Brief lives

Issue 3/1989 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Rosa Liksom’s characters live in the tiny villages of empty Lapland, speaking a dialect that rings oddly in the ears of the southern Finnish majority; or they may inhabit anonymous towns, but there, too, life is full of the anguish of existence. Liksom, whose black comedy can be compared with that of the Danish writer Vita Andersen, is able to cram into her short texts complete life histories, bizarre, comic or tragic. Her first volume of short stories, Yhden yön pysäkki (‘One night stand’) appeared in 1985; the following short stories are from Tyhjän tien paratiisit (‘Paradises of the open road’, 1989)

We got hitched up the 14th of November and by the end of the month it was all over. As far as I’m concerned call it a marriage exactly two weeks too long. We hadn’t set eyes on each other till the Pampam that’s the place me and the girls go after work for a drink and I was sitting there having one with them when who comes through the door but this bloke and it hits me. That bloke’s for me. In the end I went over to his table and said up yours stud. We went over to my place to bunk down and after that I couldn’t get the sod out. The bloody shitbag got his claws into me and hung on just on the strength of that one night. He glued himself to my bed. Lay there flat out when I set off to work and shit he was still there when I came back only arse up this time. Never went to work, never went shopping, never fucking took a rubbish bag out. I swallowed the lot as I somehow liked the bugger at any rate in bed that is when he wasn’t unconscious. He popped the question a week after we first met and I said yes because it was fucking November and it was ice on every front not excluding the Pampam. Good reason I thought for having a pissup with the girls at work all the same which stud it is I’ll get married and OK. The wedding was had at the Savoy me in a white wedding dress and we got a couple of presents and got pissed out of our minds and it was a fucking good laugh. Then it was Monday morning again and the same shit and the sod doing crosswords and stinking. I could have swallowed all that but a week after we’d been spliced he started whining for Christ’s sake that he’d had a hell of a childhood and a cunt of an adolescence and nobody cared a fuck about him and he’d no reason to go on living. I listened to it all that week every fucking night the same whine and me having kidded myself I’d hit on a proper man. OK after one week of marriage I was a nervous wreck and thought what am I going to do with this drip. Second week of marriage it got even worse and the load of snot began whining something about his grannie’s death that had happened about twenty years before. I told him OK shithead piss of and he showed me his ring. I threw mine out of the window but he didn’t budge. I tried dragging him out of the flat into the passageway but he was so bloody sick it had no effect he wouldn’t go. I rang the fuzz and said get that fucking sod out of here. The plods came took one look at me then at him and pissed off. I grabbed the fucking carving knife and jabbed him a couple of times. Christ the bastard didn’t even protest but dropped dead on the only bed I had. I rang the funny farm and said my husband’s committed suicide he’s knifed himself somewhere round the heart and went off to see my friend. She calmed me down saying that sort of thing did happen now and then. We drank coffee and went back to work in the morning. Next day I got a call from the fuzz wanting to know the details. So I told them the lot and said I went to the bog to read the paper and while I was there he’d killed himself. They believed the lot and the girls at work all agreed I’d done just right it was the bastard’s own fault just loafing around in bed and whinging and being a shit. I need a proper man for fuck’s sake who wins you some lolly helps with the mortgage and puts a little nosh in the fridge. A man’s got to be doing a few things too you know if he’s going to shack up with you.

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Ah comes from six generations of butchers and proud of it. And job Ah’s taken on is advancing family’s heritage and philosophy of life and that’s what tha’ll find us doing anywhere tha looks seven days o’t week. Since Ah was at school Ah’s always done me level best to hammer it into their thick skulls that them bleeding Russkies is coming and out to stain us blue and white flag. But what makes em tick beats me nothing you can say gets em going. Not that they can come up with anything of their own on t’other side naturally but somehow or other they can’t seem to get it into their thick skulls that us lot’ve bleeding well got to put a stop to them Russkies or they’ll stamp all over us. Course all lads in class’ll join up just like that glad to do it and OK but Christ that’s not enough. Soldier’s duty is to be genned up on what flag stands for see. Blue and white flag us forefathers redeemed for us with their own blood. What’s point us just trotting about in uniform and not having faintest clue what standing up for flag really means and what’s use just having us finger on bleeding trigger. Us bleeding lot I mean people my age’ve got to learn how to shoot straight bang smack in t’eye and no messing about and why because them bloody Russkies’ll not be getting any fewer save for a bit of crack riflework see. They’ll have their dentures in us till kingdom come lest we grabs things in us own bleeding hands and bloody well gives it to em smash with bombs going bang and blood flying. Me at school Ah keeps impressing it on them sirs it’s no good just rattling on to’t class about this and that of country’s affairs no. Staff in my opinion should bleeding well be teaching pupils to love this country soul, body and bollocks. Kids at school should be trained to honour country’s purity and prosperity learn to protect it from tainted blood keep out all these bleeding foreign yobbos trying to horn in see. Battering at doors of country us’ve created all on us own and built up till it’s tops of civilised nations tops in competitive power. As Ah keeps pointing out all they does is stuff their ears with pop music stews over soap operas goggles at the queens in the girlie magazines. Out on schemes lads takes shooting for a bit of a lark what they’s really thinking about is breaks and chasing after bits of skirt. No respect they has not for nowt no. What me dad taught me from a kid was what being a soldier means what country’s defence is what us own country stands for. Ah grows up see hooked on us native land not like these other kids. Been a sight deeper into it all. Ah’s a thousand times more clued up than any one of us bleeding sirs Ah can see three times as far. Take Finnish campaigns Ah’s been through them and through them a dozen times over with me dad. Ah can tell thee how battlelines were drawn up every single day and take Continuation War Ah knows just how situations were developing week by week just ask me. Ah can reel off all world’s weapons to thee aye. Ah can dismantle and reassemble all rifles and small arms just like that. World’s military markings ah knows em all off by heart and Ah can tell thee how atom bomb’s made. Ordinary bombs and grenades tha wants to know how to dismantle em just ask me. Me dad it was that instructed me and guided me hand with his own and cross me heart and spit this is truth. On me dad’s fortieth birthday when Ah was but eleven Ah could break down and reassemble machine gun and hit a moving target spot on smack through brain. There were lots there that day celebrating me dad’s birthday and any on em’ll back me up in what Ah’s just been saying. Before Ah started school Ah was always there along with me dad when he was doing his stint in reserve and at school Ah’d spend me Christmas and Easter holidays with him at reserve camps out Salla way. Crack shot Ah was spot-on better than recruits better than younger officers too. Ah skis along with me dad fires me dad’s rifle sits next to me dad in tactics listening. Ah’m dead keen Ah am. Going to be genned up on every bleeding thing any bleeding person can know about war how tha fights it. Cos that day’s coming coming fast when us lot’ll be needed and tha won’t find me on sidelines when bullets starts whizzing see. It’s a leader Ah am. Going to be right in nervecentre there at top when Finns is being marched to victory and them Russkies is being mown down right left and centre to t’last bleeding red. Me dad taught me how right’s right for girls to be set up same way as lads and Ah’s always been match of any of them and a bleeding sight better too. Me and me dad’s written this letter for President bleeding punk to get me special permit to join up soon as Ah gets seventeen. Military career’s always been me dream and Ah’m going to be in regulars come what may. First it’s Finnish Army and then ah’m off to Germany genning up at Military Academy. Then it’s on me way as a mercenary picking off bleeding reds in Nicaragua. Going to get me eye in and be crack shot such as Finland’s not seen since Mannerheim’s day tha knows. Mannerheim’s the one Ah honours worships and respects above all others. A proper man that was someone with some backbone. It’s him Ah’ll be following and nowt’ll stop me. Finnish law fact Ah’ve been born a girl nowt. If that bleeding punk don’t give us special permit to join up next year then it’s no more school Ah quits and skedaddles off to Chile. Finnish law willn’t stop me not for long. Dad’s promised he’ll get papers and pay for every bleeding thing cos he’s dead keen as Ah’m meself to see me in pages of Finland’s military history a great name tha knows.

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The old man paid a pile to get me a pad in posh old Eira. It was after we’d had a few little disagreements down in Haukilahti about hygiene. At home it was dust dust every blumming where and God help us the condition of the bath. So every single time I had to blummingwell disinfect the thing. The toilet I couldn’t use till I’d put a sterile cover on top. Life was getting to be one long row and so the old man finally bought me my own pad. Salubrious setup with those sort of hellish high ceilings. Completely redecorated. I left the old house and positively sighed with relief that I wouldn’t have to be spending the whole blumming day cleaning up. But when I’d been parked there a couple of days it hit me Christ God knows what kind of a blumming homo the previous occupant might have been so I bought some real high-powered cleaning fluids and spent a good three weeks scouring the place out. I poked a matchstick into every crack and cranny you bet cleaned every seam. In the end my pad was clean all right and I started putting my mind to the question of a job. I spent a couple of days thinking about what I’d like to do but then it suddenly hit me Christ the blumming windowsills are thick with soot atmospheric pollution’s seeping into the flat and all thoughts of a job went out of the window and I set to cleaning. So I was at it all over again cleaning and there was no time for anything else. Luckily the old man came round with a load of food every day from Stockmann’s so I didn’t have to go out myself. Stockmann’s I trust but dad fetching the stuff had one big drawback I’ll say. Dad you see’s a businessman goes flying everywhere all round the blumming world and Christ knows what collection of diseases he might be picking up and bringing through the customs without anyone noticing. Every time he’d been round I felt compelled to disinfect every blumming thing he’d touched. That’s how the summer went and I hadn’t been out a single time. Couldn’t bring myself to because of all the blumming filth and pollution out there. So here was September already and Mari was back from Greece. She’d dressed herself up in clean white as she knows how much I value cleanliness. To begin with everything was going fine but then Mari started fancying a kiss and I felt positively nauseated at the thought of what unimaginable contagions she might have picked up on the blumming Mediterranean. I said not now later when you’ve first been in the shower and disinfected yourself. When she came out of the bathroom I touched her hand and kissed her but then I remembered you can catch AIDS through French kissing and it threw me. I panicked. I said you’ve not deceived me out there by any chance have you and she assured me she hadn’t. In the evening she went home and left me a bottle of Greek wine. I poured it down the toilet disinfected the bowl and went to bed but I couldn’t get to sleep. I got this feeling I ought to clean all the places Mari’d been touching. So I was at it cleaning till five and I lay in all the next day. Mari came round after work and brought some warm food from Stockmann’s and said she wanted to spend the night with me and make love. I said it wasn’t possible for me to give myself to a woman who’d just come back from Greece. Let’s see about it in a month or so I said if she hadn’t developed any symptoms by then. Mari accepted that and went home with no bother. Luckily she’d only managed to sit in three chairs cleaning them took up barely half the night. Autumn was over everything going on as usual Mari brought grub and the old man came round checking that everything was OK. Nobody said a word about me going to work and after a bit I stopped thinking about it because I realised I’d never manage any kind of job on top of all that blumming cleaning. Nor could I imagine myself working in some filthy old office with its air constantly breathed in and out by other people. At Christmas me and Mari did get to discussing making love. I was almost ready to give in but at the last minute I ducked out to be on the safe side. Come spring we got married because Mari wanted it and so did Dad. The priest came and married us in the flat and Dad gave me a set of weightlifting weights for a wedding present. The wedding out of the way I cleaned up all the places they’d been and took to bodybuilding. It really started to get Mari going when my muscles began to develop. She went on coming round once a week and brought the week’s grub. Luckily she began hanging around less and less each time and eventually gave up all mention of making love. I trained did the cleaning all day and after a year I’d developed such muscles my biceps were fit to split. My thighs were like two blumming arctic icebergs. Mari stopped coming. Good thing it was when the penny dropped for hellish blumming cleaning it had been. Mum I haven’t set eyes on since I left Haukilahti but the old man’s got nicer. Whenever he comes round he’s very careful puts on plastic protective round his shoes and he’s also taken to putting on a white coat plastic gloves and a sterile mask.

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In the morning I gets meself up and I’ll tell you no lie I makes meself some coffee I do. Not given coffee up however much they keeps knocking it crying it down all the time worst possible start to the day and whatever. The coffee I makes is real black and strong. Fit to do your tummy real good and then I goes and has me shower. Meself I sweats something horrible in the nights these days so much so I’d stink to high heaven all day were it not for swilling down. I showers me armpits and then down below and finally me feet. Always been the cleanest in the family I has. I powders meself and sprays eau de cologne all over me spare tyre till I smells and feels proper good. So by eight o’clock there’s me all spick and span and putting the radio on. I swallows a slice or two of your sausage and cuts a few slices of your health-giving rye bread. Nice and tasty they is too. At nine it’s me off out and taking our Spot round to old Paul’s to be looked after. Spot always needs that bit of a looking after in the mornings these days. I can’t leave him on his own there. No because he’s used to me being at home you see all the time and now things is changed in the house I has to think about our Spot as well as meself. At ten there’s me at the weightwatchers. Once in we gets us weighed and they gives us our instructions and we natters on among usselves me and the other women for an hour or two mulling over all of yesterday’s doings. I goes to these meetings every day of the week in fact. Belongs to five different groups pays five different subscriptions in fact but who cares. Yes course you’ve got to pay for your interests nowadays. As they say you’ll not get nothing for nothing these days and why not I’ll cough up any day of the week for a good chinwag. Failing that my sort’d be completely out on us own. There’d be no Paul nobody to look after the dog no nothing. We eats like birds there at the weightwatchers’ drinks these here health drinks and gets us new instructions. Well, who cares about instructions not I and neither does anyone else. We just nods yes yes and goes on nattering about us own concerns. So the time goes by ever so nicely and we all feels great. Don’t give a fart for them there drinks and salads. They don’t stop you feeling empty or stop your thirst but you don’t notice the time passing so long as you’ve been sure to get something substantial in your insides at breakfast time fore you sets out. Then when I gets meself off from the weightwatchers me and the others calls in at the taxidriver’s snackbar you know. We orders those big piggy-sized doughnuts you know the sort stuffed with apple jam and a whopping glass of milk. We’ve still lots to natter on about and these taxidrivers they’re forever having us on the devils. They aren’t half a nice easy-going lot and can they talk. We shares a lottery ticket we do. After the snackbar meself I goes and plays bingo and the others trots off their different ways. I plays bingo with Jack and Vic till about two or three and then time’s up for me to go and pick up our Spot. Old Paul does evening work you see cleaning up at that insurance office and I has to go and pick up our Spot no matter what phase the bingo’s in. Me and Spot calls in at the shop on us way home and I gets him a spot of liver casserole and for meself it’s some Bologna Ring sausage. I passes the time in the evening with eating the sausage straight out of the fridge cold in nice pieces doesn’t even put mustard on. Tastes a treat that sausage do and certainly fills up your tummy a sight better than that weightwatchers’ muck. Me and Spot watches the telly. Meself I cuts me corns and old Spot goes gnawing away at the sofa leg. It’s a good old time we has there together. There’s the evening news and after that we piles into the kitchen the two of us and helps usselves to some salmon sandwiches and buttermilk. Salmon’s not half cheap these days got so even pensioners like me can afford it. Though it’s not your proper salmon of course but it’s red all right and plenty of salt on it. After that it’s time for us two to go to sleep side by side cosy-like in bed and waiting for a new day.

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Between the town centre and the boarding house there was a broad marsh. The hard February frosts coming in from the Atlantic had frozen it into a shining plain of ice. A woman was cutting straight across it to her boarding house. She was wearing a fur coat and high leather boots and she had an irritable look on her face. In the sky a jet-trail snaked across the dark blue clouds. Near a clump of bushes her pace slackened. She felt a shooting pain in her heart and remembered something far off: midsummer, a mat of thick green grass and a pig squealing in the butcher’s hands. She managed to localise the memory: it had happened somewhere else, in another country, but it had happened. A sadness crossed her face. She thrust her hands deep into her coat pockets and felt the cold rising from the pit of her stomach to her scalp.

Behind the bushes a man was holding his breath and hanging on a moment till the woman was in exactly the right place. His eyes were frightened and the veins in his temples distended. He held himself back another moment and then leapt out on her from behind. She fell on her back, hitting her head on the ice. He was panting hard, fitfully, with pale childish features, light wavy hair and black leather gloves. He struck her in the face, tore her fur coat open, thrust his hand into her blouse and tried to wrench her trousers apart. She didn’t cry out but looked at the man discerningly. He even had a certain beauty for her. She glanced up at the sky. The white trail of the jet had vanished: nothing but blue clouds and the frost that made her nipples stand out.

‘Do it somewhere warm,’ she said as he struggled despairingly with her tight trousers. He started and withdrew his hand. He stared at her in distrust but let go her hands, which were bleeding. ‘I’ve a little room that’s warm.’

He eyed her swollen lips and quickly got up off her. She staggered to her feet, buttoned her blouse and straightened her hair. She set off again for her boarding house and the man followed her a few paces behind.

The doorkeeper was asleep. They went into one of the cheaper rooms on the ground floor and undressed, she expertly, he clumsily. She folded back the coverlet, lay down on her back and looked in his eyes. There was nothing to see there but a profound emptiness. She sighed, put her hand between her thighs, closed her eyes and settled a little smile on her face. The man lowered himself shyly onto her. She caressed his shoulders. He kissed her breasts and neck, tried to penetrate her straight away but without succeeding. She closed her eyes and swallowed. He rolled down beside her sobbing like a puppy. They slept in each other’s arms till morning, and then she had to go to work. She took a packet of cigarettes from the bedside table and went out. Sometime after mid-day the man woke from his sleep with a start and went away without a look back.

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He checked his camera and took a snap. A moment later the camera spat out a black square of paper from underneath, and he held it out to the woman, smiling.

‘If you can hang on a minute, you’ll see the picture.’

She shook her long curls back and stared distrustfully at the paper.

‘It’ll show up in a second.’

She gave him a disbelieving look and lowered her eyes to the square of paper.

‘Was I looking all right?’

‘Very all right,’ he replied and licked his dry lips.

A moment of silence. Out of her little black bikini coffee-brown breasts were peeping, and a tiny stomach and a scarcely perceptible bottom. He had the hots for her, and everyone lying on the sandy beach was aware of it. She shifted onto the other leg and cast up a look of disgust.

‘It’s not working. It’s black and going to stay black.’

‘Right,’ he said, snatched the black paper out of her hand and threw it down. She took his hand in hers and they ran along the shore to a far rock where they laughed, out of breath, and kissed each other.

When everyone had left the beach a young girl in a white woollen cardigan was walking along the shore and she came across the photo. It showed a blue sea and a pretty tiny-breasted woman in a black bikini. The woman was smiling. The girl looked at the picture for quite a while, felt a curious gratification and quicker than she could look round slid it into her pocket and walked back home. There she sat quietly and when her father switched off the television and her mother flushed the toilet she undressed, took the woman’s picture out from under the mattress and kissed it.

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The sun was blazing behind the factory and colouring the shorewater turquoise. Standing on the jetty with a broom in his hand, a bare-footed boy was screwing up his eyes against the sun. Mild waves were washing over hunks of meat on the jetty. The planks were sticky with blood and at the sea-edge long rags of white whale-blubber were bobbing about. The boy felt small and depressed. They’d been waiting for the boat three days, and it came in wearily from the sea, its white sides dirtied with death. The boy had stood watching all morning as the large smelly joints were heaved out of the hold. The wharfmen had stripped off their shirts and filthied their skin with blood carrying the hunks of meat from the jetty to the factory’s freezer. The boy wet the broom in the water and swept the congealed blood off the pieces of meat. He felt sad. All these icy fells, these treeless slopes and wastes of water all round, this sticky blood and smelly meat were going to be his life too from now on. All he’d be living for was to lose his life. He gathered the hunks of meat into a plastic box, carried it into the factory and washed the blood off his legs with cold water.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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