A perfectly ordinary day

Issue 3/1997 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extract from the novel Kello 4.17 (‘The time was 4.17’, WSOY, 1996). When time loses its meaning, real fear strikes like an iron glove. Aho writes about a man who is different but no outcast

I was lost to myself, if it is possible to be lost if you haven’t gone anywhere. Black birds curved through my mind and it felt as if no one needed me, no one or nothing: my mother bought clothes and make-up and did not seem to care; Uncle Lasse looked after the family business, steam coming out of his head, and kept shopkeepers and shopaholic customers happy; smiling bank managers slapped shy loan applicants encouragingly on the back, the gross national product grew without me having anything to do with it, or because I didn’t; and politics plodded onward as the mud squelched comfortingly. The machine of society hummed and ticked and Finland was as round and fat as a bomb. I looked at it and nothing changed, and on Sundays it was so quiet that you could look out of the window and see the Sahara.

But I was not bored. I was just unnecessary and perhaps a little apathetic. Life went on. The time was 4.17. The clouds sailed by. Midday, and sometimes night, and every night the moon so close you could touch it with your tongue. I was not in pain, but I was not sure of my own health either. The lime trees took off their clothes, shivered for half the year and then bashfully dressed themselves. I said nothing about it, but drank a cup of coffee. Mornings, my mouth gluey and my mind numb with icy arctic dreams. I wasted time and discussed the subject with the clock; once a minute it gave a jerk and an embarrassed laugh, at me.

I accepted it and everything as I always have done; I did not want to be different from the others or to attract attention, I had no opinions about anything, but agreed about everything, although I probably had no views to agree or disagree on. But it was enough for me and I hoped it would go on the same, so that I could live my life, so that nothing excessive would happen, so that my nightmares about my mother would disappear. Just the same fine or grey days and rain and my daily walks and visits to my mother and my teetotal uncle Lasse with his busy life and a little snow and Kääpiäinen the janitor’s soporific whingeing about his ex-wife and ready meals and deep sleep, and that was it, the entire summer, if it was summer, or the winter, if it was winter.

But sometimes, in the evenings, I was afraid. It generally began with the neighbours. I do not know them, I have only seen them on the stairs and said hello, a middle-aged couple, neat, polite, reserved, tie and handbag, the woman cheerful yellow like a lemon and the man sour as lemon-juice. In the evenings I soak myself in the tub and the lift clatters, moves on the other side of the wall like a train, changes points, stops, delivers neighbours. Their domestic sounds cannot be heard in the room, but they can in the is panting, roaring, groaning, and not only sounds but even smells penetrate through the drains and the vents in the walls, and you can’t bear what you hear; pain comes, flowing into the tub like iced water, and then it is no good even if you shower your ears closed, you have to get up and wrap a towel around your head.

And after your bath you stand in the dark room and look out of the window, your damp skin quivers and you are so naked that you are helpless, the radiator warms your legs, and on your belly you feel the draught from the window, and down there in the street people go by and inside each of them is a skeleton, and you are afraid of that too, you are afraid of everything you know exists but which you do not see or understand because you do not see it, and you begin to believe that you do not understand anything, and for a moment you petrify, freeze to the window sill.

Then you have to think, breathe deeply, gather your strength, calm down, make yourself believe that the people, in the street, and the neighbours, yourself too, are ordinary people, going about their business at the post office, queueing at cash-tills, but it is no help when you know that the same filthy skeleton is inside you too, it does not help, rationality, the use of reason, even if, in peeping at the people loitering below past the corner of your towel, you were yourself to be far away, on the other side of a stone wall, normal, businesslike, if you were to stammer aloud a cool and impartial article that proves that more women than men walk the streets during the day, but in the evenings the gender distribution is more even and the average of the population considerably lower… it does not help, the skeletons go on creeping by, their necks stooped, holding one another by the hand.

You cannot bear to look at them, but have to walk from one corner of the room to the next, shivering with cold and strangeness, as if you were a stranger in your own home. You have to bite your nails, pick your nose, you have to hit your forehead with your fist, and you do not dare open your eyes because you are afraid something will crawl in through your eyeball, or out, and you would like to find a stand-in for those moments, but you can’t, you cannot buy them or hire them, and strange mental images whirl around like intoxicated bats inside your dim skull.

And the clock ticks insanely and real fear comes, it strikes like an iron glove and there is no more time, or at least it has lost its importance and is a different kind of time, time without colour, weight, any kind of characteristic, random time, time before time or then when all time has already passed, and nothing to grasp hold of. I float in the room and stretch out my hand and gesticulate and try to grab the tatters of time so that I can stay at one with myself and with the cars shrieking in the street, and just as I get a grip on it, time, the lift stops on my floor and time flies on its way, its seconds fluttering. And I stiffen, take fright, fear that the door will crash open and someone will come in, come in and club me, come and do wrong, come and strike me blind, come in and talk incessantly, come in and bring a telegram, come in and smile hollowly, come in speaking on his mobile telephone, or that an nine of them would come in through the door and each of them would be me.

But it goes over, the clock begins to hum softly and weakly, the street-lights send messages in Morse code from beyond the lime trees without expressing an opinion, the neighbours’ fury has dissipated. My cold sweat begins to turn tacky and gradually I dare take support from the window sill and look at the people, of whom there are no longer many. At this time few people other than drunks are abroad, solitary guys fumbling their way home, as did the drunken Kääpiäinen did in his time, noisy crowds looking for somewhere to go on celebrating or other strange things, and I recognise them no more than I recognise myself, because I am someone else, in the same way as reality is something else.

I look at them down there in the street and am somehow envious, but at the same time astonished. How can they do it, walk the streets, drunk, in the middle of the night, not knowing, any more than I do, where the street leads, where it begins and where it ends, or even what surrounds them, windows that they cannot see in through or, even if they could, would not understand what they saw, unless they are something different from how they look: black ghosts, shadow-images in the theatre of the night.

And they are not, and yet they can do it. So I raise my eyes to the heavens, whose surface is not punctuated by a single star, but once, long ago, as a child, yes, as a child, when the sunset made the dark clouds glow and the starlight throbbed against the retina and the moon raised its head from the pool of clouds and everything was in motion, the landscape that circled above me, the sky that danced, then I expected it to answer, and if not answer, at least tell me what the question was. I thought there was someone who sees and hears, but differently from me, understands, but in a completely different way. No God, of course, not even the archbishop believes in that, but someone, someone like me.

I thought like this until it was no longer a thought or a hope but I believed that somewhere was the real me, the thing I am, even if it was nothing like me, it would still be me, and I almost felt faint because I would so have liked to see it, and see even for a moment as it sees, even once, so that I too would understand; and the rest could, as far as I was concerned, be darkness. And even if it were a monster, mad as an atomic power-station, even if it were to condemn me to tear my flesh forever in this jungle, I would still have seen the sun, its rays, understood, for a moment, it would suffice, and I would feel that I had touched something. That I would never again be cold.

This was what my life was like until, that autumn, it ended, or shattered.

I went on visiting my mother, out of habit, and although it had become merely a habit, I gradually realised that it no longer troubled me, her possible strangeness, or ours. I stopped speaking and began to look as thought I had new eyes, glass eyes, compound eyes or pigs’ eyes, I was amazed at her ‘surprises’, always the same, a new dress or handbag or shoes. She was thrilled, she left me sitting and went to her room to dress herself up, came back and turned slowly and modelled, moving like an elephant dragging a tree-trunk, proud and expected, her cheeks glowing, and I praised her to the skies until she interrupted and told me what was worth paying attention to, not the details, of course, but the outfit as a whole, dear boy, what do I look like, do tell.

It was pretty senseless, but I rattled off what she expected and demanded, and when she was satisfied I had a warm and comfortable feeling which lasted a long time, even as I walked home. But something was missing, I could not help it, the closeness which had existed (and it had existed); now I spoke to her with caution, as if folding napkins, and no longer stayed for a long time but, after drinking a cup of coffee and praising her outfit, went home. Perhaps both of us, after all, were satisfied with my visits. But then came the day that made an end of the whole thing.

A perfectly ordinary day, a weekday, midday, a windy autumn day two years ago, or five years or, to put it exactly, in the indefinite past. What day it was, that I do not remember, any more than the temperature, but the time was 4.17.

I walked past the factory, and I remember wondering about the grey bricks piled up against the board fence, taken from the old chimney, whether anything would be done with them. I walked out to the shore, stopped on the cliff and stood for a while with my hands in my pockets; the sky was covered by a worn fitted carpet and in the bay the foam crests of the waves flashed, having lost their shine, the birch-trees that had been planted by the side of the boulevard had grown askew with the pressure of the wind. A hunched, bearded man sat below on the stones, himself looking like a stone, one of the winos mother detested. He looked at me and I turned and went back down to the street and walked to mother’s house.

I swallowed the wind out of my ears, rang the doorbell, but no one answered. A new attempt and the same result, except that my skin went goose-pimply, and I took out my key, shifting it from one hand to the other as if it were red-hot, or sticky. In the hall there was the same smell as ever, old and sweet, around me the dark walls and under my feet the creaking parquet floor, many times varnished. The hall could have been moved to a museum.

I spoke into the silence of the apartment a couple of times, mother, hey mother, listen, but there was nothing to be heard but my own voice, (now) encrusted with fear, and no one’s home had ever looked so empty. I do not know how, but I realised I was there alone.

I found her in the living-room, that I remember, she was sitting in her armchair and one of her filigree rings reflected the pale light of the window. Her head leaned against her shoulder and she could have been sleeping, except that she was so motionless and her eyes were half-open, her lips drawn in and her teeth sticking out, and the ring was the most lively thing about her. Then I thought that she could have been anyone.

I looked at her for a long time. I knew very well that I was looking at a dead person, I knew it but did not realise it. I blinked and did not dare breathe, me too, if it is possible, and then I collapsed there in the doorway. I collapsed into tatters, and not just there in the doorway but along the walls, and every tatter saw what it was I did not want to see. A dead mother and the room around her, a filigree ring which gathered all the pallid light into its silver curlicues. Something wet flowed along the wallpaper, and the room became dirty, and I stood there ankle-deep in the dirt.

Without speaking, I turned and went out: to my astonishment I was able to move my legs, go forward, I was skilful. I walked mechanically, I was a machine, I was a cybernaut, with a virtual helmet and virtual gauntlets, I was plastic, I was tin. Time broke up, I must have circled the block twice before I could find my way to the centre, and then I was standing outside mother’s door once more, entering again, before I remembered, and I began to weep as I thought that the dirt of the room had soiled me, it was part of my skin, like the skin of my back, a membrane that had burned on to my face, I would have to carry it for the rest of my life, I thought, and with a heavy heart I returned to my apartment, to my bed, and, weighed down by my burden, to my bed.

In the evening I awoke, my limbs stiff and heavy, I had slept with my shoes and coat on. I went in search of Lasse, or just to get out; and in the park the trees rustled, in their crowns the wind breathed the approach of winter. The moon ploughed its way through the clouds and a solitary duck flew across the moon, a black bird, it looked enormous. There was a light in Lasse’s window, but the downstairs door was closed. I did not have the energy to shout up to the first floor, but threw gravel. He appeared between the curtains, opened the window and threw down his bunch of keys. I was so tired I hardly noticed whether I was cold, I was detached from everything, and everything from me.

About the rest I do not remember much. I said ‘mother’ a couple of times to Lasse, but I could not explain the meaning of the word, and I laughed in my embarrassment. Lasse looked at me angrily. I giggled, I was as young as a blackhead. He called for a taxi, roared the address into the telephone. An invisible weight riveted me to the floor, and as he went Lasse ordered me to stay where I was, and that, too, delighted me. When I had recovered, I blew my nose on my sleeve. I think it had begun to rain.

To have something to do, I dragged the living-room chairs to the middle of the floor, fetched Lasse’s clothes and covered the pile of chairs with them. The construction looked ordinary and dark grey – Lasse had no more idea about dressing than I did – so I fetched ajar of ketchup from the kitchen and spattered tomato sauce on the coats and trousers. I achieved a cheerfully coloured totem decorated by the dark red paste that flowed down its sides, and whose patterns could be interpreted as faces, clouds, ducks, even gusts of wind.

I admired it for a moment, but soon it began to irritate me, a motionless pile of clothes on whose surface red worms wriggled, and I wanted to get rid of it but was afraid of dirtying my hands. I looked for matches in a drawer to set fire to it, but I had forgotten that, inspired by teetotalism, Lasse had also given up smoking, and I could not think of any way of lighting it.

When he came back, I was lying on the sofa covered by all the cushions. He stood gravely in the doorway without a word, looking in turn at me and at the pile of clothes on the chairs, and slowly fear began to gnaw at my ankles as I saw how empty his expression was. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I asked, and suddenly I began to shake, so uncontrollably that it seemed my bones were striking against my flesh.

I tried to get up, but when I put my feet on the floor Lasse strode up to me and pressed me into the sofa so that my joints cracked. I asked if it was raining outside, which was a stupid question because the shoulders of his coat were wet and his bald pate shone damply. He nodded and relaxed his grip, saying that I must stay the night, and to calm him I slowly drew a cushion under my head and looked earnestly at the ceiling.

He went into the hallway and spoke on the telephone, came back, and began to busy himself with my hulk, to dismantle it. I got up and tried to hit him, I don’t know why, it was the first and only time I have tried to hit anyone, and even then I missed. Shaking his head, he pushed me back into the sofa, stood in the door with his arms crossed, looking uncommunicative, and then the hooting of a car was heard from the street. For the second time that night, Lasse threw keys out of the window.

In waddled a little fat man; he looked expressionlessly around him, nodding thinly to Lasse. He introduced himself to me, claimed he was a doctor. I tried to make conversation with him about health care and the humanist aims of social policy, but he seemed tired and indifferent, and could not respond. He took a syringe from his briefcase, rolled back my sleeve, and there under the slobbering yellow light of the standard lamp he calmy injected me in the forearm.

I thought mother had gone somewhere I did not know, where I could never follow.

The next day they took me to the institution; someone asked me if I felt all right.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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