Nine lives

Issue 3/1994 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Entire lives flash by in half a page in this selection of very short short stories. Extracts from Elämiä (‘Lives’, Otava, 1994)


Silja was born in 1900. The home farm had been sub-divided many times. Silja threw a piece of bread on the floor. ‘Don’t sling God’s corn,’ said grandmother. Silja got up to go to school at four. In the cart, her head nodded; when the horse was going downhill its shoes struck sparks in the darkness. Silja’s brother drove to another province to go courting. Silja sat in the side-car. ‘The birches were in full leaf there,’ she said at home. Silja went to Helsinki University to read Swedish. She saw the famous Adolf Lindfors playing a miser on the big stage at the National Theatre. Silja got a senior teaching post at the high school. With a colleague, she travelled in Gotland. Silja donated her television set to the museum. It was one of the first Philips models. ‘Has this been watched at all?’ they asked Silja. Silja learned to drive after she retired. She called her car ‘The Knight’. The teachers’ society made a theatre trip to Tampere. Silja looked up her colleague in the telephone directory in the interval. There was no one of that name.


Viljo was born during the winter darkness. Einari was a forester. Elsa was from the south. Viljo grew into a strong boy. His father rubbed his gums when his teeth hurt. Elsa leaned against Einari. ‘These are my menfolk, and the world won’t crush them,’ she said. Einari died in the war. Viljo buried the prize spoons in the ground so the Germans wouldn’t find them. Elsa went off her head and was taken into care. ‘It was the canoodling kept her here,’ they said in the village. Viljo ended up in Sweden. He spent five years there. Elsa died. Viljo couldn’t find the spoons in the ruins of his home. Viljo got a job in an insurance company. Eeva was a teacher. They had a girl and a boy. Viljo became a department head. He took his family on package holidays, carrying a shoulder-bag. Viljo didn’t consider food. Viljo forbade his staff to wear shorts. ‘She’s a smart woman, she took it well,’ he said at home at the dinner table. Maija wanted to move into her own flat. ‘No one has anything they can call their own, all you have is your family,’ Viljo said. Maija screwed three of her classmates at her school­-leaving ceremony. Viljo lost an office file. He didn’t go to work He went to dine at a hotel and shot himself. Eeva found the file behind the supermarket. They read poetry aloud at the funeral. The vicar drank his coffee black.


Pia was shy. Pauliina was her twin sister. Pauliina had dark features. Their father was a Master of Laws. Their mother taught. They went to first nights at the city theatre. Mother drank an egg before parties. Pia and Pauliina slept on thin mattresses. They didn’t have any spots. The photographer used their portraits to advertise his shop. They were on every hoarding. ‘It’s you they like,’ Pia said. Pauliina embroidered the Olympic rings on her oven-glove. They could give this as a prize at the Olympics,’ the teacher said. Pia inked rings on to her oven-glove. Pia turned on the gas stove after school and lay down on the rug. Mother came home. Pia got up and opened a magazine. ‘I love you so much,’ mother said and began to make supper. Pia got into medical school. She cycled to the university summer and winter. Mother died. She left father the big flat. Pauliina got the second car. Pia got a painting. It was of Paris. She got 15,000 for it. Pia travelled there with the money.


Pentti lived with his grandparents. He looked at the ceiling upside down. ‘What will the neighbours think,’ his grandmother said. ‘Combing his hair won’t help a man that looks like that,’ his grandfather said. Pentti went to secondary school and got a job in the parcels section of the post-office. He lived with his sister as a sub-tenant. Pirkko chucked Pentti out. ‘He wasn’t even angry,’ Pirkko wept. Pentti lived a bachelor life. He listened to classical music. He had thick glasses. Pentti sewed the Pori town arms on to his work jacket and wore it in his free time. This is much too much,’ he said when he was given change. Pentti worked for 35 years. His household equipment fell to pieces, starting with the fridge. Pentti’s breathing wheezed. ‘I don’t smoke,’ he said at the doctor’s. A box of matches rattled in his pocket. Pentti blushed. He got his pension. Pentti ordered a Prokofiev record from the shop. It didn’t exist as an LP. ‘A CD is okay,’ Pentti said, and bowed. Pentti went to buy a CD player. It stank when it was played. It couldn’t be changed on those grounds.


Sirpa lived with her mother. Her mother was a nurse. Sirpa slept in the yard of the apartment block. They found a cat and three stones in the pram. Sirpa peed in her pants on her first day at school. ‘What kind of a puddle is that?’ the teacher asked. Mirja and Sari came to her birthday. They found a condom behind a painting. ‘Your mum’s a communist, then,’ Mirja said. ‘My father’s a sea-captain, and he lives in a kingdom beneath the sea,’ Sirpa said. Sirpa woke up to the smell of cigarette smoke. A strange man was smoking with her mother on the sofa. ‘Off with you, Sirpa,’ mother said. Sirpa went to business school. She burnt her hand on the sauna stove at her housewarming and passed out after a bottle of whisky. The guests took her videos. Tapio was a fellow student. He screwed her twice a week. Sirpa read Donald Duck while Tapio came into her from behind. Tapio was engaged. ‘I’m a marketing secretary an’ all,’ Sirpa told acquaintances on the bus. Sirpa was unemployed. She rang shops from home and ordered things that didn’t exist. Sirpa changed the earth in her pot-plants once a week. Sirpa bought three Snickers bars a day. Sirpa squashed a fat spider on the window-sill. The creature burst. A hundred little ones came out of it.


Jarmo was the fifth son. He licked his bread before he put it in the toaster. Jarmo had acne. ‘You can see from your face that you’ve got girls on your mind,’ his father shouted at his confirmation party. ‘Let’s all go and play,’ his cousins kept saying. There was no minigolf in the country. Jarmo moved to Helsinki. He looked after handicapped people. Tuula went to art school. They went to see Gone With the Wind. ‘Shoot him,’ Tuula shouted, standing up. Scarlett shot. ‘Handicapped people and Tuula, I can say I like them,’ Jarmo said. A boy from Jarmo’s group choked on chocolate in the metro. They lived as sub-tenants in the attic of a wooden house. They used the maternity pack to make a bed for the baby. Tuula lost her heart-shaped locket while she was swimming with the baby. Jarmo spent a day diving. Tuula went home to eat. ‘Love will always find a way,’ Jarmo said to the life-saver. Jarmo brought the necklace home in his breast pocket.


Tytti came from a big family. ‘Tytti’s such a good girl, she even closes the door behind her,’ granny said. Father drank sour milk in the name of good spirits and set the table in the garden on summer Sundays. They ate up their steaks in the drizzling rain. Tytti decided to be a vegetarian. She became left-wing early on. Tytti grumbled all through her school-leaving party. ‘Tytti can send her cake to the blacks, but it’ll go mouldy before it gets there,’ granny said. Leo was studying to be a doctor. They furnished the living room with a conversation-piece made of beer-crates. They listened to ‘A Dish of Guatemalan Blood’. They made love twice a week. Leo came to the bedroom door and Tytti began to pile pillows up under her backside. ‘Every morning I feel glad we don’t have any children,’ Tytti said. Leo brought an embryo preserved in alcohol to the kitchen table. They gave money to good causes and argued, drunk with red wine, after the sauna. ‘One of us has to go: me or the embryo,’ Tytti said. The foetus was put in the clothes cupboard. It floated in its liquid behind the bridal sheets.


Anssi called his mother by her first name. ‘That’s a gypsy habit,’ his father said. Anssi stopped speaking to his father when he was eight years old. Anssi edited a punk magazine, Crap. He got to be a roadie. Anssi didn’t sleep at home after his 15th birthday. ‘Anssi and I are best friends,’ his mother said to her friends. Anssi wore cowboy boots and a black suit. He cried, when he was drunk, on the floor of his digs. The bookshelf swayed and the smoked herring swam. Father rang the answering machine while pissed. Anssi painted watercolours for magazines. ‘Amazing that such an ugly man can paint so beautifully,’ a middle-aged woman said in a restaurant. During a hangover, Anssi’s arse-hole felt sore. Anssi was scared he might have been screwed by a queer. He looked for sperm-stains on his underpants. Anssi had a skull ring and Tarot cards. ‘Got any things need fixing?’ his father asked, hung-over, in the stairway. Anssi didn’t go to his father’s funeral. He went to art school in Kemi. There he learnt how to paint shadows in colour.


Toivo rubbed ice into his face. The teacher praised his nice red cheeks. They lived in the north. Toivo studied the stars. His father made him get a job. Toivo went south. ‘I used to be a complete teetotaller,’ he said for many years in bars. Toivo travelled all round Finland chasing women. The police caught up with him in a train compartment in Oulu. The constable held him by the lapels. Toivo ran toward his woman on the spot. The woman left him. Toivo had a daughter in Hämeenlinna. ‘This is what’s closest to my heart,’ he said to the waitress, showing his wallet. Toivo was allowed to see his child twice a month. Toivo ran into a lamp-post in a snow-storm. A strange old lady brought him round. Toivo sang a hymn, ‘The Guardian Angel’, in thanks. ‘It really is beautiful when you sing from the heart,’ the old lady said. It was Independence Day.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment