The dog

Issue 3/1992 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

From the collection of short stories Matka Grönlannin halki (‘A journey across Greenland’, Tammi, 1992)

The water in this town tasted of shit. Unto swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, gargled the rest and spat it into the wash-basin. The taste of garlic and old booze disappeared and only a flavour of metal remained on his palate. Unto glanced at the mirror and began to fumble for a comb. The bags under his eyes were flushed.

He pulled a clean shirt from his suitcase, and suddenly remembered how Mervi smelt in bed. There was a stirring in his groin, and unconsciously Unto sniffed at his shirt-sleeve as he buttoned his cuffs. In front of the mirror, he straightened the hem of his cardigan, combed his moustache and drew a deep breath. He felt like some meat soup.

In the car, Unto pressed a button and the radio began to search for a station, stopped at a channel for a couple of seconds at a time, and then went on to the next. Unto let it go on combing the airwaves.

He thought about yesterday’s group, which he had taken to the theatre. The play had not interested him, but a concert would have been even duller. The restaurant was a sterile kind of joint. German-looking women carried giant plates on which potato and bean-pods were scattered in rays. Unto had visited the kitchen beforehand to negotiate the meats.

The doctors and their well-dressed wives had talked quietly; it had been impossible to get the atmosphere going. He had tried a number of subjects, but they just chinked their heavy rococo forks, cut up little pieces of meat, and popped them into their mouths. One of them pushed the herb butter to the side of his plate, and preached his virtue to the rest of the diners. Somewhere they had talked about sport.

The factory had sent Kirsti to introduce the new product, and when it was time for the sales pitch, she stepped forward, golden necklace jingling, and presented the drug on an overhead projector, her breasts heaving. Kirsti, Kirsti! No one can resist Kirsti. She is a drug-selling drug. She is the great mother. Unto wanted to crawl into her womb, and, after drinking six brandies and seeing the last doctor into his taxi, that is what he did. And Kirsti laughed as Unto floundered between her thighs, delved in her damp armpits with his forehead and traced, eyes closed, her wide lower lip. But then the brandy began to bubble up into Unto’s mouth, and in the morning Kirsti was no longer there.

Kirsti was tidy, brisk, and neat. She packed her evening clothes in a red case, knew how to arrange everything: in Kirsti’s case the clothes never creased. And she dropped her jingling jewellery in its box, took her day clothes from a grey case and put on a fresh pair of silk knickers. He knew Kirsti well. And she was a big woman. Unto glanced at the clock: he was well up to schedule, and would be at the health center in time.

The lady in the bakery recommended buns baked in paper cases, with butter and crushed almonds inside. Unto paid, picked up the bags and drove to the health centre door. He was there at the agreed time, and went in through the casualty end. The nurse greeted him and asked him to wait.

‘The chief medical officer is late,’ the nurse said sympathetically. ‘And all the rest.’

The girl laughed pleasantly, but Unto suddenly felt tired, and could not respond.

When the doctors started to arrive, Unto got up and began asking them about their summer holidays and their locums. He tried to remember what stories he had told here before; there was an ache in his forehead, time stretched; he still had to wait for one doctor, who was doing some stitching.

Unto took the buns into the coffee room and tried to arrange them somehow. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his fingers, but a tenacious smell of sugar and vanilla lingered on his hands.

The chief medical officer’s coat was tight, and black hairs stuck out from under his collar. He lounged on a sofa and countered Unto’s jokes clumsily. The others sat around the table, looking pressed for time. Unto lifted brochures and drug specimens on to the corner of the table, poured coffee into cups and passed the bowl of buns around. As he handed the cream, he made a wisecrack about cholesterol. Then he produced the new drug and made his speech. He knew it well; he had learned everything about this drug. Finally he handed out the specimens and piles of sticky labels. The labels had the drug’s name printed in red in one corner. Someone glanced at his watch, and Unto wound up his speech. He drank a glass of water and remembered the foil-wrapped baked potatoes that had been served yesterday. He felt nauseous. The plastic chairs boomed against the table as the doctors rose. Unto shook each one by the hand, ending with the chief medical officer, and left. The casualty nurse sat behind her computer terminal and did not look up as Unto passed.

In the car, the radio searched for a suitable station. It played classical music for a few seconds, then switched to local radio, spoke Swedish for a while, and then went through the same stations again. Unto found himself marvelling at the number different kinds of noise in the air. He thought about Kirsti, who was a wonderful great mill, marvellous and practical. Then he began to think about Mervi and the child.

When Unto turned into the yard of the terraced house, Mervi was standing waiting at the door. A pale lily-of-the-valley.

Tutte clapped his hands and laughed as Unto lifted him into his lap. He gave the child a kiss, but he could still feel the taste of iron in his mouth.

‘He still knows you,’ Mervi said.

‘What about you?’ Unto asked.

‘I think so.’

Unto dropped his briefcase on the hall floor and began to play with the child. The boy had learned to stand. He stood emphatically in the middle of the floor, straight as a rod between earth and sky. He had become a person. Unto tried to entice the child to walk, but he did not understand what Unto meant, and sat down, perplexed, in the middle of the floor.

When Mervi went to heat up something for the boy to eat, Unto went into the bedroom and threw himself down on the bed. Next door’s crazy dog began to bark under the window. It was a pale collie with a narrow, black-haired nose, and it was always barking. It sat chained up in the yard and barked; it never stopped.

Mervi took a saucepan from the comer cupboard and filled it with water. Soon there came the sound of a jar of baby food rattling in the boiling water. Unto squeezed his eyes shut, but could not sleep. Across his mind darted the sales figures that Kirsti had shown him the day before. Things were not going well in Unto’s area; sales of a number of products were down.

But the boy had learnt to stand.

Unto turned over on his stomach and buried his head in the pillow, but the sharp barking penetrated the pillow as if the dog were barking inside him. Mervi was talking to the baby in the kitchen, but Unto could hear only the dog. His hands formed into fists, he flung the pillow on the floor and gripped the side of the bed with his teeth. He wanted to shoot the dog.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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