Issue 3/1993 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Vieras (‘The stranger’, Otava 1992). Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

I lay there for a moment, motionless, eyes closed.

The bunk was damp. It felt damp around my thighs; I slid down lower – and there, it was really wet.

My sleeping bag was obviously soaked, and that meant that the mattress was soaked, too. Oh, rats. I couldn’t imagine having wet myself. Or – worse – had the boat sprung a leak, the water already rising up to the floorboards? I bounded to my feet: the rugs were dry. So was the cabin floor. I raised the boards, peered down: two fingers of water in the forward bilge, as usual. So, where the –? In the course of yesterday’s rough sailing, some water had seeped in below the windowframe. No more than a cupful, but it had trickled down inside the panel and then onto the mattress. I tried the other side of the bunk. It was dry. Well, I would just have to pick up the mattress and set it on its side.

‘What’s all this rummaging?’

‘I’m drying these.’

He made a face.

‘Just wait and see what happens when we change tack,’ I said.

‘It’s so fucking damp anyway,’ he complained. ‘And it’s getting close to freezing outside.’

‘It may come to that,’ I said.

He tapped his head with his index finger.

Through the water one could see rocks on the bottom and seaweed growing on them, slanting toward the surface, swaying in the waves. He stood in the bows, pointing out the shallow places. Slowly we chugged past the cliffs that stretched in a row across the inlet. It was scary. There were traces of paint on the sides of the larger ones, indicating that quite a few vessels had scraped against them I motioned to him to undo the rubber loops around the sails. He took them off, tucked them under his arm, slapped water out of the folds of the foresail. As he started raising the main sail, it slipped out of its profile and pulled the forward bolt rope out of the groove. Now it had to be pulled down again, by brute force. It was a familiar problem. Either the bolt rope is too thick and gets stuck, and when it gets wet, it is almost impossible to pull it back down again. Or the rope is too thin and keeps sliding out of the groove. Why in hell doesn’t the sailmaker keep at least a half-meter long piece of profile in his workshop on which to test that forward edge? Damn.

I lowered the sail and used both hands to squeeze the edge into its groove. The water was choppy, one had to consider every move.

And I was worried about the engine. It started at the push of a button, or had done at least until now. It was a necessary item in tight spots, and it charged the batteries that ran the instruments and appliances.

Once a day, I would take a surreptitious look at it to make sure that everything was in working order, at least as far as I could tell. A mechanic had replaced some part and had told me that something else needed to be replaced soon. I checked the gauges, touched the casing. The machine was chugging along, I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. The oil was circulating, the cooling spray looked normal. And, I thought, it does have that alarm buzzer.

‘There you go again, gazing at that thing,’ he said.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘You know about as much about engines as a mouse knows about a washing machine.’

‘You’re quite mistaken,’ I told him.

‘And you wouldn’t know how to fix it anymore than that mouse would.’

‘Save those kinds of jokes for your hitchhiking buddies.’

‘Give me a break!’

‘Listen, I’m the skipper here. We’ll change course now. It is deep enough now, but watch out for nets.’

‘What’s that, over there?’

It was a drift net, anchored underwater to the north side of a rock. It was a long one, two hundred meters at least. A black swallowtail pennant fluttered at the far end. We had to tack close and I saw that the current had raised the styrofoam floats to the surface. The net was full of seaweed and pieces of driftwood swept back from the shores.

We circumnavigated the net, found the leading marks, took our bearings. In the daylight, the gas flames looked like dim sparks. We had to pass close to the rock.

Behind the spit, right in the middle of the channel, stood a vessel. Its engines had been turned off. It was a large, multi-storied cabin cruiser, its roof covered with antennas. There was time to think that the shape of the vessel was due to those American laws that taxed boats according to length but not height; time to worry whether or not there was enough room to get around it; time to get rather beside oneself before a man in a white peaked cap appeared in the upper steering cabin and slammed the hatch open. We passed at a distance of two boat-lengths.

‘Where is Jurmo Rock?’ he shouted and pushed his head out the hatch.

‘Oh shit. Goddamn it to hell,’ I said.

‘Let’s get the fuck out of here,’ my companion said.

‘No. We have to help him if something’s wrong. What?’ I shouted back.

‘Let’s just zip behind those islands. Then they won’t see us anymore,’ my companion suggested.

‘That would land us in maritime court for abandonment,’ I told him. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘JURMO ROCK,’ the man shouted above the noise of the waves.

‘What do you mean?’


‘Is he drunk?’ I wondered. From some lower level a woman appeared, holding another piece of maritime headgear. She put it on before stepping up to the same hatch.

‘They must have broken their propeller,’ I said. ‘We’ll be in trouble if we leave. Lower the main.’ I turned into the wind, loosened the main sheet traveler and let the foresail flap. Now the other vessel used one of its engines, and we drifted to within hailing distance.

‘I tried the radio, but you weren’t receiving,’ the man shouted, clearly now and stressing every word.

‘Broken propeller?’ I shouted back.

‘No, lost.’

‘You lost your propeller?’

‘No, we are lost,’ he roared, framing his mouth with his hands.

‘They’re lost,’ I said. ‘Let’s try to get closer and show them on the chart where we are. Get the fenders ready, and be ready to push. Not there, higher up,’ I said when he started tying them to the gunwale. I shouted to the people in the cruiser to get out their sea charts. They turned up their palms: no charts.

‘Crazies. They have to be taken to some harbor, or else they’ll drown themselves,’ I said. ‘Let them call the Coast Guard. They’re not far away.’

‘So you don’t think we should –’

‘No. They have at least one working propeller. Let them ride around in a circle. We can’t do any more for them.’

I went up to the bows and told them to use the emergency channel. They’d get help in half an hour.

We raised the sails again and turned north-east toward Kökar. We had sailed free for about two hundred meters when the cruiser gave chase. It followed us with a mighty bow-wave. We waved our arms, trying to tell it to stay put, but it did not pay any attention. It kept on coming, its array of antennas waving and the radar turning.

‘Are they hard of hearing or out of their minds” I wondered.

‘Let’s lose them. Shit, let’s just cruise in there,’ he said. ‘In among the islands.’

‘We have to tell them how to get to Utö,’ I said. ‘Can’t be helped.’ We adjusted our course and put about. The wind blew straight at us and seemed to have grown several degrees colder. A narrow sliver of sun shone through the sail and the clouds, the water glittered a cold blue. The rocks seemed to be moving toward the northeast, the more distant ones faster than the ones closer to us. It took a while before we reached a spot where we could drift without danger. We lowered the sails. After a moment, the cruiser came up to our stern. Close up, it looked even bigger. A door slammed open, the skipper came on deck and lowered a gangway.

‘Come with me,’ I said. ‘In case there’s things I won’t believe or understand.’

Fenders down, the ropes fastened, we boarded the cruiser. Its interior was full of chrome and upholstery. It looked like a disco. The skipper and a woman stood waiting for us in the steering cabin. Behind them, the dials and gauges on the panel blinked and the radio burbled into the void. From the saloon below came the whistles and squeals of a tape being wound back and forward. We introduced ourselves. They gave us their full names.

‘Seems like we’re having a bit of trouble,’ the man said. ‘We came from Gotland.’

‘Well, almost,’ the woman said.

‘But then you must have some charts,’ I said.

‘We have a navigator,’ the woman said. Tight curls showed under the cap which had a big badge on it with a picture of a flag.

‘Two of them,’ the man said. ‘Neither one’s working.’

‘Why haven’t you called the coast guard?’ I asked.

‘Well, that’s why,’ the woman said.

‘The batteries went dead, or at least, we thought they did. And our pilot is sick.’

‘We drove all over Maarianhamina looking for replacement batteries, but it’s really the goddamn satellite that’s screwed up. They changed the co-ordinates. According to those, Turku is two hundred miles out to sea, and Maarianhamina just a suburb of Stockholm. They must have known this at Philips’, but they kept it to themselves.’

‘And Mauno has really taken this hard,’ the woman said. ‘He’s about to demolish the sound system, down there.’

We went downstairs, single file. In the saloon, a large man sat or reclined on a plush couch. He was wearing a shirt and tie and a thick knit cardigan. Buttoning it, he had missed the first buttonhole.

‘Mussu is going to sue Philips for libel, isn’t he,’ the woman said and him a hug.

‘Captain Mauno Hartikainen. Air Force, retired, chief navigator of the Linda Bella,’ the skipper said by way of introduction. The man looked at us with the world-weary eyes of a drunk.

‘Shit, man, I can’t find that there Call of the Pains, I mean plains,’ he said. ‘It’s on this tape, I know it is, but I can’t find it.’ He pushed the buttons of the tape player. His hair fell over his face. The tape player sounded like The Chipmunks.

‘Yes, it is a pain, isn’t it,’ the woman said. She reached out and brushed his hair back. That seemed to irritate him no end. ‘If there was a chart, one could draw the route on it,’ I said.

‘Mussu knows how to do that,’ the woman said and patted him on the back.

‘He sure does, but when goddamn women…,’ the skipper said. The woman hastened to explain how she had wanted to sweep some bread crumbs off the chart: when she had opened the ceiling hatch to do so, and the wind had ripped the chart out of her hand. They had tried to retrieve it but there hadn’t been room to maneuver. They did have plenty of other charts, all the way to Gotland and down the Swedish coast. ‘But then Mauno here got teed off and decided to pack it in,’ the skipper said. ‘So we thought it over for a while. I’m an old boy scout, and Sari and I agreed that we should just go. Checked the map and let ‘er rip. At twenty knots, so we figured it would take us a little over nine hours from Maarianhamina. We had good weather, visibility almost all the way to Denmark. We left around noon and sighted land in the evening. It was just foggy enough so we couldn’t get a clear view of the shore. We started looking for a harbor, but then this boat appears, full of guys in uniform shouting and waving their arms, telling us to get lost.’

‘And Mussu was asleep. He’s our interpreter, too,’ the woman said.

‘So I thought we had reached Gotland, the north end, where I’ve heard they have a military installation, and these guys must be from there. But we didn’t really feel like turning around again, in the middle of the night. So they took us in tow, mad as hell. Finally we got Mauno to open his eyes, and it turned out that we had missed our destination by three hundred kilometers. We were on the south coast of Sweden, some sort of wildlife preserve. And I’ve been using a compass all my life.’

‘These things happen,’ the woman said. ‘Much worse things, too.’

‘It’s that goddamn deviation,’ the skipper said.

‘You lost the deviation again?’ The man in the cardigan came to, jumped to his feet. ‘Hell, we’ve just run into somebody,’ he said, looking out the window.

‘No, we met these folks on the way and decided to have a little chat,’ the skipper said. ‘Is there any coffee? Let’s have some. Why don’t you make some.’

The woman picked up a tall thermos bottle and set it on the table next to a stack of disposable cups. She pumped coffee out of the bottle. It steamed and was good and hot. We had to help ourselves to some coffee cake and pretzel-shaped cookies that left crumbs on your fingers and lips. The man in the cardigan leaned against the window and looked out.

‘I know that boat. Bought in Glasgow, or was it Holland,’ he said.

‘Come again?’ the skipper said. ‘Have some coffee, Mauno.’

‘That one right there. Your husband’s with Apple. Has an import business.’

‘No,’ I said.

He swayed back on his heels, brushed his hair out of his eyes.

‘Last year, at the restaurant on Nötö. We were trying to order some bullhead, but there was none to be had for love or money.’

‘You’re mistaking me for someone else,’ I said.

‘You’ve changed your hairdo, but that’s the boat all right. Remember it from that bowsprit and the name. Your old man had sailed it over by himself, from Holland or Lübeck or someplace. The customs guys never caught on.’

I laughed and shook my head.

‘Mussu, you’re not remembering that right,’ the woman said.

‘You weren’t even around yet, Sari, so shut up. This girl here,’ he said, pushing a cup of coffee towards me, ‘is a dentist. She takes care of all the teeth in Lauttasaari.’

‘Do I look like a dentist?’ I said.

He straightened his back, glared at me with glazed eyes.

‘I don’t take care of anybody’s teeth except for my own,’ I said. ‘And that boat belongs to his father.’ I nodded in the direction of my companion. ‘This is my first trip on it. My first sailing trip, altogether. He’s promised to take me to Maarianhamina. So, I think we better get going before it gets dark.’

‘Yes, of course,’ the woman said.

‘We saw a coast guard vessel back there, a couple of miles away. You’ll be able to call them.’

‘Why don’t you come up with me, and we’ll try that,’ the skipper said to my companion. ‘And you can see what those goddamn hi-tech electronics did to us.’

They disappeared upstairs, my companion’s blue-jeaned legs last. ‘They said on the radio that it’s going to get quite a bit colder,’ the woman said. ‘And awfully windy.’

‘That’s what I’m afraid of,’ I said.

‘But you have a good navigator,’ the woman said. ‘I mean, really.’ She stacked the used cups, picked up some cigarette ash with a fingertip.

‘We’ve had a nice trip so far.’

‘And you didn’t get lost,’ the woman said. ‘As for you, Mussu, it’s closing time. You don’t want to embarrass us in front of those coast guards.’ She bent down and hugged him. ‘They’ll guide us back to civilization.’

‘If anyone asks – please don’t say anything about us,’ I said.

‘I understand,’ she said, and smiled.

‘Some people aren’t so understanding.’

‘A woman’s got a right, just the same as a man,’ she said. ‘It’s not the Dark Ages anymore. Vesa and I haven’t seen you, and Mauno here won’t remember even if someone asks.’

We went upstairs. The skipper was still holding the receiver.

‘They heard us, they’ll be here within a half-hour,’ he said. ‘Well, thank you, and goodbye.’

‘Ships that pass in the fog,’ the woman said.

‘Please don’t conjure up fog, on top of everything,’ the skipper said. ‘Why don’t you go and comb Hartikainen’s hair. Better still, see if you can’t get him to sack out in the forward cabin.’ ‘Bye,’ I said.

‘Have a really great trip. You can trust us,’ the woman shouted from the upper deck and waved her white cap. There was no flag on the pole on the aft deck; they’d probably lost that, too.

We had to make such a tight turn that we had to use the engine.

‘To Maarianhamina, eh?’ he said. ‘As far as I can see, Maarianhamina is sort of west of here. And we’re pointing south.’

I didn’t say anything.

‘What a mess.’

‘Don’t worry.’

He opened the bottom drawer which was used for plastic bags and empty bottles that should have been disposed of or returned. He checked the bottles against the light, tested the caps, spun one on the table, let it come to a stop and observed which way it pointed. He tore off a piece of masking tape, stuck it to the side of the bottle, wrote some Roman numerals on it.

I watched his actions with interest.

‘A document for posterity?’ I asked.

‘I’ve got my fucking privacy of correspondence, don’t I,’ he said, pushed a note into the bottle, screwed the cap on tight and tossed it overboard.

The bottle disappeared into the waves, reappeared after a moment in the foam, and then vanished quickly from view.

The cruiser, too, got going. In ten minutes, we were so far away that we could no longer tell whether it was coming or going.

Translated by Anselm Hollo


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