The bully

Issue 1/1996 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Tulen jano (‘Thirst for fire’, Gummerus, 1995); power relations between doctor and patient in a situation where the past will not leave either alone

Nurmikallio, an apparently ordinary middle-aged man, came back again and again, and it seemed as if there would be no end to his story.

I listened to him patiently at first. Repeatedly he returned to the same subject. The form and emphases of the story changed, new memories emerged, but the gist was the same: he had failed in his life and believed that the root cause of his failure was a particular person, a childhood class-mate, a bully.

On the basis of his first visit I wrote a short character-sketch:

Intellectually average. Talkative, but by his own account solitary. Difficulties in human relationships, separated, no children. Electrician by profession, says he likes his work. Biggest problem obsessive attachment to childhood traumas.

And that’s all, I thought. But he was not to be so easily dismissed.

‘You’re not listening,’ he said once as he was talking.

‘Of course I’m listening. All the time.’

‘When I described him just then, I noticed you weren’t listening. Tell me what colour hair he had.’

‘That’s hardly of central importance here,’ I said, evasively.

‘Everything’s important. How can you get a picture of what happened to me if you don’t listen?’

‘I’m listening. At the same time I’m trying to put together a picture of you. Of your situation. The colour of someone’s hair is a minor point in that context.’

‘No it isn’t. He’s the cause of everything.’

‘That I make so bold as to doubt. But go on.’

He snorted indignantly, and continued.

‘Well, his hair was red. And when I say red, I mean red. Look at my hair, what an ordinary colour it is, and was then, too. But it was me who got bullied, not him, the redhead. He bullied me.’

‘It’s not a question of hair colour,’ I commented.

‘No, it isn’t, you know that. I was ordinary in every way, I wasn’t even shy. I wasn’t brilliant in class, but I wasn’t stupid either: l was a more or less average student. My clothes were like the others’. But he chose me as his victim. I didn’t stand out from the crowd, but he noticed me. That’s the one, he decided, that’s the one I’ll break. What makes someone, and a child at that, decide a thing like that? What makes him attack another child, again and again?’

‘How did he attack you?’ I asked.

‘At first just through his expressions; he could pull whatever face he wanted. When I had to get up in front of the class to say or read something, and got nervous, ruined everything. In Finnish lessons everyone had to make a presentation about a writer, and I chose Jack London, whose books I had read. I wrote a good speech about him. But when it was my turn to perform in front of the class, he pulled faces again.’

‘Why did you look at him?’ I asked.

‘I suppose I had to,’ Nurmikallio said somberly. ‘It’s all very well for you to ask I had to because I knew he was pulling faces. He rolled his eyes up inside his head, that was something he could do. I think it’s a talent only abnormal people have. He waggled his ears, he could do that too. There was a lot in him that was predatory, the nature of a wild beast, don’t you think?’

‘I can’t say.’

‘Well, you ought to be able to,’ he said, and glanced at me quickly. ‘Not so much for the sake of your profession; more for your own sake.’

‘It’s difficult to know what you mean. But go on,’ I said, looking at his electrician’s fingers: slight and slender, but I supposed they must know their job. He tried to keep them still, lying on his knees, but they shook, flew into the air, fell. They could have told me a lot about him, but he pointed out again that I wasn’t listening.

‘Of course I’m listening. So what happened – did he become violent, or was the teasing just a matter of pulling faces?’

‘Certainly not! Soon afterwards he began to wrinkle his nose whenever I went past or came close to him. I tried to avoid such situations, to give him a wide birth, but he would deliberately put himself in my way, sniff, turn up his nose, and ask loudly who was making the bad smell. “Take cover, the ammonia factory just blew up!” he would shout, nodding toward me. But I didn’t smell any different from the others in the class. I certainly wasn’t a bed-wetter. I was an ordinary boy, do you understand? Do you know how I felt?’

‘I’ m trying to understand. But why do you remember all that? I’m not the kind of doctor who gets people to dig around in the past when there’s no need. In your case it would be better to look forward. And think of the present, and how you can make it as good as possible.’

‘The present? Forward?’ he said, uncertainly.

‘Yes. Tell me about what’s in your life now. You’re separated; do you miss your wife?’

That is what I said, trying to wrench him away from his childhood and into the present day, where change was still possible. That is what I believed then. But the present moment changes, with increasing speed, into the past, which cannot be changed, and now I understand that childhood can, equally, be the present. If it is possible to change the present, it is also possible to change one’s childhood. I should have let him talk about it. Instead, I asked about his wife.

‘It was I who left her. So why should I miss her?’

‘Why did you leave her?’

‘It was a long time ago. I just moved out. She wanted more space. I moved out, and she got more space,’ Nurmikallio explained casually. So perhaps his relationship with the bully of his childhood really was more real than his relationship with his former wife.

‘The boy I was telling you about was a building engineer’s son,’ Nurmikallio said.

‘Really,’ I said indifferently. ‘Is that important?’

‘Yes indeed. To you, too.’

‘My father was an estate agent,’ I said quickly.

He gazed at me, and I became irritated.

‘An estate agent,’ he said, slowly. ‘Why not. I didn’t even ask you.’

I swallowed.

‘Shall we get back to the point.’

‘This is all to the point. Even the smallest detail is important. He – the building engineer’s redhead son – attacked me in every way. He hid my shoes, tied the sleeves of my coat together so tightly that I had to get on the school bus with my sleeves knotted. Drew a rude picture on the lid of my desk, so that I got into trouble. After school I stayed behind to clean the desk and missed the bus; I walked the six kilometres home. Those are just a few examples. Do you want any more?’

‘At your service,’ I said, coolly. He is a client, I said to myself; I’ve got the upper hand here, not him.

‘At my service, indeed,’ he said, and smiled. It was the first time I had seen him smile, and I felt a cold quiver inside myself. This patient must be got rid of, I decided. And in good time, before he becomes too difficult.

‘Well then, I’ll go on. Before long he began to attack me physically. The first time it happened was in the school playground. He tripped me up in a snow-drift, pushed me down, I began to suffocate. He pressed down and all I could see was black, I couldn’t breathe. Then I knew that he would kill me some day,’ Nurmikallio said, trying to meet my eyes; but I was looking out of the window, at the birch branches already reddening with the spring. Spring would come again, full of life, uncaring of what happened inside a person. Nurmikallio’s voice flowed through my ears, heated but even, and for a short while I did not hear what he said.

‘Don’t you think?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘You’re right.’

‘Do you see what I see out there? Do you see a boy being kicked?’

‘All I can see is birch branches. You have to go right up to the window to see down to the park,’ I explained matter-of-factly; the session would end soon.

‘So you don’t see it. His nose is bleeding, he’s trying to get up, but he’s being kicked again. The bully has an accomplice, from the same class, always ready to serve when necessary. You don’t dare look out; I’m telling you what you would see. It isn’t a pretty sight, or a pretty memory, is it? Now they’re leaving, and the victim is gradually sitting up, pressing his face with his mitten, the blood colours his mitten and the snow. The boy goes away crying and pressing his face with his mitten, but the patch of snow goes on glimmering as the dark gathers, it glimmers all evening and all night, don’t you dare look?’

‘Time’s up, I think,’ I aid. ‘I’ll write you a prescription to calm you down.’

‘I don’t need it. But I’d like to make another appointment.’

‘Another one? I fretted mentally.

‘If you think it would be useful,’ I said. ‘Forgive me, but I think it might be best to finish.’

‘Are you afraid of me?’ he asked quickly.

‘No, not at all,’ I gave a laugh. ‘Let’s reserve a time for you, that’s no problem, this is my job, after all. To listen, yes. And of course I’ll listen.’

I hoped he would not come, that he would forget, that something would happen to him. Or that he himself would realise his visits were unnecessary. As his session approached, I glanced at the clock from time to time, I couldn’t concentrate on anything; time passed in a series of jolts, I felt nervous.

I took a tranquilliser. Nurmikallio must not notice there was anything wrong. I had to show that all this meant nothing to me.

All this? All what?

I turned fretfully in my chair and looked at the clock again.

In just a minute. But perhaps he won’t come. Yes, now the lift’s moving.

I put a bland expression on my face and checked it in the mirror. Nurmikallio came, and during the hour that followed he moved ever deeper into his subject.

The red-headed boy had tried to kill him. When he had not succeeded in destroying his spirit by hitting and kicking him, he had tried to hang him. The same boy had acted as his accomplice again, quiet, everyone’s servant.

‘I wouldn’t have wished him any harm, I suppose he had to, he was at a disadvantage compared to the stronger boys. But he died in his thirties, hanged himself; I’ve often wondered why. Did to himself what he tried to do to someone else. Maybe the memory stayed with him, refused to leave him in peace, although he was only an insignificant accomplice. But I survived, as you see. We were pulled apart by grown-ups. And the redhead explained that it was all just a game, and they believed him, believed that I had agreed to it, wanted to try it, and that we were all supposed to try it in turn. They believed him because it was impossible to think so badly of children, because it was impossible for children to hang one another, they thought. But the redhead certainly knows what the intention was, and the accomplice knew too, that was why, later, he did what he did. Although he was at least half innocent, he took the blame.’

‘What do you mean, he took the blame?’ I interrupted impatiently.

‘You know what I mean.’

‘Are you sure the intention was to kill you?’

‘It was obvious from the first moment. It was obvious from the moment when he first attacked me. I could see it in his eyes, hear it in his breathing. He knew, and I knew. Why do you doubt it?’

I got up and went to look out of the window. It was raining sleet, the birches no longer looked spring-like. A grey, bearded man was walking a grey, bearded dog along the street. What breed, I wondered, a schnauzer perhaps? My heart was beating impatiently, my bland expression was threatening to collapse. Nurmikallio was still speaking, and although he went on speaking continuously to the end of the session, he still did not reach the end of his story. ‘I still haven’t finished,’ he said; ‘it won’t all fall into place until next time.’

My hands were almost trembling as, once more, I wrote out a new appointment time for him.

It was the longest and most difficult wait of my life. I had prepared myself for his arrival, medicated myself suitably, believed I could see it through. I talked sense to myself: this is a perfectly normal doctor-patient relationship. The patient is not normal, but why should he be? The patient is a patient, I said, and thought I was completely calm, but at that moment my hands began to tremble, and a cold sweat broke out on my back. The sides of my face felt stiff, I tried to speak aloud and listened to my voice: it was strange, dead, as though something in me had given up hope a long time ago, perhaps then; how much does Nurmikallio know about me? How much has he found out?

I was taking my third tablet when Nurmikallio rang.

‘I’m cancelling the session,’ he said. ‘I have to, at this moment I can’t remember anything, and no it’s use my coming if I don’t remember what I’m supposed to be talking about. There was something, but I’ve forgotten it. I’ll come when I remember, I’ll make a new appointment.’

He rang off. Once again my hands were shaking, but with relief. I was safe. From what, I didn’t want to think. I went to the window and looked out: the snow in the streets and the park had almost melted, there was no more blood to be seen. But I remembered how it had glimmered, all evening and all night. All evening and all night.

What would he have told me if he had come? Everything, even the thing that is too terrible to remember, the thing that burned a hole in his memory. The whole thing. But spring comes nevertheless, the blackbird sings, time lightens, memory absolves. The black hole heals over as the park trees come into leaf, people remember new things, better ones, about other people and about themselves.

I left the window and stood in front of the hallway mirror. My face had calmed, my face was moving normally. My bald patch shone; only in the hair on my neck was a little red still visible. I began to waggle my ears slowly, tentatively: I could still do it. But I couldn’t roll my eyes up into my head.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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