A day in the life

Issue 3/1996 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Drakarna över Helsingfors (‘Kites over Helsingfors’, Söderströms, 1996). Introduction by Jyrki Kiiskinen

It is December 1970, it is Friday afternoon and Helsingfors is shrouded in a damp, leaden-grey fog when Jacke Pettersson, trainee electrician at Mid-Nyland Vocational College, signs a receipt for his driving licence at Vallgård Police Station.

At home in the flat in Svenska Gården in Munkshöjden: the very next evening Jacke sneaks his hand down into his father’s, typesetter K-G. Pettersson’s, overcoat pocket. It is getting on for 9 o’clock and KG is sitting deeply submerged in his favourite armchair, staring concentratedly at the premiere of a new show.

Six out of forty
make it every week

sings a bright girl’s voice.

Then: the Official Supervisors and their solemn ‘Good evening’. And then: the blonde girl in her mini-dress and high boots, the glass holder with its plastic balls, the plastic balls with numbers on.

Six out of forty, and BANG: you’re rich.

Sometimes we are witness to the birth of long and successful traditions, traditions that will affect us, accompany us and form us. But we don’t understand what we are seeing.

KG Pettersson doesn’t understand it. Jacke, who is standing there nervously fingering the bunch of keys in his trouser pocket, doesn’t understand it either.

‘What are you looking at on the box?’ he asks uninterestedly as he passes through the room.

‘It’s a new game they’ve invented.’

Jacke has already opened the front door, murmurs: I’m going down to the shopping centre for a bit.’

‘What?’

‘I said I’m going down to the shopping centre.’

‘What are you going there at this time of night for, Jacke,’ KG mutters, but without conviction: for a long time now the boy has come and gone as he pleases.

‘Just having a coffee with Benno and Dani at the bar,’ says Jacke, stuffing the bunch of keys back in his pocket.

There are four of them that evening just as on so many other evenings: Jacke, Kim Malm, dopehead Benno Ceder and Daniel Bexar. Daniel is the junior member of the team; he is not yet sixteen.

The shopping centre bar is a dimly lit locale with white brick walls; tubular steel chairs with convexly rounded red plastic seats and KOFF aluminium ashtrays on the simple hardboard tables. The bar closes at nine. Then Jacke, Kimpo, Benno and Dani walk the few hundred metres from the shopping centre to Svenska Gården. In the clump of woodland between Svenska Gården and the houses facing Tali, Benno scrapes about in a pile of mouldy leaves, then digs up a plastic bag full to the brim with brown bottles of weak, ready-mixed gin and bitter lemon.

Jacke raises his eyebrows.

‘Why the hell did you go to Alko? Did I ask you to buy gins?’

Benno Ceder shrugs his shoulders. ‘There wasn’t any beer. So I thought… we had to have something. I got some hash, too.’

‘Plenty?’

‘Nah. But enough for a couple of joints.’

Then they stand and wait. The Petterssons’ living room looks on to Björneborgsvägen street, and soon after midnight they see the light go off. They see KG’s powerful silhouette go out into the passage that leads to the two bedrooms, his own and Jacke’s. They wait for another quarter of an hour. Then they start the cream-coloured, slightly rusty Saab 96 as quietly and carefully as they can.

They drive a long circle in the impenetrable fog. They drive down to Hoplaksvägen street and then turn at Tarvo, then drive all the way to Södrik and Esbo Church. There they go on to the half-completed ring road, drive north-east, eventually reach Nurmi­ järvivägen street, tum back towards the city again, pass through Böle and Kottby and Vik all the way to Kvarnbäcken and Botbyhöjden. From there they take the Eastway in towards the centre, passing Berghäll and Bortre Tölö, make a turning via Brunakärr and Haga and are back in Munkshöjden again.

And the city night is ghostlike and deserted and strange and their companionship is sharp at the edges but good. Tonight they don’t notice what all four of them have felt during the last months’ endless hash-smoking and playing of slot machines at the Bar; that they are already going in different directions, that Jacke and Kimpo are still hot­ rodders and working-class mods with leather jackets and boots and rough, rugged remarks while both Benno Ceder and Dani Bexar have started to wear soft shirts in natural colours with psychedelic patterns and have let their hair grow to the point where their locks frame their faces in an almost girlish manner. No: tonight they forget all such differences, tonight they are the Knights of the Ring Roads and Motorways, tonight belongs to the cream-coloured Saab and to themselves.

 

Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall: it is January 1971, it is the night between Friday and Saturday, the sky is overcast and Helsingfors lies wrapped in a velvet-black blanket of darkness as Jacke Pettersson violently applies the hand-brake and with squealing tyres the cream-coloured Saab skids from Hoplaksvägen street on to the motorway.

 

Then Jacke releases the hand-brake. He does so at exactly the right moment (he has, so to speak, borrowed the car each and every other evening this winter and is already quite skilled): the rear part of the car goes on skidding for another few seconds but then the carriage reacquires its heavy forward impetus and as soon as Jacke feels that the car is holding the road again he leans back slightly, and shouts ‘Yee-hooo!’ as he presses the accelerator to the floor. Yes: it is one of those nights again, a Knights of the Ring Roads night, and the knights are the same: Jacke, Kimpo, Benno and Dani. And the last thing both Benno Ceder and Dani Bexar remember is that they are sitting there in the back seat and that Benno has the brown Philips tape recorder in his lap and that he is winding the cassette back as they have just played Jefferson Airplane and they both want to hear ‘White Rabbit’ again. And little by little they both start to think a lot about Chance and Fate and things like that, because the wonderful thing is that there really is a White Rabbit, it is when they have passed Domarby riding stables and have come up the hill and the lights from the Bemböle flyover are already visible; it is just before the hill begins, the long slope is already opening and the kilometre-long row of street­ lamps is unwinding before them like a necklace of cold and naked light; space light, lonely light, boys in the night, boys with hash and beer and music that is two and a half metres tall; ‘Far out’, murmurs Benno Ceder, ‘I’ve got a goddam high’ says Dani with his finger inert on the rewind button as he has smoked more than he usually does this evening and it is just then that it happens; it tries to cross the road, it pops up only some twenty metres in front of them and Jacke Pettersson is not really particularly fuddled, 0.1 per cent above the legal minimum the pathologist will write in his report a few hours later; Jacke reacts instinctively, makes a swerve at the same time pressing the brake pedal and the car skids round but that doesn’t help the hare unfortunately; a hollow thud is heard over to the left but by then the tyres have already lost their grip and the car veers off to the right, into the ditch and the Saab makes one somersault and then another and that is perhaps what saves both Benno and Dani, because Benno is thrown out through the windscreen at the same time as the speed is successively reduced with the result that the impact when the car with the three other boys in it crashes into the rock wall is not as hard as it might have been; and there is quiet after that, complete dead quiet, just a smashed-up cream Saab and the smoke that is still rising from the wreckage and Benno Ceder’s whimpering as he lies in the snow and is conscious all the time; Dani Bexar on the other hand is unconscious when he is welded free of the wreckage; both Jacke Pettersson and Kimpo Malm are already dead when the police and fire brigade arrive at the scene: according to the newspaper reports the accident has happened at 1.20 am at a speed of 120 kilometres per hour.

Benno Ceder and Dani Bexar stay in hospital for the rest of the winter. Benno recovers quickly, from a physical point of view. He has escaped with a broken arm, some broken ribs, a minor neck injury and a few cuts; one on his upper arm and two in his face. One of the facial cuts leaves a thin but in daylight quite visible scar, that is all. He remains in hospital for two more months. This is because the hospital psychologists are not sure that Benno’s mind is balanced; he behaves in an introverted and evasive manner, and the diagnosis is that the accident has left him with a trauma, how deep or not they do not say. On Dani the accident leaves other marks. The rest of his injuries heal up satisfactorily, but the surgeons are unable to do much about his damaged knee (which got stuck as firmly as in a vice and was the reason why he had to be cut free with a welding torch). His left knee is operated on several times, the third and last time is a whole year after the accident and then that operation too is unsuccessful – the knee remains difficult to bend and stiff – Dani learns that unfortunately it will be his lot to limp slightly for the rest of his life.

Benno Ceder is in a bad way that spring. His second sixth-form year – like Dani’s first one – has been destroyed. Bruno stays at home on Dragonvägen street, playing ‘White Rabbit’ over and over again, and brooding. Mostly he sulks, withdraws. Now and then he quarrels with his mother, Ellu, is obstinate with his brother Sammy and fights with his father, Kent-Erik, in the weeks when the latter is free from his job in Lovisa. When Benno is not in his room, he is with Larsko Casell, whose room in Holländarvägen street has this particular year become a refuge for lost teenagers. Larsko’s parents run a general store in the centre of town, near Femkanten. They either do not care or are extremely liberal or both, and: their son Lars is only thirteen and a half but has already established a small unlicensed bar in the basement of the Casell family’s home, a speakeasy where boys with heads full of myths can sit and drink Champion or smoke hash-bombs on broad daylight without being disturbed.

 

Dazed and confused: Benno is one of the boys with myth-concussed heads. His eyes look the part, hazy and sleepy.

Thoughtful, his father Kent-Erik and various teachers have long called that look.

But Benno really just wants to be on his own.

He wants to be alone with his legends, the legends he built on shifting sand: on lines plucked at random from songs that had been sung to him during recent years – and ONLY FOR HIM, that was how it felt! – from the high stools on TV’s Top of the Pops with those psychedelic curtains in the background, from fire-red AGFA cassettes with a dull and hissing playback, from sumptuous Live! Albums recorded in Fillmore Hall and Monterey and the Isle of Wight and other magic places.

Magic. For post-crash Benno, songs are the only reality, thousands and thousands of times more authentic and more redolent of life than anything that happens in Helsingfors.

Something is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Ceder? they ask him.

A working-class hero is something to be, they say with bile in their voices.

Pleased to meet you, hope you know my name, they call.

And so on: questions, statements, obscure messages. And more keep arriving all the time.

 

It is at the beginning of May that Benno gets his fixed idea: That he has to meet Him. It is in the days when things like that are still possible. They too are still hippies and disapprove on principle of bodyguards and condominiums and bungalows protected by paramilitary security firms.

So first Benno works for a month as a docker on Sörnäshamn, and then begins his odyssey: first he goes to Stockholm by boat, then takes the train to Helsingborg, takes the ferry to Copenhagen.

He spends a couple of weeks in the newly established Christiania, then travels on to Amsterdam where his ex-girlfriend, the famous flower-child Kitty Guwenius, lives on a riverboat together with her German boyfriend.

Kitty has taken her school matriculation exams that spring and has immediately thereafter run away from her father The Authoritarian Heir and Doctor of Jurispru­dence Jan Guwenius and from her mother the Society Goose Melita Guwenius.

On the Amsterdam riverboat there is black afghani, and plenty of it. So he stays a few blurred weeks extra.

Only after that – it is now the middle of July – does Benno Ceder get moving, travels to Ostend in Belgium and takes the ferry across the Channel. He gets off at Victoria, he does not let himself be intoxicated by London, he has two press-cuttings about Tittenhurst Manor with him, he does not hesitate: he goes straight to Ascot.

It has been a hot and smoky summer: Benno Ceder is actually quite tired.

He buys bread and cheese and wine in a nearby village, then walks the last bit of the way. He can already glimpse the handsome white manor house a mile away, towering like a second Taj Mahal behind a beautiful and leafy mass of trees.

Benno Ceder unrolls his sleeping bag right there beside the trees. He doesn’t know if he is on the estate land or not, he doesn’t care, he just wants to sleep and that is also mostly what he does until the morning he is discovered: sleep.

A sound-technician by the name of Wycombe is the person who discovers him. Wycombe is in the habit of taking a morning walk round the estate before the sessions start.

He finds Benno on the first morning: Benno is asleep.

 

On the second day Benno has already got up, standing with a bottle of wine in his hand, looking over at the manor, trying to pluck up courage to make contact.

‘Hello,’ says Wycombe. ‘Did you sleep well?’

‘Yes thank you,’ says Benno. ‘Yes. Can you…’

That is all he can manage to get out.

‘Well, have a nice day, kid,’ says Wycombe. ‘Yes… thank you. And you too…Sir,’ Benno Ceder says, before suddenly feeling quite shy and lost, in spite of his European summer.

 

On the third day Benno is asleep again, with his sleeping bag as a pillow and his long suede jacket as a blanket. That is when Wycombe sounds the alarm.

‘We have an uninvited guest,’ he says. ‘He’s sleeping over there on the other side of the park. He’s been there for three days now.’

‘Does he look dangerous?’ someone asks.

‘Nah. I don’t think so. Looks like a lost teenager,’ says Wycombe.

‘Even so, we’d better talk to John,’ someone says. ‘We’ll let him decide what to do.’

And so it is: the dazed and gravel-eyed master of the house is fetched from one of the countless bedrooms, and every gaze is turned towards him. ‘Bring him here,’ he says. ‘So we can find out what he wants.’

 

What happens next has been recorded on film, like most of what John Winston Lennon does at this time.

It is outside a door at the back of the house.

Lennon stands leaning on the white-plastered doorpost. He is wearing white trousers and a light blue shirt unbuttoned to the chest, with rolled-up sleeves. He still looks groggy with sleep. His hair is surprisingly short, he has a thick stubble and the eyes behind the rectangular spectacles are narrow, squinting into the bright sun. He is flanked by Wycombe, the bass-player Klaus Voormann and a few others: they stand in a sparse semi-circle, near enough both Benno and Lennon to form a bodyguard with the capacity to react in the event that Benno does something unexpected.

Benno stands on the gravel path at the foot of the steps: a slender lad with brown eyes and a soft mouth and long medium brown hair that curls in an attractive mane down over his shoulders. In spite of the hot day he is still draped in his long, brownish­ yellow afghan coat. He has an expression on his face that is at the same time one of stubbornness and uncertainty. It may be because it is morning and they have all just woken up: at any rate the atmosphere is quite apprehensive, and the conversation moves slowly, as sluggish as treacle. ‘I thought…,’ Benno says in good English in which Swedish is present as a faintly singing tone in the background. ‘I thought it would all become clear if I met you.’

Lennon frowns. ‘What do you mean, become clear?’

Benno, still hesitantly, shyly:

‘Just clear… Fall into place, like.’

‘What are you on?’ Lennon asks.

‘Sorry?’ says Benno.

‘Are you on anything? LSD?’

Benno: ‘No. Not just now. I’m quite clean.’

‘All I mean is,’ Lennon says, ‘that it can sometimes feel like that when you’re high… that if only this and that would happen, everything would…’

A moment’s silence. Wycombe and Voormann and the others look at one another, shake their heads slightly. But Lennon is still staring at Benno, who looks vaguely exhausted.

‘You see, it was you,’ says Benno, ‘it was you who wrote that one can be anything one wants… anything one decides to be.’

‘That wasn’t me. It was Paul. Or the Temptations. That’s the kind of sound they make, too.’

Lennon sounds a bit tired as he says it. Benno starts to speak again, and there is strength and conviction in his voice:

‘The first time I heard “A Day In The Life” I knew that it had been written just for me,’ he says. ‘In just that way, as if… as if it was echoing inside me when I was still a child.’ Lennon does not reply.

‘How many holes does it take to fill the Albert Hall,’ Benno says as if in thought, nodding sapiently.

Lennon does not say anything, just stands motionless, leaning against the doorpost, looking at Benno. He is apparently quite unconcerned by the restlessness that is starting to break out around him; the others want to begin the day’s session, for the day before Lennon has demonstrated ‘Imagine’ on the Bechstein grand piano in the drawing room, and George Harrison (who is now in one of the bedrooms, snoring) has said: ‘This is it. This is a classic.’

‘I was just playing with words,’ Lennon says. That’s what we all do. We take a some words and put them one after the other and see if they turn into anything. Zimmermann does that, too. And Mick does it. And Morrison did it. We’re just songwriters. There’s no more to it than that.’

But Benno is persistent.

‘But do you usually think about anything in particular when you’re writing? When you wrote “A Day In The Life”, for example. Or when you wrote about being a working­ class hero…’

‘I told you,’ says Lennon. ‘I told you I’m just a songwriter. I’m an ordinary English bloke. I write about myself and about things that I’ve seen. I write about my life.’

‘I didn’t mean you were thinking about me, but about someone in general… anyone…’

‘If it’s a love song I think about Yoko,’ Lennon says, shrugging his shoulders. ‘But sometimes all it is is that I’ve had a good crap in the morning and feel a whole lot lighter afterwards and so I write about that feeling but call it ease the burden of my heart or something. Do you understand? It’s not as strange and mystical as you think.’ And Benno, who still has that gleam in his eyes, half stubbornly, half shyly and uncertainly, says: ‘I don’t believe you. You’re God.’

Lennon looks resigned, gives Benno a searching look, then asks: ‘Are you hungry?’

‘Yes, quite.’

Lennon looks at Wycombe and Voormann, and says: ‘We can give him something to eat, can’t we?’

 

After that, they sit silently in the kitchen of Tittenhurst Manor. Now Yoko is up, too; she sits close to Lennon. Harrison is still conspicuous by his absence.

There is a rough-planed country table made of thick deal, otherwise the kitchen is bare and bright, with clean, chalk-white walls. There are perhaps seven or eight people altogether. Benno sits on his own at one end of the table; the others signal a cautious, apprehensive distance from him. Here in the kitchen no one says very much. They drink tea and eat toast and exchange everyday remarks, that is all. It is the summer of 1971 and it is probably not wrong to say that a story of success and undaunted energy begins here (at the same time as another is in the process of coming to an end: soon, very soon the Sixties’ fit and pugnacious Man of the Decade from Liverpool will turn into a weary and unpleasant quasi-hermit hidden deep in the gloomy Dakota fortress on Manhattan’s West Side.) Benno Ceder never tells anyone what he experienced during those July days in Ascot. But when he has left Tittenhurst Manor and started his journey home, the magical element in the encounter – I’VE MET LENNON! – falls away. And instead he begins to think: If all this, discussing songs and eating toast with John Lennon was no more remarkable than that, then nothing is very remarkable, and EVERYTHING is possible.

‘How many holes does it take to fill a soul?’: When Benno comes home in August he is not a hippie any more. He stops smoking hash, or at any rate smokes less than before. And he doesn’t sink into the songs’ hidden, secret message any more, he no longer broods about Chance and Fate, and he stops thinking about Jacke Pettersson and Kimpo Malm.

Translated by David McDuff

Drakarna över Helsingfors is published in Finnish as Leijat Helsingin yllä (Otava, 1996), in a translation by Arja Tuomari

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