Becoming father and daughter

Issue 4/1990 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A father kidnaps his 10-year-old daughter and flees to the western extremity of Europe, to Ireland, to begin a new life under new names. In the following extract, the girl is in a state of shock after witnessing an event organised by a religious sect in which animals are driven over a cliff to their death. The year 2000 approaches, and with it clarification of the relationship between father and daughter. An extract from Olli Jalonen’s novel Isäksi ja tyttäreksi (‘Becoming father and daughter’). Introduction by Erkka Lehtola

He begins leading his daughter back the way they came, along the hillside and the lip of the precipice.

The blare of the Legion’s display carries far, till finally the voices are scrambled in the bluster of the wind. The electricity crackles in the loudspeakers, and the thundersheets rumble out to the audience. ‘Be silent!’ come the roars from the plat­ form: ‘And look at each other! Each is fearfully following his way, each is a venue of good and evil, each is inscribed with God’s name!’

He leads Jutta away, so she won’t need to listen any more – after that horrible sight of the butchery down below when he led her to the precipice-edge by the hand, being so keen to see the rock-shattered carcases himself. Jutta’s eyes were squeezed tight shut, but he prised her hand from her face and coaxed her at least to peep when such a spectacle was offered: below, twenty yards or so down, by the sea and the débris-strewn rocks, pigs’ and sheep’s blood was blackening along the stones and seeping into the sand. The persistent ringing of their ears from the loudspeakers made it impossible to hear properly.

Jutta walks beside him; speechless. He tries to explain that he didn’t know the St Mary’s and St Joseph’s Home Evangelists – the SMAJHE groups as they call themselves – had spread this far: he’d thought otherwise, and he hadn’t known enough about them. In the late spring and early summer he’d seen on the news that the SMAJHEs had suddenly become more powerful than the sects – the SMAJHE insignia were appearing on church walls all over the place, daubed in colour or smeared with soot. On the box its very supporters called themselves the germs of a broken-down future.

Near the bay he asks Jutta it she’d fancy turning off to the beach for a swim, or a paddle at least: she shudders a no. He asks her again, trying to persuade her to say yes: it will make her forget all this and make her feel as if they’ve just been for a walk and turned back home; but she refuses.

Having inserted their entrance-card in the door, he decides it’s time to celebrate Jutta’s birthday, and today not tomorrow – to get her back into a good mood and enable her to forget.

‘Jutta’, he begins. But she doesn’t respond. ‘We’re having a party today; he says and waits for her to get curious. ‘Really?’ she finally asks. ‘It’s your birthday, you see. ‘ She just stares. ‘You’ve reached eleven now; he goes on, and fetches her new identification documents from a drawer. He hadn’t shown them to her before. She looks at her photograph under the plastic, reads her name; he points to the date and explains that her birthday can just as well be celebrated today, even if tomorrow is the proper birthday of the Johanna on the card. Jutta takes the documents and moves away from him and keeps giving them a peep. The different name, Johanna, he explains, is because they have to be someone else while they’re abroad; and he quickly goes over to the closet, fetching a package, so she won’t think she’s been left without a present. ‘Let’s go and get some cakes – or perhaps a big cake,’ he says. Jutta seems too surprised to manage a word.

He brings her the package, singing a snatch of ‘Happy Birthday’ to get her laughing or at least smiling, but she just stares, and he stops abruptly, feeling his cheeks going hot with embarrassment at his performance. Jutta has sunk into an armchair, holding her documents against her stomach. He holds the present out to her.

Taking it, she begins slowly opening the string round the newspaper; then takes off the wrapping paper. He watches her face as she catches sight of the silver box; she starts, glimpsing the glint of bright metal under the last wrappings. She raises the silver box to her face, staring as if she were looking in a mirror, and shaking it to see if anything jingles inside.

He begins to explain how keen he’s been to buy her something like that now she’s eleven and that he promised himself he would when she was still tiny, still in her pram and cot, and he was lulling her to sleep. She says nothing in reply. ‘Can’t you at least give me bit of thanks,’ he says. She just nods and then gets up and, as she does, accidentally knocks the box onto the floor. ‘Do pick it up; he says, but she doesn’t.

‘She did that on purpose; it comes to him: ‘she’s set out on purpose to spoil the whole thing, the party and the present’; and crouching to pick up the silver box himself, its lid knocked open now, he starts to tell her he bought it from an antique shop, and it was expensive; but she presses her hands to her ears, and when he comes up to her and tries to get her to take the box, she won’t. When he sees she won’t, he flings her birthday present into the armchair and strides over to the window, staring down into the yard, brooding, and telling himself he must behave as usual: Jutta is still in a state of shock because of her day; and anyway it’s not until tomorrow, her birthday. And he stares at the cracks between the flags in the courtyard, trying to concentrate totally on just looking, and trying to remember whether it’s pitch or bitumen or something else black and sticky they stuff between the flags to keep the rain out.

When he’s calmed down a bit, he asks Jutta in a normal voice whether he should go and get some little cakes or perhaps a sandwich cake. She gives a little nod. ‘A sandwich cake as well?’ he asks. Jutta nods again. ‘If the confectioner has something really good, then I’ll bring the whole cake’, he promises, feeling content again now that Jutta is acting almost as if no tiff has taken place. He collects enough money from the drawer and starts to go. Jutta looks towards the door; he waves his hand and asks if she thinks he should bring some little cakes as well as the big cake. She nods and turns her eyes towards him.

He walks to the nearest confectioner’s a couple of blocks away and rapidly chooses one of three large cakes, as well as two kinds of little cakes, cherry cakes and meringues. Arriving back, he finds the main entrance left open: something that never happens. He dashes upstairs to their door, inserts the entrance-card and calls out Jutta’s name. Leaving the cake and the bag of cherry cakes and meringues on the floor, he looks through both rooms, calling her name, and looking in the bathroom too, but she’s not there either.

He searches the backyard, the whole block, and peers down the street in both directions as far as he can see, but she’s nowhere in sight. He heads for the shopping centre; back at the confectioner’s he peeps in: perhaps Jutta came looking for him; but there’s no sign of her. In the window a satin-covered slab supports a tall pile of the meringues he bought. Jutta has never been out alone: not once has he allowed her, lest anything should happen to her; now he’s already beginning to fear he won’t find her. An escalator leads to the upper level; first he circles the whole inner courtyard with its glittering central statuary of mirrors, glass-plates and running water. By the sports-shop, images, seen through the water, appear as if sunk in it, shifting and buckling from moment to moment, and dappling the watcher’s skin with light and dark.

He circles the terrace-boutiques from door to door before going into the supermarket he and Jutta have so often frequented together. Water bubbles through the roof in transparent pipes, and the dense array of pipes high above the shelves make it like a walk inside or underneath a kaleidoscope or stereopticon, the colours and angles swiftly diversifying into new images as one traverses the alleyways. He goes to the magazine-shelf, but there’s no sign of Jutta.

Behind the meat-counter an assistant he recognises is cleaning up some spilt liquid with a long-handled brush and sawdust and, realising there’s something wrong, turns and asks, ‘Has she got lost, then, the girl?’ ‘Oh she just forgot to let me know’, he replies, smiling as if there’s nothing particular to bother about at the moment. The man shakes his head and changes the subject, and the father chats with him a little before getting away. A notice board by the automatic doors displays a list of charity-lottery winners.

From time to time he goes back home to see if she’s returned. The cake-box and bag are still by the door. ‘Jutta’, he says – then goes out again and looks in the backyard; but there’s no one there.

He wanders round the town till evening and enquires at the bus station: Has a rather small foreign girl been there or taken a bus south? The woman shakes her head behind the bullet-proof glass and tries to obtain more precise details of the girl’s age and country; so he goes off before she begins to get suspicious or invite the help of the security guards: he doesn’t want them meddling; and he can’t even go to the police station to ask for a check-up at the mid-zone frontier or the airport.

When he gets back home again and examines all their belongings, it looks as though he’s lost Jutta. She’s taken her overcoat, as well as money from the money-drawer – a lot, almost all the sale-proceeds they’d converted into local currency.

He stays awake all night, keeping the television going loudly to stop him falling asleep, changing channels whenever one terminates. Every half-hour or so he goes outside to scan the main-entrance door, where he has fixed a card in Finnish:

‘Jutta. Wait here. I’ll come and open the door soon. Father. ‘

When he searches round the block in the early hours, there’s no one else about yet. The streaks of light between the surveillance elements are looking pale already. He tries to evade them and turns off into the park, under the trees. The birds are flitting and swooping around, even though autumn’s on the way; the sun’s beginning to be distinguishable through the lower branches of the larches, as if through gauze. There’s a crumbling wall, with a fractured wooden board on, which used to display the park’s name.

He walks the greensward between the trees and considers his aloneness. Down below, a small brook has been dammed into a pond, and a mist is swathing the lawn on its bank .Something about the surroundings, or sheer memory, a return of the past, reminds him of going fishing once on a misty lake, and his father asking him if that was steam, and he shook his head, no, because it was mist and fog, and his father was smoking strong cigarettes and breaking off the filters and they were bobbing round in the water like tiny floats, and then a breeze rose and the short sharp waves began to drift them all along in the same direction like a tiny fleet on a long voyage.

Two or three days after this, in the evening, he alters the wording on the main­-entrance door.

‘Jutta! Wait here. I’ll be back to open up in an hour at the very latest. Father.’

Time has been scissored into broken lengths by his efforts to go down at short intervals to check.

At night he keeps nodding off and waking as the programme on a particular channel comes to an end, signalled by a prolonged whistling and a screen of grey and white dots. He immediately tunes into a new channel to get speech into the room, or music at least, sport, quiz-games, or series, their short episodes interrupted by advertisements: someone vanishes on the Western Front, or an aeroplane is flying over New Mexico, he weeps a little at the pathetic bits and laughs with the studio audience.

Then he drops off again in mid-programme, waking numb, and trying not to think, telling himself nothing has changed, life is going on; but there are times when he’s over­whelmed by the feeling he’s already given in, he’s being worn down like some old heap of stuff left out in the wind and rain; the nights and the days are advancing, twilight is just a short moment between dark and light, like a pause between movements. Inside darkness is light, inside warmth is cold, inside flexibility is constriction.

The people on the box discuss the year 2000 as the end of an epoch, a watershed between old and new ideas and trends; but, in his view, they’re not applying it to themselves or reckoning the days they’ve left behind: for them the only point of the end of the millennium is a happening: then it’ll all be over and done with, as fast as the August-eleventh eclipse or the autumn showers of Leonid meteors.

The Swan channel has been the one specialising in astronomical spectacles. After transmitting the eclipse at its first moment over the Atlantic, they tracked the eclipse-zone south by satellite and aeroplane, showing it moving to Cornwall, Dieppe, the Bethine waterway, over Europe and across Asia, till a moment somewhere over India when the last black sliver of moon slipped away from the light.

He has followed the whole transmission. The sun rushed everything along with it, like windblown rubbish caught in its hair: people were interviewed; on the English Channel a shipful of pensioners with black plastic stuck on their eyes drank champagne, waiting for the moon’s shadow to darken the sea and their ship. Their faces were shown, and they tried to keep smiling, but, overshadowed at the moment of eclipse, their faces turned void; then, quickly, they were all raising a cheer and lifting their glasses, all gabbling at once, telling the tale, marvelling, repeating and repeating the same thing to each other, hugging and kissing as if at a fancy-dress ball, holding each other tight as if they’d been rescued or experienced instant marriage to the heavens.

He followed the transmission, continually breaking off to visit the main entrance; but there was no Jutta. The Swan channel interviewed a Turk who had been getting ready for the eclipse for more than a year and had built a low observatory on a hill. ‘When you’ve been waiting for something a long time, it’s far too quickly over’, he said, at once thrilled and disappointed, even though the eclipse zone at that time hadn’t even reached his observatory.

He has told Jutta they could travel south on the eleventh of August and see a more complete eclipse; he’d already got round to buying a taped-together exposed film to protect their eyes from the sun’s dazzle and stop their retinas getting scorched. He has told Jutta this to give her something to look forward to. When he was small himself, he said, his father smoked some pieces of glass, and father, mother and son went all three to the edge of a gravel pit and boggled through the glass as a piece of sun vanished, as if slowly bitten away by some skymonster; his father explained what was what, his mother smudged her cheek with a long sooty streak, their hands began to smell of smoke; the glass was bluish and thicker than window glass, for his father had made the pieces from a shaving-equipment shelf broken in the shop and had covered the edges of two of the pieces with black insulation tape; he considered he could handle his own without cutting himself. There was more to tell, but Jutta, who had listened at first, then interrupted him and asked why he was going on about all that old stuff.

He watches the news, occasionally interrupted by trailers of Swan’s labours and constructions for the two following astronomical spectacles. For the Leonids, the satellite telescope has been given a whole-night booking. The end of the millenium is being marked by the construction of a network of provisional earth-stations so that a flashing beam of light directed onto the firmament will be transmitted round the entire globe in an unbroken belt.

Finally, the channel’s logo of a black swan turns pink and flies over water, going first a gauzy white and then fading into no more than a mere gauzy feather. We too are fading, the Swan news is coming to an end. Two consiguous images remain on the screen. The swarm of Leonid meteors is like some sky-projected image of a sea-plant, and the other shows an illuminated gorgelike path traversing black and violet.

He switches channels, dozing through the early hours, feeling chilly. Occasionally he sinks through the membranes of sleep for an hour or so, waking as if after a long slumber, and remembering the previous days and nights as scissored lengths, and sleep as a pure empty void.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

Tags: