How love begins

Issue 1/1992 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Kuinka rakkaus syntyy (‘How love is born’; Otava, 1991)

All that day the words of the song ran through Annika’s mind.

‘How love begins, nobody knows’: those were the words with which the clock radio had woken her this morning.

They had bought a clock radio so as not to have to listen to the ticking of a clock in the dark, echoing room, or its ear-splitting alarm, like the screaming of a small wounded animal.

They had bought other things, too, to make their lives easier: a dish-washer, and a washing machine that also dried the clothes, and a microwave oven, and a second telephone, because the flat was a big one. Life went on; there was plenty of time to be, and to think about what had been, and what could have been, and what would come to be.

Generally the clock radio woke them by wishing them a good morning, announcing the date, and what the weather was like, and informing them how traffic was moving towards town: whether an accident had blocked the approach road, or whether they should avoid certain roads because of roadworks. Sometimes a woman’s voice would give market prices and interview stallholders, and that made Annika want to get up quickly and call in at the market on her way to work, savouring, in the bright March air, still sharp with the night’s frost, the scent of earthy potatoes, onions, bread and vegetables. Sometimes the radio played music that made her want to burrow under the blankets and curl up, eyes open, and listen, the distant, random images of her dreams still in her mind.

But this morning it was ‘How love begins’, and too loud; and Annika woke with a start, feeling threatened by some indefinite danger. She lay on her back, unmoving, as sometimes on autumn nights at the summer cottage when there was a sound outside for which memory could find no explanation. The singer sang, and although the loudness of the voice began to make her scalp tingle, Annika could not persuade herself to get up and switch the radio off. When the song eventually ended and the broadcaster began to read the day’s news, Annika turned her head and looked at her husband; but he was still asleep. And since the coffee-maker, which was connected to the clock, had not yet started up, she stayed where she was and gazed at her husband’s sleeping face. He was smiling in his sleep; the lace of the pillow-slip framed his face and the stubble on his chin showed up dark against the fabric. The words of the song were still running through Annika’s mind, and suddenly, gazing at her husband’s familiar face, she felt as she had once on the terrace of a mountain hotel, looking up at a snow-covered peak, and knowing that she would never reach it.

The words stayed with her all day.

At the hospital telephone switchboard, where she spent her days leafing through women’s magazines and answering the telephone when it rang, she got up from time to time and crossed to the window, or to the mirror that was fixed to the inside of a cupboard door. From the window she could see a lawn, where a few pine trees from the original forest had been left standing. Now, in the early morning, there was only the occasional dog-walker in the park; then it would be empty all morning, and in the afternoon it would be filled with schoolchildren carrying their bags. The mirror showed her a white face, somehow empty looking. Both landscapes were familiar, but nevertheless, now, she gazed at them, a furrow of astonishment between her eyebrows.

‘How love begins,’ she said. ‘Nobody knows.’

The lips in the mirror moved; her hand rose, and the fingers touched their skin, dry and chapped. She remembered the morning, the smile on her husband’s sleeping face, and she wondered, for the first time in three years, what were the images that had moved behind his closed eyelids.

Three years, she thought, seated once more behind the glass wall, gazing out over the entrance lobby. The shadows and the dim light had moved, suddenly, it seemed, like the hands of the great hospital clock, which jerked forward three minutes at a time. She remembered the day when her life had changed the same way, and why, the thing that had been so hard to grasp: a man, her husband, and some woman whom she had never seen; an affair, an abortion, and an ending; and the expression on her husband’s face when he told her. She had thought she had forgotten it all; but now, reaching out to press the illuminated switch on the switchboard, saying the words she had repeated for the past five years, she knew that she had not forgotten for a moment.

From then on, throughout the day, memories re-entered her mind, densely, as if in a high fever, drifting from one image to the next, aimless, directionless; and somewhere behind them the clear realisation that moments are long, endlessly expanding, and life is short. Before her the hospital lobby, its linoleum glowing in the lights that blazed both day and night, she saw a forest path, remembered the night­cold sand under her bare feet, and how the buckles of the sandals she carried in her hand had chimed against each other: and the lake, the motionless landscape of the lake bottom whose lights and shadows had sometimes frightened her like the future. That was all a long time ago, she thought. Then she corrected herself: All, everything, is a long time ago.

She sat down. The hands of the clock moved on. When she rose, slowly, and turned to look at herself in the mirror, she saw in her face the expression of an old woman. Unsmiling, expressionless, she gazed at what she saw, and knew that youth, long extended, had gone. It had not been replaced by middle age, by any age; but by resignation. At some pre-ordained time it had begun, sought nourishment in her, would later make certain its conquest.

Behind the window the schoolchildren came and went in their brightly coloured clothes, all different, their paths unpredictable. Looking at them, she remembered knowing once, in the same way, that her childhood was over. It was midsummer eve, and she was lying in a dim upstairs room in her family’s summer cottage; the panelled walls, dim with age, glimmered in the light of the summer night. She had stirred, and the clean, still stiff sheets had rustled; through the open window came the luxuriant smell of the forest; some late bird sang. She had gazed into the corners of the room as they dissolved into the twilight, the light entering through the window, the thin curtain, now swelling, now clinging to the mosquito netting, and she had known that something was ending, was about to end: that the next midsummer would be different, and she elsewhere. And she remembered how the certainty had kept her awake that night.

And the words of the song came back to her again: How love begins, and: nobody knows.

In the afternoon the nurses’ shift changed. Doors opened and closed: those who were starting their shift crossed the lobby, bringing with them for a moment the smell of the sunny, windy, still cool March day. A moment later the old shift crossed the lobby. They all acknowledged Annika as they passed, and she raised her hand in greeting, thinking how few of them she knew by name: they were still only numbers on the telephone list, or voices that answered the ward telephones. It was five years since she had started working there, first as a summer job, then again three years ago to finance her dissertation. Now the dissertation was a sheaf of yellowing paper in her desk drawer, and she still here, and the staff treated her like anyone else. She had come to stay.

‘Hi,’ said a voice, close by, and Annika quickly raised her head. It was that blonde nurse again, Lehikoinen, still wearing her overcoat, her hair tossed by the wind. ‘Are you asleep, or something? Listen, if my husband calls, don’t put him through again, OK?’

‘OK,’ Annika said. Lehikoinen looked at her for a second, as if weighing her up, then nodded and went. For a week a note had been taped to the switchboard, reading: ‘NO CALLS FROM LEHIKOINEN’S HUSBAND.’ All the same, she called in every day to make sure, and her husband would ring, all evening, after the switchboard shift had changed, and his calls were put through to the boiler room, the bell echoing through its empty spaces until it fell silent.

What had happened to them, Annika wondered. Then she thought: what happened to us all? And all the time the words of the song were somewhere behind her thoughts, and that feeling of resignation; and then, the consciousness of some kind of knowledge close at hand. And she remembered a particular expression on her husband’s face: like a child’s who has accidentally broken a favourite toy.

A bright streak of light gradually grew across the lobby. A door slammed; later, the kiosk-holder began to open up her glass cabinets on the other side of the lobby and put out her newspaper stands. The streak of light reached the wall, folded, and began to climb upwards. Annika watched, and everything seemed clear now. Beneath the stream of everyday events, she saw, flowed another stream, dark, its direction unknown. There decisions were born, slowly, beyond human knowledge; life went on as it had always done, and insignificant details added up continually, so that one morning one awakened to certainty, without understanding where the feeling had come from.

She remembered her husband’s habit of flexing his toes, and how in recent years it had begun to disgust her. She remembered a particular grammatical mistake which he always made, and how she would always correct it, and how his annoyance amused her. And she remembered her own lack of enthusiasm, and the carelessly prepared meals, and the way in which she had spoken of the hand-knitted woollen socks which his mother always gave him for Christmas, or of his brother’s habit of starting his sentences, ‘Um, well…’.

For the past couple of years their relatives had ceased to ask them about children. Wordlessly, without discussion, it seemed that the decision had grown between them not to have a child, and it seemed, too, that others sensed it. Now, looking at the moving wedge of sun, Annika thought for the first time what her child might have been like, and her husband’s; and then she thought, she no longer loved her husband.

The telephone rang. The caller was Lehikoinen’s husband. His voice was already familiar, a good, firm man’s voice, and for the first time Annika paused to wonder what kind of person he was. She had already looked up the boiler room’s number on the list on the wall, said, ‘Just a moment,’ and was about to connect him; but then she put him through to the ward. Lehikoinen answered, Annika announced the call and then waited to see whether it would be cut off. The light did not go out; it went on burning for a long time, and Annika reached out and tore Lehikoinen’s note from the switchboard and threw it away.

Yes, she thought as she looked at the small, white light, who in the end decides between winners and losers. Three years ago she had thought she had won something, had not allowed her husband to forget; but now she knew she had won nothing, and that something terrible was about to happen.

That evening they had booked the sauna. Annika followed her husband down the echoing cellar passage, inhaling the stink of fusty cellar cabins full of boxes of rotting root vegetables and dusty jam-jars of long-forgotten, mouldy jam. A towel swung on her husband’s shoulder; his back seemed to have become more stooped in the past few years.

The hot stones of the sauna roared as they threw water on them, and the dry air had a pungent smell. Annika leaned against the wall: it had been varnished at some time, and was hot and sticky to the skin. And suddenly, unexpectedly, she remembered another sauna, a hurricane lamp, and ice on the cement floor, while up on the benches the heat rose to more than 100 degrees. Frost-flowers tinkled in the bucket as they ladled the water, and as they ran outside to the hole in the ice the soles of their feet had been torn open so that in the morning there was blood on the snow; and in the sky shone the stars and moon, and in the cottage window a light.

Either the heat of the sauna as her husband threw water on the stones, or the sudden memory, made her eyes water, and, hunched up, gazing at her own long toes, Annika understood how much she had already forgotten.

In the washroom she sponged her husband’s back; then he washed hers. Annika leaned the palms of her hands against the wall tiles, and she could feel the movements of the soapy sponge down to her toes. Her husband washed her more thoroughly than usual, with slow, thoughtful strokes, and when Annika wanted to move he put his hand on her neck and prevented her turning. Annika whimpered softly: her back was tingling, and she could feel the blood flowing red under the fine skin.

Her husband squeezed her neck hard for a moment. Then he let her go, the sponge ceased to move over her skin, and he said:

‘I love you.’

There was amazement in his voice; his words sounded like a question. Annika turned round, her face twisted, and suddenly, weeping aloud, she sank to her knees, and from there to the floor. Her husband remained standing, fearful and silent; Annika lay on the floor and wept, knowing that the terrible thing had now happened.

She watched as, before her, a soap-bubble slid across the floor, the sauna light and the ceiling planks revolving slowly across its convex surface. The bubble spun round and a thin stream of water carried it to the drain; it dung for a moment, trembling, to the protective grille, and shattered.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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