The bodyguard

Issue 1/1991 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from Henkivartija (‘The bodyguard’), winner of the Runeberg Prize, 1991. Introduction by Suvi Ahola

When spring comes Ossi’s sister tries to reach him on the telephone. She is worried; it sounds as if Ossi is partying constantly. Mostly she is told that Ossi is asleep, Ossi has just gone out, Ossi does not feel like talking. Unknown women call her a whore, tell her to fuck off. In the background she can hear muffled roars, shouts of laughter, music, shouting, the clink of glasses.

Ossi’s sister is irritated to have been left to arrange the practical affairs relating to her father’s death. There will not be much to be had from the smallholding, squeezed between two roads, and the fields have long since been sold. All the same, you might have thought that Ossi would be interested in this possible source of funds; it isn’t as if he has a job, at least not a permanent one.

But Ossi was not interested in his father’s money. He had won a hundred thousand marks in a lottery, and decided to spend the money as fast as possible. The pile of notes made him snort with contempt. He certainly didn’t want to invest it or save the money. He wanted to desecrate that magic glue, that sticky trap which caught people and dried them out like fly-paper. Paradoxically, he could only give expression to his contempt for money by owning it. Ossi picked at his bank-notes like toilet paper, felt a kind of internal erection as he spent the money, peeing it out in a high, cheerful stream.

For the first couple of days he had toyed with the possibilities. He could have bought a car or gone on a brilliant cruise, tried an exotic Asian holiday. By boat to the Maldives, or calling room service in Sumatra with a bamboo buzzer. He could have booked a suite and bathed his feet in champagne, or taken a bimbo to Spitzbergen to seek his fortune.

But in fact he did not have all that much money. In banks and stock exchanges such sums change hands like fivers at a car boot sale. It was enough to take him to the threshold of paradise, but not to bribe the bouncer to let him in. A big-time operator, one of those tricksters who stashes his millions away in the Virgin Islands, would hardly count it as a reasonable day’s pay.

So Ossi began his spending spree in the most natural place, the bar. His mates were always there to keep him company. The twinkle in Ossi Lemponen’s eyes had always attracted the women, and never less than now, with his capacity to foot the bill. He attracted women as a feathered fishing fly attracts hungry underwater mouths. This amused and flattered him, and sometimes astonished him, so unremittingly did the women hunt their prey, so relentlessly did they fight their rivals.

But the more enthusiastically he was seduced, the more careful he was of getting caught. Over the years he had tried living with a number of women who offered him somewhere to stay and plenty of tender loving care. But generally the arrangement had ended when the woman began to be possessive, manipulative, to try to organise him, to demand commitment, to set limits on his behaviour. Any one of them would have put up with almost anything, washed his socks, soaked his porridge for the morning, if only he would have agreed to be their household pet, a horse for their harness.

An older woman, a widow, wanted Ossi for her very own, and would have taken him to her holiday home in Marbella. Another, a divorced chef, made such delicious paella that Ossi stayed with her to eat it for a whole week. A third said all she wanted was a platonic relationship, but at the same time revealed such an enormous, palpable backside that it was impossible to entertain any idea of the shadowy existence of the world of the senses. A fourth hung on his arm like a bunch of flowers until he left her by mistake in the bar cloakroom. A fifth rebelled, but in a seemly way, enough to create a certain friction, an electric charge. In fact it was just this kind of character that attracted him: a woman who used her instincts, and whose intelligence was enough for some pleasant mutiny, but who never exceeded the proprieties.

As spring progressed, however, the pace began to take its toll. His stomach acted up, he ran a temperature, and numbness and blockage began to disturb his love-making. Day ran into night, faces became confused, the rubbish was mixed up with the dishes and the dishes with the rubbish. Ossi didn’t even bother to change his sheets. They looked crumpled, as if they were so fed up with being pressed down on that they were trying to crawl off the bed. His shirts were itchy with sweat, his blankets full of cigarette burns and ketchup stains, his socks so stiff they could almost walk by themselves; he could never find a pair.

And the internal interference continued. The spaces of his brain contained more stupid songs than ever. He would wake in the early hours to an explosion of words, whole verses, which he could never remember having heard before. The only rational explanation was that his mother had once sung them to him:

City of God, how broad and far
Outstretch thy walls sublime
The true thy chosen freemen are
Of ev’ry age and clime


The crow

All summer I fly apart from the rest of the flock. I keep close to Ossi Lemponen, hovering by bars and lurking in gardens at night, perching on branches and window-sills. The possibilities for death are infinite; and I have only my senses, although they are excellent, and highly attuned to the smell of death.

Every day I fear all kinds of death-blows: Ossi Lemponen could suffocate or be mangled, be blown up, slip on a coat button on a concrete floor. But it is as if Death has got bored of its prey, or hasn’t yet chosen how to despatch him. I don’t know where Death is hiding. What if the bright enchantment of these summer nights has confused Death, and he is now sitting on some distant shore counting the shadows of drowned people on the lake bottom?

For my part, the devil only offered me two alternatives: either to succeed, or to go to Hell. The devil, who for some reason doesn’t want to show himself to me, has sent a message saying that everything has gone well so far, and Heaven still knows nothing about it. The passionate romance between him and his poor angel has flowered, thanks to my help, and will go on flowering if I will just act on the instructions I receive from the devil. Then, in time, I shall have my reward: I shall be allowed to see my son, and I shall have peace and a change of shape – the possibility of sinking deep into an existence as snow or frosty grass.

So I have to go on. It is not that I want to be anyone’s shadow, not that it amuses me to be present at these bloated celebrations, the noise and couplings of sessions in the bar. Nothing is new to me, no one can surprise me: I knew these surroundings too well while I was alive. People change partners like dogs, and love lasts as long as a steak on a hungry person’s plate. I can no longer swallow what I have seen, it sticks in my throat like a putrid, half-digested hamburger.

Only the hope of seeing my son again gives me strength. Every day I think of him, his features, his chin, his forehead, his young shoulders, and his slightly sideways, watchful way of looking. I long for him although I don’t really have the right, as a blind person who has put out her own eyes might yearn for the light. From beyond death I would like to bless him, through death his touch would give me pardon and peace.

I met Ossi Lemponen only a year or two before my death. We were in the same bar (I was already drinking too much), and I hardly noticed when he sat down at the table opposite me. Perhaps I noticed him first when he for some unknown reason began to boast that he had had cradle cap as a child.

‘So did I,’ I said, looking him straight in the eye. ‘What about impetigo?’

‘Well, no, I didn’t have that.’

‘Well, I had both. So there.’

Ossi stared back and burst out laughing. We were both fairly far gone. And we ended up in the same bed that same night. There were a couple of other girls after him, but nothing could separate us, whom cradle cap had brought together.

I didn’t have any illusions about love. I didn’t want to be anyone’s wife, or even live with anyone; I had got used to the fact that men came and went, and that in between (or to get in there) they spoke of love. That was all. I had been deserted so many times that I had learnt to leave men before they left me. In this I allowed myself any kind of unpleasantness; I hit below the belt. It is always better to hurt than to be hurt, to cheat than be cheated.

And I never relied on one man. I had created around me a network of alternatives in which, in addition to a few more permanent relationships, there was plenty of room for manoeuvre. Over the years I had learnt to control an ever more complicated picture, built a kind of game of human relationships which I tried to play according to my own rules. I often suffered as much as I gained from that game, but it was my own, I myself had set its rules and developed its methods, and I was good at it, better than those who wanted to play with me without knowing the rules.

It is not true that I did not like men. I certainly liked them more than women. I was called a woman-hater, even a woman chauvinist; it was women, of course, who called me these names. It was all the same to me. It was true, nevertheless, that I derived a wicked enjoyment from the fact that I could cheat men, confuse them and tangle up their lives. It was a particular triumph whenever I got the better of someone who was constrained by moral principles or social obligations – as if I had shot a particularly magnificent stag, got a really showy pair of antlers for my wall.

The fact that I generally went for steady family men had a practical explanation: it was easier to get rid of them when the affair was over. I couldn’t be bothered to listen to the lamentations of divorced men. It was much more interesting when men analysed their wives and hauled them over the coals than when they sighed and sobbed over them.

I can’t say when my game began to get out of control. Perhaps such games have their own logic, so that at some point they begin to work against the player. I had built up and muddled human configurations, manipulated them, severed relations, and it had all become more than just a hobby: it was a kind of disease of living. I needed drama, chaos, fits of jealousy: being both director and principal actress was like a drug to me.

So I needed ever more powerful drugs, more violent scenes. I was restrained by no norms, rules or conventions. I telephoned wives, made love in marital beds and left behind me tights or lacy knickers, and in the morning I gave the children money to buy sweeties. When one of these women collapsed, I was cruelly jubilant. I had beaten her, humbled her, made her the rejected one.

I knew at once that Ossi Lemponen was an insatiable cheat when it came to love. Secretly I admired his style, his capacity to ‘handle’ his women just as I ‘handled’ my men. I saw him swimming in their waters, slipping through their nets. To tease him, I tried to be more agile, more daring, wilder.

And suddenly there was a relationship, a sick companionship. We dived together like prize swimmers, played with each other, made love and cheated, quarrelled and wounded each other so that our blood mingled. I realised that I was in love with him, cheated by my own cheating, burnt by my own fire.

Perhaps I have no right to blame him for what happened. Perhaps he did not understand how broken I was, how close to final breakdown. Or perhaps he realised it only too well, perhaps that was why he wanted to leave me.

For I had gradually driven myself into a situation which I could not stand. I drank too much, I became depressed and confused. I was ageing, and it shocked me. My son had grown up, he was a young man, always on the move, growing away from me. And although I could not admit to myself that I wanted a steadier relationship, that I wanted to cling to something as dubious as a steady man, I was horribly lonely and frightened. I began to struggle desperately in the sea of people, to sink as if drowning. To stay on the surface I had to cling onto something, and that something was Ossi Lemponen.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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