When sleeping dogs wake

Issue 4/1994 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts rom the novel Tuomari Müller, hieno mies (‘Judge Müller, a fine man’, WSOY, 1994). Introduction by Soila Lehtonen

In due course the door to the flat was opened, and a stoutish, quiet-looking woman admitted the three men, showed them where to hang their coats, indicated an open door straight ahead of them, and herself disappeared through another door.

After briefly elbowing each other in front of the mirror, the visitors took a deep breath and entered the room. The gardener was the last to go in. The home help, or whatever she was, brought in a pot of coffee and placed it on a tray, on which cups had already been set out, within reach of her mistress. The widow herself remained seated. They shook hands with her in tum. The mayor was greeted with a smile, but the bank manager and the gardener were not expected, and their presence came as a shock. She pulled herself together and invited the gentlemen to seat themselves, side by side, facing her across the table. They heard the front door slam shut: presumably the home help had gone out.

The widow was in her sixties, certainly not more, and quite unremarkable in appearance. The flat looked very ordinary, too. The style of the furniture was that of about twenty years ago, except for a heavy desk that was older, and a glass-fronted cabinet for silver; even these, however, could hardly be classed as antiques. There was no sign of the affluence that at least two of her visitors had been imagining. There were not even any ornaments or photographs. On the desk, which was littered with papers, there were some files and a thick book.

Smiles were bestowed, words came too, fumbling, inconsequential. They had a strategy of sorts, but it seemed hard to begin to put it into practice. The widow, too, seemed to be pondering: a flush rose to her cheeks, faded, and retreated to her neck, where vertical wrinkles twitched beneath the powder. She seemed to be banishing something from her thoughts and seeking for something else. At last she found her smile again, and, addressing the gardener, launched into a stream of eager chatter. She went on and on about one of her pot-plants: she had been longing, she said, to get some expert advice on how to look after it, and now here was the very man. The gardener laid one hand on the tablecloth and looked down at it. When the widow had finished, he said briefly that plants were dormant at this time of year and did not need to be looked after. The widow gulped, began to blush again, and fell silent. One by one, the visitors lifted their briefcases from the floor into their laps, and then put them down again.

The mayor looked at the bank manager. Difficult meetings, he knew, had a way of running into one submerged rock after another, and here it was, happening again. The ship was well and truly aground. But nearly always, sooner or later, one had found one’s way into clearer waters, provided one had formed a clear idea of one’s objective and knew in advance exactly what was going to be said. As the mayor liked to put it in his jocular way, it all had to be plotted beforehand, down in the basement, by the light of a storm lantern. So which of them, today, should start the ball rolling?

Mrs Müller, remaining seated, poured out the coffee, tut-tutting over a pretended mistake in the order of precedence. She even laughed, putting on an act which so disconcerted the mayor that a lump of sugar slipped from his fingers on to the floor.

‘Oh, never mind, leave it there, let it be!’

She had been flustered when the men arrived, the composition of the delegation coming as a complete surprise. They had dragged the gardener along with them, and then that- that man who ought never to have been born. Had they any understanding whatever? Had they no sense of propriety? No, because they were mere louts.

Mrs Müller fingered the platinum oak-leaf on her ear. Her strength was returning.

Giving the visitors no time to collect their thoughts, knowing that she was winning the battle without even allowing it to begin, she drew the gentlemen’s attention to a picture behind them, a small work dating from the turn of the century. It was one her late husband happened to have bought. It depicted an old grey-stone church, which, she was sure, the gentlemen would recognise. For some reason the artist had painted in front of it a small cabbage-patch, at the edge of which were two brown hens. She herself often looked at it, she told them; not so much for pleasure, she added, the platinum oak-leaves swinging to and fro, as to refresh her memory.

‘A cabbage-patch –.’ The mayor, cursing his own stupidity, wished the words unsaid.

‘It’s amusing, too. Just think. Those hens have been there, in just that same position, for close on a hundred years. Busily hunting for seeds or worms to eat. They haven’t found any yet. Do you think they ever will? I venture to doubt it.’

She still did not look at her visitors’ faces, glanced only at their hands, as each fumbled for another of her simple sandwiches.

‘Dear Mrs Müller –.’ The mayor tried to catch her eye, but succeeded only in obtaining a fleeting glance, into which he could read nothing at all. He began to cram a sandwich into his mouth with his fingers, as there seemed to be no forks. Forks! Why was he wasting his time thinking about forks? There were certainly some in the cabinet, presumably they had simply forgotten to put any out. He hated being in this situation, having to negotiate with this sly, obstinate woman. And how he had waited for this meeting! He gave the bank manager a nudge. A moment or two later, the bank manager wiped his mouth on his napkin, and began:

‘Well, our little business proposal… It’s one from which everybody will benefit: the town, the townspeople, the whole country, and, by no means least of all, you yourself, Mrs Müller.’

She let him talk on. His voice was pleasant, as it had been in that faraway, ghastly past. The passage of the years had dealt gently with him, outwardly at least. He had become a bit of a dandy, perhaps rather too much so. He was wearing a black suede suit, a black silk shirt and a narrow silver-coloured tie. Mrs Müller kept her gaze firmly fixed on the shoulder-seam, no higher. She glanced at the gardener. He did not seem to be enjoying the situation either. He, at least, would be harmless, this time anyway.

‘We have the necessary documents with us. May I, perhaps, produce them now? We can just run through them together –’.

‘Oh, you have got as far as that, have you? Ah, well, there’s no tearing hurry, is there? We might as well finish our coffee.’

And Mrs Müller, having again seized control of the situation, began a monologue.

‘When I was still living over there in your part of the world… the man who was mayor at that time saw fit to call on me, without giving prior notice. I was standing in what-you-may-call our living-room-cum-kitchen, doing something or other, when he bursts in, hardly pausing even to say good morning, strides across the floor and comes out with “How much are you asking for the house?” I was a little surprised, to say the least. Not by the matter but the manner. I threw him out. As far as I can remember, it was scarcely two months since my husband’s death. Later I did sell everything, as you very well know. Or at least as these other two gentlemen very well know. Actually, even before my husband died we had already been thinking of selling the house. It had been bought from strangers, then left to us: it was never a real home, to me anyway. My husband was beginning to get tired of it, and not just because of his illness. We had decided, let’s face it, to shake the dust of the whole place from our feet. And dust and ashes and rubbish there certainly was in that town, and plenty of it. Dirt. I mean moral dirt, of course. It is any cleaner now? In any case I let everything go, in that sale, sold the whole lot. I would have sold the heathland as well, but nobody wanted it. Well, then, I thought, it can just go on being there, as a reminder of all those bitter experiences. It still serves that purpose very well.’

She glanced at the gardener. His eyes were tightly closed, his whole face expressionless.

‘Ah, but now the town is more than willing to purchase it. Or, if that’s quite out of the question, to rent it.’ The mayor, having got a word in, spoke rapidly. ‘You will be paid a good price. Not, of course, that we don’t appreciate all the associations the place must have for you. I assure you, we have improved since those days. Measures have been taken to restore, to protect –.’

‘Have you really the faintest idea what you are talking about? Do you happen to remember, or have you been to look inside the vestry of the church in that picture up there, to see whether there is an ants’ nest in that corner? I seem to remember an ants’ nest that once caused a great deal of trouble. I may be exaggerating, but I venture to say that a certain wretched ants’ nest has had a lot to do with the coolness I feel towards my former home-town. It’s only natural, you know. People are like that. When the former vicar said that the destruction of an ants’ nest had cost too much, and the church council held my husband responsible, as church manager, for extravagance and goodness knows what –. Ugh, all the tricks and plots of a non-existent clique of small­ town bigwigs. Why, the town was much too small for even a single clique to be able to plot anything. Have the banks been doing better since then? I won’t ask how the church is doing, it has lots of money, hasn’t it, Mr – er – Saarinen, is it?’

For the first time she looked the bank manager straight in the face: then, with narrowed eyes and a little laugh:

‘Oh, no, of course, how silly of me! It’s Marjanen, yes, of course, how could I have forgotten?’

The mayor was beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable. The bank manager had clearly been the wrong person to choose for this mission. The gardener said nothing.

‘Well, all right then, Mrs Müller,’ the mayor began anxiously, ‘let’s just talk about renting it, shall we? Forget all about buying and selling.’

‘You managed to buy Siikanen’s bit of land, though, didn’t you? Oh, yes, I know, it’s only a thousand square metres. What do you propose to do with it – that is, if I won’t agree even to a lease?’

‘We’ll do everything we can to see that the terms are satisfactory.’

‘It all depends on the length of the lease. I’m entering into no long-term agreements, I haven’t got all that much longer to live. If I start something, I want to see it through to the end. And I don’t want the land used for unprofitable projects. Your swimming bath and ice rink – how much income are they generating in the form of taxes? I don’t approve of short-sightedness. Let it remain as heathland: at least people will be able to walk about on it.’

‘We are very sorry if, at some time in the distant past, you and your late husband have had reason to complain of your treatment by the town. But the fault is not ours. We are honestly trying as hard as we can, with such powers as we have, to do what is best for our town.’

‘The past you speak of is not so very distant. Some of the people concerned are still around. Do forgive me if I am causing offence to anyone now present. It’s just that I’ve had time, on my own, to think about a number of things: the proper use of money, for instance, though it’s not a subject that affects me personally. During my marriage, however, I did learn a little about it, one way or another. Finnish bank managers seldom have any conception of it, having come from God knows where. Most of them grew up on a farm in a little world of milk accounts. They have passed a few examinations, risen to a salary above the milk account level, and lost their sense of proportion. When people like that rise, or raise themselves, to the position of bank managers, no good can come of it.

‘As I said, I do apologise for talking so much, but one really can’t treat money as one treats a cow. Money doesn’t flow like milk. Money has to be got used to. Otherwise, you may have a lot to begin with, but you’ll end up with nothing. There’s no particular merit in having come from a log-cabin in the backwoods. It’s all very well to begin with a milk account, but it takes a couple of generations to achieve a sense of proportion. To run a town, a certain amount of common sense is required, don’t you agree? Whatever you say about that last chap, at least he was lazy. Honestly lazy, I mean. Every now and again he would pop up for a bit, and then go to sleep again. Laziness doesn’t do nearly so much harm as constantly fussing around and doing things. That’s my experience of the world, anyway.’

‘Admittedly’ – the mayor’s voice was already beginning to sound a little weary – ‘the swimming bath and the ice rink have not produced any tax income. And tax income is something the town sorely needs. And now there is this splendid opportunity to locate in our neighbourhood a great, state-run, industrial establishment, which would give employment –.’

‘I wish you every success. Just add one word to all your talk of splendid opportunities and prospects for the future, and you will be closer to the truth. Two words, to be precise: personal gain. That is what the milk account bosses are really after. That would be telling the honest truth.’

The two gentlemen thus obliquely referred to showed signs of being offended, and also of having lost their power of speech. They stared down into their empty coffee cups. Mr Tulus, the gardener, got up quietly and went to look at the air roots of the swiss-cheese plant. Just as if no one else were present, and Mrs Müller a mere acquaintance, he commented on how well the plant seemed to be doing despite the central heating. He looked out of the window, over the roofs and chimneys, and nodded. The other two surveyed each other as if to check whether any wounds or scratches were visible. Simultaneously they both shrugged their shoulders, startling themselves by the gesture. They had suddenly become cowards, with no will of their own.

‘You can leave the papers here. I’ll think about it. Was there anything else, or –? You can find your own way out, I’m sure. If necessary we can come back to the matter; there is a postal service, after all.’

‘We had been hoping, I must say, that today’s discussion could lead to some sort of concrete solution. The Ministry is expecting the town to come up with a clear answer, yes or no. Time is getting rather expensive.’

‘You may well be right about that.’

The widow stood up: quite a small woman, but now she was looking down at them, and waiting. As far as she was concerned, the meeting was over. The mayor and the bank manager sat on, consulting each other wordlessly. Mrs Müller went over to the window, where the gardener was standing. ‘Faces west.’ ‘Yes, it does.’ ‘Nice open view.’

‘Yes, isn’t it?’ The conversation petered out. They did not tum round until the rustle of papers at the table had ceased and the briefcases snapped shut.

‘By the way, there’s a young relative of mine working with you – Mrs Sirpa Kahila, she’s the daughter of my brother-in-law, my late husband’s brother, that is. How is she getting on?’

‘Mrs Kahila is one of the mainstays of our work at the Town Offices,’ said the mayor. ‘She has just been appointed Chief Information Officer.’

‘Really?’ The widow seemed genuinely astonished. ‘What information does she have to give? Why do you need to have such an officer?’

‘Almost every town has one.’

‘Every town that can afford one. You must be doing rather well. You can hardly need my little bit of land, surely? Excuse me for jumping from one subject to another. Yes, I had a daughter myself once, she died of meningitis when she was ten. That’s how it all began – and how it all ended.’

They were all standing now. The men glanced vaguely round the room as if looking for something, a photograph even, but no, there was nothing. Only that cabbage patch. Perhaps only the gardener understood that people who keep souvenirs about them, for everyone to see, are still living in hope. Mrs Müller had nothing to hope for, but that did not stop her from exercising her will. The gardener had known for some time that the widow had no choice but to conduct her case in the way she had done.

‘Do you live here all by yourself, Mrs Müller?’

At last the widow had to look directly at the mayor. She managed a gesture of outstretched arms, and a little laugh.

‘It’s kind of you to ask, but there’s no need for you to worry. I have half a million people around me, and they aren’t wolves. I wish you a pleasant journey. I’ll think about the question of the lease, and get in touch with you if necessary.’

‘We have tried to assure you –.’ The mayor gave up: he had lost his grip entirely. Even putting his coat on was an effort, and his briefcase weighed as heavy as a sack of cement.

‘Yes, I realise it’s urgent. I’ll keep that in mind.’

On the way back they all felt exhausted. The gardener was sitting in front, next to the driver. His presence had had no useful effect whatever, just as he had foretold.

‘She made complete fools of us.’ The mayor’s voice was as bleak as that of a boy scout who has failed, after many attempts, to tie a knot properly.

‘Worse than that! What are we going to tell the contractors? What do we tell the press? And she knew all about that Siikanen deal. So she must have contacts.’

The gardener kept his eyes fixed on the Mercedes symbol on the front of the car, and the road ahead. In the backseat the argument continued; he could not be bothered to listen. He wanted merely to be left in peace. That was the kind of man he had become, had indeed chosen to be, though admittedly it had sometimes proved a mistake. On one occasion, at least. But over the years he had succeeded in wiping out all memory of the fact that he had once been in a position to put things straight, and perhaps ought to have done so. But he had not: why? Bashfulness, perhaps? No, he had simply been amazed and disgusted. If he had stood up then and taken charge, he would not have had to endure today’s anguish, and a lot of things would have turned out differently. Perhaps, too, he might have come to experience real peace, if such a blessing can ever be granted to anybody. He doubted it. He began to wonder, idly, how his bay-trees were doing. The leaves would soon be needed again, for the Independence Day celebrations. They’d be wanting other things too, perhaps cyclamens this time. As the car slowed down at a crossroads, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

‘Whatever was it that happened to that woman, all that time ago? Why does she have confounded grudge against the town?’

The question came so suddenly that he nearly jumped out of his skin. But they were to his silence and slowness to reply, so he had time to think. Speaking in his usual flat, level tone, he said that as far as he knew nothing whatever had been done to her. She was just an old woman making a fuss so as to kill time, having nothing else to do. He did not need to continue; the men in the back seats were already cursing volubly and asking each other why on earth they had let themselves listen to some idiotic story about an ants’ nest, and taken it seriously. When all they had needed to do was – well, what? Anyway, there was no need for them to humour anyone’s delusions. That bit of heathland had to be made available one way or another: if not by fair means, then –.

‘The woman’s got to die some time.’ It was the bank manager’s voice, soft and well­modulated as always.

‘And then what?’ The mayor could be heard shifting in his seat. ‘I bet she’s drafted will so cunningly that there won’t be a crack you can force open, even with a crowbar.’

‘Oh yes, there will. Mrs Kahila’s going to inherit.’

‘Really? Can that be true?’

‘That’s what Mrs Kahila has been given to understand. They are related, and quite close, I believe. Mrs M. had a sister and a brother, but all contact was broken off. So Sirpa gets the lot. That’s absolutely certain, cut and dried, no question about it.’

Before long the mayor’s habitual laugh was ringing out as merrily as ever. The car was speeding homeward, it was a pleasant ride. The problems had not been solved, there was still a dark cloud in the sky, but the proverbial silver lining must be there, somewhere.

‘Well, you know best, of course. And remember to look after Mrs Kahila, won’t you!’ The bank manager said nothing, may just have nodded. What seemed to have annoyed him most about this fruitless visit was the widow’s remark about bank managers and their inability to understand money. In his home, at least, they had not had to depend on the milk money. The mayor agreed that it had been a beastly thing to say, swivelled round in his seat and went on laughing, until a new thought cut him short in mid-guffaw.

‘All the same, the old girl doesn’t seem too keen on our Sirpa, or so it sounded to me: there was a sort of coolness in the way she spoke of her. What could she have against our little Sirpa, the heiress-to-be, hm?’ Once again the gardener was tapped on the shoulder. ‘Perhaps you can tell us.’

But the gardener said he knew nothing about it, and had not noticed anything special about the widow’s tone of voice. Remarkable how little the fellow seemed to know about anything – except that he probably knew all along. He had been quite useless, in fact, as indeed he had warned them that he would be. Oh well, if the old girl did bear Sirpa a grudge, it was probably merely because she was young and pretty. What other reason would an old woman need?

As they reached the outskirts of the town, they began to straighten out their coats. After a tiring journey they certainly longed to be back in their offices, where things would become intelligible again: everything neatly set out in charts and tables and information leaflets, everything arrangeable. Money, too, could be envisaged as either’ existing or due to exist: it could not just disappear. The contractors, no doubt, could be pacified once more; they would have to wait.

The gardener got out at the church, walked across the grass, and bent down to inspect a clump of heather at the foot of someone’s memorial bust; soon his boots were coated with mud, as usual. The mayor, thinking of him, said: ‘Ah well, the man will be retiring in a few years’ time. And nobody will notice.’

At the end of the working day the bank was quiet. At the Town Offices, the red light over the mayor’s door indicated ‘Engaged’. Mrs Kahila walked the length of the corridor a couple of times, and then back to her room, where she remained.

In the Helsinki flat, Mrs Müller quickly cleared the coffee table and opened the sitting­room window. She went into her bedroom, kicked off her shoes, and lay on the bed. She was tired and irritated, and wanted to cry. The black dog of suspicion had been breathing into her ear for some time; she commanded it to go away. She turned over and lay face downwards, pressing her face into the pillow. She cared nothing for the mayor and not much for the gardener either, although –. But she would never have believed that Svante Marjanen, of all people, would be brought to see her, brought to these very rooms. She had had a shrewd thrust or two at him, and she congratulated herself on that: but could she keep it up? Ah well, she would have to get up: lying down only made things worse.

The photographs were on top of the chest of drawers. There was Gösta, in the state to which he had been reduced: tired and drained, but, when the picture was taken, still able to hold his head up.

She got into her shoes, pulled on a woollen cardigan, fetched the store-room key from the kitchen, and went upstairs to the attic. From under a pile of junk she pulled out a very dusty cardboard box; this she took downstairs, leaving it in the vestibule of her flat for the time being. She would look at its contents later on, in the evening. Many times before, she had intended to do it, but had always put it off. Today she must do what had to be done, if she was to have the strength, yes, to go on living.

One more thing needed to be done. Something she had been thinking ever since she heard that the Siikanens had had to move out. Today she would deal with this, because she felt, her late husband’s wishes made it essential, and she herself had no other wish.

She went to wash her hands, brushed the dust off her clothes, ordered a taxi, and went out.

Translated by David Barrett

English translation:
The Maiden Walks Upon the Water (‘Neito kulkee vetten päällä’, 1955; Helsinki, WSOY, 1991), translated by Therese Allen Nelson

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