Melba, Mallinen and me

Issue 2/1993 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

From Fallet Bruus (‘The Bruus case’, Söderströms, 1992; in Finnish, Tapaus Bruus, Otava), a collection of short stories

After the war Helsingfors began to grow in earnest.

Construction started in Mejlans [Meilahti] and Brunakärr [Ruskeasuo]. People who moved there wondered if all the stone in the country had been damaged by the bombing or if all the competent builders had been killed; if you hammered a nail into a wall you were liable to hammer it right into the back of your neighbor’s head and risk getting indicted for manslaughter.

Then the Olympic Village in Kottby [Käpylä] was built, and for a few weeks in the summer of 1952 this area of wood-frame houses became a legitimate part of the city that housed such luminaries as the long-legged hop-skip-and-jump champion Da Silva, the runner Emil Zatopek (with the heavily wobbling head), the huge heavy­weight boxer Ed Saunders and the somewhat smaller heavyweight Ingemar Johansson who had to run for his life from Saunders.

Before long, the neighboring area of Esbo started to grow as well, and soon became the town of Esbo. The town of Esbo is a curious metastasis created for people who want to live where the air is clean and in the mornings drive into Helsingfors where the air, thanks to people like them, is considerably less than clean. In Esbo the greenbelt town of Hagalund [Tapiola] was built, and it was shown proudly to tourists for decades until the guides got tired of hearing people stage-whispering to each other: ‘Why are they taking us to this suburb?’

Then people turned their attention to the forests east, north and northwest of Helsinki. Young architects sat in libraries studying Hugo Gropius, Le Corbusier and Bauhaus, Russian constructivism and O.-I. Meurman’s views on city planning and greenbelt towns. After they’d misunderstood everything – except Russian constructivism – they were sent out to start designing several northern suburbs. The large construction firms had mastered the technique of building with concrete units, and everything went very fast: the city planners figured that by the turn of the century Helsinki would probably have 1,500,000 inhabitants.

But while the young architects were still sitting and studying, the quick mind of Ilmo Malaska, a young city official with an international bent, had time to leave its mark on an area immediately west of the city. Brednäs [Laajalahti] was on the sea, in an area once owned by the Mattheiszen family. There was a big estate, a defunct school for naval cadets and a hotel. Along the beautiful promenade were luxury villas and a few embassies. Further inland was a long shady avenue or ‘allé’ with highrises in smudged, unattractive colors.

Northwest of Brednäs was a wooded hill so insignificant that it didn’t even have a name. Assistant Mayor Malaska contacted the Office of City Planning for the Western District and suggested that a noted foreign architect be given the assignment of planning a suburb on the hill above Brednäs. A commission was appointed, and nine months later it came up with two (or rather three) names. Henry S. Marracott III had studied at MIT and Harvard, worked for Gropius in New York and later was the driving force behind the famous ‘housing projects’ in Manhattan and St Louis. Marracott’s competitors were the famous Russian constructivist couple Pavel Yefimovitch Pavlinsky and Irina Maximovna Pavlinskaya, who’d shortly before created two suburbs for 50,000 people each in the city that everyone thought would be known for the forseeable future as Leningrad.

Two delegations set out. The first, led by Ilmo Malaska, went to Leningrad. Impressed by Pavlinsky & Pavlinskaya’s elegance and western habits, they took a look at the suburbs, came back and recommended Marracott. The second, led by Torolf Sundelin, Assistant Chief of the Western District of the Office of City Planning, went to St Louis, met Marracott, took a look at the suburbs, came back and recommended the Pavlinskys.

It turned out that Malaska was pulling the strings behind the scene, and Henry S. Marracott got the job in spite of warning grumbles from certain politicians with good contacts in the Soviet Embassy.

Marracott designed a trim little suburb. In spite of heavy pressure from the builder, he avoided concrete as much as possible. Some houses were built in warm red brick, but most in rough brownish-gray stone, possibly a tribute to the Brooklyn brownstone where the Marracotts were forced to live during Henry’s late childhood after his father went bankrupt in 1929.

During one phase of the building, private capital also stepped in; Marracott was given the task of designing a few luxury villas along Brednäs Beach as well as several semi-detached houses a bit further inland. He also drew up plans for a residence for government-invited VIPs that was only built two decades later adjoining the hotel. This is where the Finnish government wined and dined the oil billionaire and weapons broker Adnan Khashoggi in the hope of lucrative contracts that never materialized.

Iimo Malaska was pleased. Using the argument that in Stockholm there was a place called Frescati, in Rome the Spanish Steps and in New York an avenue called De Las Americas, he managed to sell the idea that the suburb on the hill be called Marracott Hill; Brednäs became Marracott Beach and Brednäs Allé Marracott Allé. Marracott returned home, and in 1972 in St Louis became the first architect who dynamited his own housing development on orders from the authorities.

Work began on a highway which was to make travel between Åbo [Turku] and Helsingfors easier and from Marracott Hill to Marracott Beach more difficult. The first kilometer became the missing natural border between the two sections of town, but in time a bridge was built that became an easily recognizable symbol of the illusory American Dream of climbing the social ladder by the sweat of one’s brow. It must be said, however, that if the Pavlinskys had been given the assignment, the villas in Marracott Beach would have been confined in a police-patrolled, fenced-in area.

One Marracott Hill rumour had it that the schools in Marracott Beach had an especially written first-grade reader which began like this: ‘Father builds his career. The salary is fine. Brother takes drugs. Mother needs peace and quiet.’

But I never actually saw it with my own eyes.

We moved to Marracott Hill while the area still was only half-finished and I was a chubby toddler. On Marracott Hill lived factory workers – lower middle class and the Upwardly Mobile. There were Helsinki natives who used words like buli, snadi, lajka and sajka (slang words of Russian origin: big, small, shop, food). There were people from the north and east who said mie, sie, myö, työ, and hyö instead of minä, sinä, me, te, and he (I, you, we, you, they). There were also some Finland-Swedes, but not in my building.

I remember that the church was made of brick, and was small and compact. Obviously there was no reason to put too much stress on metaphysical questions since the tenets of the New Religion could probably be gleaned from the programs of the larger political parties.

I remember that the shopping center looked like a fortress, and that inside was a shiny slide, down which one passed through the Black Hole of childhood.

I remember that people were strangers to each other and looked it. In the afternoons the adults hurried home as if ticks were pumping them full of fatigue and pallor.

Sometimes statisticians visited, burrowing their way through the houses like officious termites.

In the evenings a blue light shone out of every fourth window. I remember that it looked like a series of secret laboratories, but that it was actually Bonanza and Maxwell Smart alternating in neat layers with the disciplined objectivity of State-produced programs.

Most of all, I remember Melba: Melba and the Karttunen brothers and the others.

I played soccer.

Melba didn’t. He just sat on the Cliff and watched us.

The Cliff was on the side of our yard facing the inner part of Marracott Hill. On the other side was the ring road circling the housing area. Behind the ring road lay the highway.

A sandy road went by the Cliff, twisting steeply at its base and then straightening out and continuing down toward the soccer field and the Finnish school. There were no Swedish schools on Marracott Hill; they were all in Marracott Beach.

The Cliff was in our yard, but it was part of Melba’s territory even though he lived in the neighboring yard, No. 9. The only people he allowed on the Cliff were the Karttunen brothers. If he ever heard that any unauthorized persons had been up there in his absence, he’d dole out some kind of punishment. I don’t know why he was called Melba; there was certainly nothing peach-like about him.

Soccer was my admission ticket to the yard. I was slow and deliberate but had a feel for the game. For that I could thank good genes, for my father had played on Vasa IFK. The first thing I learned to say in Finnish was: Mun-nimi-on-Kenneth (‘My name is Kenneth’) – which quickly simplified itself to Mun-nimi-on-Kenu (‘My name is Kenu’). Later I learned to shout: Pallo!, Tänne!, Syötä!, Ammu! and Ota Se! (‘Ball!’ ‘Here!’ ‘Pass it!’ ‘Shoot!’ and ‘Get it!’)

But well-executed goals and elegant passes had no effect on Melba. Until Mallinen arrived, my status was always in doubt. Vepsäläinen, who in lieu of figures of the caliber of Melba and the Karttunen brothers was the leader of us kids in No. 11, was polite to me but nothing more. He had no great love for Finland-Swedes, but since I’d learned a few Finnish phrases fast he tolerated me. But with Melba he was like putty – being only about half his size. Still, he never actually joined up with Melba and the Karttunens, not directly – he just let them do their thing, smiled at their taunts and gratefully took their cigarettes whenever they offered them.

Melba didn’t have to try very hard to find fault with me. It was enough to open the door and see the nameplate on Entry F. It was enough to discover that the only Finnish I could really understand was ‘Give me the ball!’ ‘Pass” ‘Shoot!’ ‘Cover him!’

Melba had many opinions about Finland-Swedes, none of them flattering. Quickly he dubbed me Håkan. It was from him that I learned the intimate connection between the Swedish language and pantyhose: according to him anybody who spoke Swedish was a faggot, a Homo-Håkan, a pantyhose-model.

Soon they added to my nickname. For this I could thank Mirva Hovi, who lived in the same entry as me. By the time she was 8 she looked like a tougher version of Madame Mim from Donald Duck comics. We were the same age, but I was a stunted version of Feathering Duck, Donald’s cousin. It happened that I skied a lot that winter; unconsciously I think I already knew that I had to develop into a Physical Specimen. That, combined with the fact that Melba’s territory didn’t extend to the ski trails.

One January afternoon when I got home to the yard, I noticed that something was wrong with my bindings; I couldn’t get my skis off. Mirva Hovi saw her chance, rushed out and began pummeling me. To fight with skis on turned out to be difficult, and all I could do was protect myself with my ski-poles. Melba saw this, came down from the Cliff and grabbed the poles. Then he let Mirva Hovi continue beating me up.

It took me an hour to get inside the stairwell. It was pure hell getting into the elevator with my skis on and a furious Mirva Hovi on my back. By then Melba had had plenty of time to tell me what a wimp I was for not being able to defend myself against a girl. That’s how l became Wimp-Håkan.

Melba had a habit of spitting at any small, objectionable creature as they walked beneath the Cliff on their way between the yard and the field. He was content with that for a long time. But after the incident with Mirva he thought he’d sniffed out weakness. Then one afternoon he made his move. I was on my way home from the Swedish school in Marracott Beach, and I’d already turned into the yard from the ring road when I saw him sitting on the Cliff with his back turned toward me. I tried to speed along the parked cars and make myself invisible in a way that had already become second nature. Suddenly he turned around and saw me. I looked to the left and saw that I’d only gotten as far as Entry B, so I started taking slightly longer steps.

When I reached Entry C he stood up and started strolling slowly in my direction. It was no more than 20 meters from the Cliff to Entry F and he knew that he could make it even if I started running. I tried to think up some errand that I had to do in Entry D or E, but I didn’t know anybody who lived there. And the path down to the shopping center was next to my entryway, so he could block that too.

When I arrived he was nonchalantly sitting on the steps, hunched over. I started going in, trying to pretend that I’d just noticed him.

‘Greetings!’ I said in Finnish.

‘Greetings, Wimp-Håkan,’ said Melba.

‘My-name-is-Kenu,’ I said. I could hear that my voice was light and squeaky. Feverishly I tried to figure out a way to get past him and inside the entryway. He wouldn’t dare make too much trouble there because there were lots of old ladies who stuck their heads out the door at the slightest noise.

‘Where you heading, Wimp-Håkan?’ asked Melba.

‘Home. And my-name-is-Kenu,’ I said again. I hated that my voice was cracking, and became trembly and small.



‘Meantosayyouhaven’tgotasmoke?’ he replied with reptilian quickness.

‘I-don’t-smoke,’ I repeated. It was a good way to practice Finnish, but I didn’t like the way it was being taught.

‘Wouldn’thurttostart,’ said Melba, and his hand came flying at me and I fell over the railing into the rose bed. He came after me, sat on top of me, twisted my right arm behind my back and asked: ‘Andsowhat’syourname?’

‘My-name-is-Kenu,’ I said.

‘Whatdidyousayyournamewas?’ he repeated, twisting my arm a little more. We kept on that way until I said, ‘My-name-is-Wimp-Håkan.’

While I struggled to my feet I watched Melba stroll calmly across the lawn with the tall pines and bushes that separated No. 11’s yard from No. 9’s.

I wondered why I couldn’t imagine what his parents were like.

I began to feel Melba’s eyes on the back of my neck when we played soccer down on the field. That made me play worse.

Secretly I was furious at the world in general and my situation in particular. I’d quickly learned the important Finnish curse words and sex words, and I went around mumbling a mantra: Mulkku-Melba, Pillu-Mirva, Paska-Pasi (‘Fuck my Melba, Suck my Mirva, Prick my Pasi’) (the younger Karttunen brother was Pasi). Probably I hoped that a mantra would somehow erase my own humiliating nickname.

We all looked totally alike, and I’ve often wondered what kind of a person I would have become had I grown up with the feeling of belonging to a majority and having the indisputable right to live where I did live.

We all had ugly windbreakers and woolen caps pulled down over our foreheads. Gradually we got rid of the caps because it was cooler to go around bareheaded, and it made us look more like individuals. Our faces were still smooth and our voices shrill – except for Melba. He couldn’t have been more than 2-3 years older than Vepsäläinen, Mirva Hovi and I, but his voice and face were already rough, and he was inordinately big and tough-looking. He let his hair grow early, and soon wisps of dirty­blonde hair were falling down over his face. His voice was a little hoarse and deceptively neutral, but anyone who’d spoken to him once never mistook the threat behind it.

No one had ever seen his parents, and he seemed to be free to roam his territory anytime he felt like it.

The Karttunen brothers were Melba’s bodyguards. The older one was tall, taller than Melba, but skinny. He had glasses and jet black, almost slicked-down hair. He might have looked sympathetic, but there was something asymmetrical in his face that made one uneasy. He didn’t say much.

Pasi was a year younger than I, very short – and otherwise a carbon copy of his brother. Alone he would have been harmless, but he was never alone.

The Karttunen brothers lived in one of the twelve-storey buildings on the other side of Marracott Hill, behind a grove of trees. But after they’d become Melba’s pals, they had the right to hang out in his territory. Most likely they were uncomfortable in their own home territory, which was run by Killer, a legendary teenager whose cruelty made Melba and the Karttunen brothers look like choirboys.

I wasn’t the only kid who walked around with a vague feeling that the sky could fall any minute. There was a slightly crazy, nervous boy named Sunila who was ambushed frequently by Melba and his henchmen. Vepsäläinen himself was never completely at ease, and not even the Sonetti kids with the cherubic curls who lived in Entry A at a comfortable distance from the Cliff could feel completely out of harm’s way.

But I was the favorite. Even if I had certain Male Attributes that, for example, Sunila and Sonetti didn’t have, I was being judged by factors beyond my control and understanding. So I decided that it had to be my mother tongue that was the problem, and that my role as Wimp-Håkan made me irresistible to them.

Therefore, I was very surprised when the Mallinen family moved into an apartment near me. Mallinen was undoubtedly a Finnish name, and the tall, stringy-looking boy with the short dark hair was clearly Finnish-speaking.

But he started in my class at the Swedish school in Marracott Beach.

Mallinen’s father, an engineer, had built the country’s first highway, but that didn’t help his son; sooner or later he had to be introduced to the hierarchy of the yard.

It happened one afternoon when we were playing soccer – Mallinen (who’d quickly proved to be a player with good technique), Vepsäläinen, I and Tamminen and Nylund, two kids who lived in a building on the other side of the Finnish school. For a long time Melba just sat on the Cliff and watched us. He sat there until the Karttunen brothers came; then he stood up, walked down the Cliff and headed toward us along the sandy road, accompanied by the two others.

I could see what was about to happen. I can still remember the cold autumn air – it was the end of October – there was a strong wind, and brown and yellow leaves whirled down the grassy embankments, the tall pines sighed, the temperature was almost at the freezing point and the puddles crunched – and a girl named Tea Alanne had arrived some days earlier from the center of the city to join our class. She had Finnish-speaking parents, too, so Mallinen was no longer unique.

Melba went up to Vepsäläinen, who stopped playing and stood there, surprised, with the ball at his feet. Melba picked it up and handed it to the elder Karttunen, who kicked it away as far as he could.

‘Gimmesomecash,’ said Melba to Vepsäläinen. Vepsäläinen began nervously to dig around in his pockets, and smiled a crooked smile to Mallinen and me. Melba glanced quickly at me and said:


Mallinen said:

‘Let him be. And tell the jerk with the glasses to get the ball.’

Melba looked up. For years he hadn’t heard that tone of voice from anyone in No. 9 or No. 11. He was already very close to the age where even mild-mannered grownups were intimidated by him. His gaze met Mallinen’s. Mallinen was younger, but almost as tall. However, there was a weight difference between them of 10-15 kilos.

Vepsäläinen, Tamminen, Nylund and I gaped. We looked at Mallinen as if he were a kamikaze pilot.

‘What’djusay?’ asked Melba in a drawling, nonchalant way that we’d learned to recognize; it made us shudder.

‘Tell your friend to move his ass and get the ball – now!’ repeated Mallinen insistently, staring into Melba’s eyes.

‘You’re the traitor who goes to the fucking Swedish school,’ said Melba in a factual, almost thoughtful tone of voice. I watched as he and Mallinen both hunched slightly and tensed their muscles.

‘What’s it to you?’ said Mallinen, and at the same moment Melba’s foot came flying. With time I came to understand that Mallinen’s secret lay in his quickness. That first time Melba tried to surprise him with a kick instead of a punch, but Mallinen had time to jump out of the way, grab Melba’s wrist and twist it. A second later there was a cracking sound, and Melba was lying with his face in a pool of shattered ice and muddy water.

Mallinen had never taken any course – either in boxing, wrestling, or judo. He just had a natural talent for protecting himself by violent means if it was necessary. For many, many years I was to admire and envy that talent.

Melba cursed and tried to heave Mallinen off. But Mallinen was sitting on his back with one of Melba’s arms twisted behind him; it looked like he could twist it off whenever he wanted.

‘FuckingcocksuckerI’llkillyou!’ hissed Melba. Mallinen twisted the arm a little more, at the same time pushing Melba’s face deeper into the water. There was a bubbling, spitting sound. The Karttunen brothers looked anxiously at Vepsäläinen, Tamminen, Nylund and me. Vepsäläinen had quickly allied himself with Mallinen, and there was something in his face that made the elder Karttunen look at the younger and shake his head.

‘Tell your friends to go get the ball,’ repeated Mallinen.

Melba writhed like a snake in his grip, but said nothing. The elder Karttunen brother nodded to the younger, who ran after the ball. He gave it to Vepsäläinen. Mallinen looked up; he let go of Melba, and at the same time hopped two steps backward, waiting with clenched fists.

Melba got up. He was soaking wet, and his light-colored jacket was covered with dark spots. His hair was matted and wet. He looked from Mallinen to Vepsäläinen to me and back to Mallinen. He didn’t say a thing, just looked for a long time. Vepsäläinen and I swallowed. Then they left – Melba and the brothers. We stood there watching them. Then Mallinen said, ‘Let’s keep playing.’

After ten minutes I looked up toward the Cliff. No one was there. It felt liberating to run in the cold, clear autumn air.

Translated by George Blecher and Lone Thygesen Blecher


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