a day, for several decades. Many get a kind of sexual irritation, like an inflammation, and this craving for food Anselmi mentioned; and haemorrhoids of course, but they’re due more to sitting.

Anselmi himself was down from over fourteen and a half stone to twelve; father claimed to be not much more than eleven stone. Father was more wrinkled but probably healthier. He smoked more than twenty cigarettes a day but had no cough, swallowed milk, butter, sugar and fats, but didn’t put on weight, drank spirits and beer but had no liver problems. He didn’t believe in the possibility of his own death, not he, however much he joked about it with Anselmi: ‘Be our turn next, one or the other of us.’ It was obvious that, of the sons-in-law, Vihtori would be the first to go: he’d been the eldest, with a bad heart, and he’d been wracked with rheumatism ever since the war years. During the next twenty years there’d be about a dozen funerals: first my great-great aunts, Venla and Viivi, then Gunilla, then my mother, then Bertta and her Anselmi, after that my father, his three brothers and two sisters, and then no doubt me.

The guests dispersed gradually, till they were all gone. Left alone, we had some coffee together as a family before leaving. Anselmi brought Bertta and Terttu to our house in his car, and Veke Gunilla and Jussi in his. Dinner was ready. I longed for a beer, but there wasn’t any. We ate some fried pike-perch, me with my fingers, and I kept rabbiting on to drown out Timo’s natter: ‘a bloody loader’ had emptied itself on a car, ‘can you beat that, for Christ’s sake?’ I chatted to Terttu about her first-year studies, till Bertta hoicked her off by the elbow into the living room, as they hadn’t seen each other since the end of August. The others sat and ate. I said how good the fish was and told mother I’d send her the cookery book I’d promised for Christmas, even though the pike-perch couldn’t be bettered.

‘Oh, me too!’ said Gunilla.

‘Get Irma one as well, then,’ said mother.

‘She won’t want one. I’ll get her Embraced by Harmony.’

‘What’s that?’ Gunilla put in, being a choir-member herself.

‘Slim volume, modern poetry: the author had had two women, both called Harmony.’

‘Blah, blah,’ Gunilla said. The others laughed. I said Venla and I were the cream of the family because we’d risen from Pispala to Rööperi in Helsinki, and Gunilla said in all seriousness: ‘That’s what you think.’ I laughed and said there wasn’t a crumb of status to choose between Pispala and Rööperi, and Gunilla tried placating me by saying that Pispala had got much quieter. But my good mood had gone; I ate up my fish and said my thanks. Bertta and Terttu came in to eat, and I went into the living room, sat in the rocking chair and lit up.

Anselmi and father came and sat on the sofa, Jussi took the armchair, Veke came in too, and Timo started to rabbit on again. I’d developed a poor view of those who talked too much at funerals; my own reason for waffling was that the ceremonies had been so conventional and because I’d not felt grief for Vihtori and didn’t want to pretend. Also I was a little fuddled, a little puffed up about my career and my flower arrangement, and I knew Gunilla had got an inkling of all this, how couldn’t she? But why the hell do they ask me to their funerals then, and not leave me alone?

When Bertta and Terttu had finished eating, they all started to get ready to leave. Timo said he’d stay behind and take me to the station, might even have a drink. Gunilla gave me a look, and I said no. I took Terttu’s hand and kissed it, and Timo guffawed: ‘Christ help us, what courtly manners!’ Terttu thanked me, but no blush. Bertta asked me to drop in sometime. I said I would, perhaps in the winter, when we could ski. I shook hands with Veke, Jussi, Anja, Anselmi and Gunilla, who begged me not to take Timo drinking, as now she was on her own at home. I said that I at least would not be one to take her son to a bar.

They all went out. Father was smoking on the couch, and Timo was sitting opposite him in the armchair. Mother came out of the kitchen and sat down beside me on the bed. I reached for the cigarettes on the table and offered her one.

‘Bertta didn’t stir a finger to help with the washing up,’ she remarked.

‘So many things there were, she said, to talk over with Terttu, for they hadn’t seen each other all autumn.’

‘Princess Muck!’ said Timo. ‘Bloody well spoiling her, of course.’

‘Anja worked like a slave the whole time, helping to get the food ready. Washed up on top of that. Bertta and Terttu just sat there having a confab. Didn’t want to have to soil their hands. Isn’t it the usual thing, when you’re all together as a family, mucking in with the chores?’

‘Certainly is,’ I said.

‘Did you see Veke, he never said a word to her to the whole time?’

‘Bertta really gets up Veke’s nose. She’s always showing off, you see,’ said Timo.

‘And all the time she went on and on about how Veke’s daughter is such a wonderful grandchild for her, even though Anja and Jussi were there, having to listen to it all. Veke couldn’t even bring himself to answer.’

‘One in the eye for Bertta,’ Timo said.

‘And now, because of what’s happened, Jussi’s become “a proper Pispala flop”, according to her. When he was a kid, it was all Jussi, and Veke was nothing. Now it’s just Jussi who’s “nothing but a Pispala person”. Since when have Pispala persons been embezzlers of other people’s money, I’d like to know? How come he’s turned out such a Pispala person all of a sudden?’

‘Jussi called in on us just a week ago,’ father put in.

‘Said he’d rather come here any day.’

‘Yes, and told us not to let on,’ mother said.

‘Nor have we,’ father said.

‘And what’s it to Bertta what Jussi does?’ mother said.

‘Right! As if everyone ought to know what we’re having for dinner.’ Timo said.

‘And don’t you go telling Gunilla either,’ mother said to Timo.

‘Me? I never say a word to mother.’

‘Well, you jolly well ought to.’

‘Well, you know how it is. When she gets into her stride, it all comes pouring out, lock, stock and barrel. It’s more than I can cope with, listening.’

‘You’ll have to start coping, now that Vikki’s not there.’

‘Can I help it if I can’t cope?’

‘Just thank your stars Gunilla’s been so decent, and not an old vixen like Bertta.’

‘Dead right,’ said father.

‘Even Veke got so mad about that grandchild stuff, he couldn’t be bothered to reply. And she’ll know what’s coming to her with that Terttu too,’ mother said.

‘Princess Muck,’ Timo said. ‘What she needs is a good fuck. Bun in the oven, and presto! There’ll be another wonderful grandchild for Bertta.’

‘As she is, so she’ll be, our Bertta, till she’s underground,’ mother said.

‘And then there’s that belief in eternity she has – that she was going on about on the phone: how it got to her when Vihtori died, because she’s got such a belief in the eternal life. You watch Terttu, Bertta’ll certainly have it coming to her from that quarter, with a bringing-up like that.’

‘Good fuck, get her in pod, that’s what she wants,’ Timo said. I screwed my face up into a smile. Father switched the TV on. He’d clammed up after Timo’s last guffaw. I asked what was on. It was The Tarva Show.

‘Big yawn, him too, if there ever was one,’ mother said.

‘Permanently pissed, he is, old Tarva,’ said Timo, with another chortle.

I tried to concentrate on the television, and father was obviously trying to do the same. His lips were pursed tight, but he knew he’d have to put up with Timo because of Vihtori and last night’s Bacardi.

Badly in need of a drink, though, he came to see us off, bringing Heikki along too. Mother came down to the front door with us to wave goodbye and send her last-minute love to Irma and the children. I said we’d call and see her as soon as we’d got a bit more cash.

We went to the station, and Dad and I ordered some wine. Timo didn’t take anything. He went on about buying his tractor loader, and his fiancée, who was so shy she hadn’t had the nerve to come to the funeral; she too could do with a cookery book, because she couldn’t cook a thing. I asked if she could read. Got her O levels, Timo retorted. Heikki was bursting to laugh. He was almost as tall as father.

They came with me to the train. I went back to the extra carriages at the rear. I reflected that it was all to the good that I’d left the revolutionary lines unsaid. Though perhaps it would have been all right after all. I bought something to read off the stand.

In Helsinki it was wet; the asphalt and the cobblestones were shiny. I bought some sausages, really to stand and watch the people. A girl with long hair came and asked me if I’d give her twenty pence to get home. I gave her fifty; she merged into the crowd, and very likely said: ‘Geezer over there coughed up fifty pence,’ as a couple of the lads were giving me a hard look.

Irma was reading a woman’s magazine. The children had gone to sleep about an hour before. I went in to look at them. They were both sleeping bottoms up.

Irma asked how it had gone.

‘Not so bad, I suppose. More than thirty people there.’

‘So how are your mother and father doing?’

‘Same as usual.’

I told her a bit about what had gone on.

‘Like some coffee?’ she asked.

‘Why not,’ I said.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

Tags: ,