Close encounters

31 March 1999 | Fiction, Prose

Viimeinen syli (‘The last embrace’, Otava, 1998)

The hospital looked as if a child had been given a big pile of building blocks and told to make a house, a big house. And then, when the building was ready, more bricks had been brought, and the child had been forced to pile them up over a wider and wider area, to spread rows of blocks across the adults’ routes and over the edge of the carpet until at last it had grown bored and left the last blocks higgledy-piggledy next to its creation.

Around the hospital ran a road from which the whole mess was revealed. Wing after wing, corridors and windows from which no one really ever looked out. The hospital was full of window views that did not belong to anyone, which did not open up from anyone’s office or day-room, but varied meaninglessly like a motorway landscape from the window of an accelerating car. Viivi had been born there, on the sixth floor of the old part of the hospital. As Mikael waited in the tiled fathers’ room next to the room where the Caeserean section was being carried out for his child to be brought to him, the view out had been breathtaking.

The entire city, and the water behind it, the ragged, summer-glimmering water and countless islands. And the girl had been like a slightly squashed tomato, a solid lump of tears and flesh and movement. As he held Viivi, Mikael had known he would remember the hospital like this, and that feeling was still with him, despite the hundreds of dead bodies that had followed.

The road was covered in clean snow, and as beautiful as if it had been swept for a sleigh-ride. Mikael steered the car with one hand and fished a fruit pastille out of the glove compartment. The week before, he had fetched from the radiation department a man of his own age who had weighed 38 kilograms when he was put into the coffin. Mikael chewed the pastille flat and played with it as he had done as a child, when all liquorice and raspberry ovals had to be chewed into discs which were then stuck on to the front teeth: look, girls, I’ve lost a tooth.

Mikael waited for a moment in front of the chapel door to let another bloke from an out-of-town funeral parlour get his corpse into his car. The provincial forensic doctor’s car was parked outside a separate building containing bodies found in the forest or which had been out in the open for a long time and which could not therefore been brought into the hospital morgue. There was no access from the infection wing to the other parts of the hospital: the staff entered from outside and changed their clothes before they came out. Rhea, who did not generally ask any questions about Mikael’s work, had once been curious as to what kind of place it was. Mikael had thought for a moment and then shook his head.

‘A man’s place,’ he had said, smiling a little. Rhea had echoed his smile and asked no more.

When the other car had gone, Mikael reversed the Chevy up to the morgue door. Behind the door there flickered the figure of Keijo; then the door opened.

‘Hi.’

‘Hi. Jauhiainen, Matti Antero.’

Keijo looked him in the eyes and grimaced, then, his breath vapourising, eyed the surrounding pine coppice. He had just got married, and returned from a two-week trip to Greece. His face was brown and softly wrinkled, even though he was not yet forty.

‘I’ll give you Jauhiainen,’ Keijo muttered. ‘I’m so damned sleepy.’

‘Have a lie-down, do you good,’ Mikael said and, with Keijo, grabbed the coffin. Keijo muttered something about the box being too small – he was over six foot. As they carried the coffin to the rostrum at the centre of the chapel, Mikael reflected that there was no other man with whom he had this kind of relationship. With Keijo he had to talk about fishing, about liquor, damn it! Once Mikael had told Keijo he liked to order vodka and Coke in restaurants, all though in fact he always drank gin and tonics, like Rhea. The way Keijo talked was like the back-fin of a perch under the dull blade of a pocket-knife.

Mikael opened the lid of the coffin at the feet, Keijo at the head. The screws were at the same time decorative and sanctifying crosses which many people would not identify as screws. Many relatives who came with Mikael to see their loved one into the coffin were amazed that there were no hinges on the coffin lid. Sometimes Keijo began to smile in the midst of the mourner’s wonderment, and said something about Hollywood’s lies, Draculas and others who tried to sit up. Some funeral worker had seen to it that Keijo was issued with a warning.

When the lid was open and had been laid across some chairs, Mikael fetched a shroud from the car. It reached to the knees and was completely open at the back, and at its neck was a black ribbon. The chapel was calmingly decorated in shades of brown and cream, tapestries sewn on to transparent fabric and, on the gable wall, a grey wooden cross with a silver border.

Mikael followed Keijo into the cold-storage room, one of whose side walls was made of steel. On the wall were doors labelled with the names of the corpses stored there. There was room for 39, but only a few of the cupboards contained corpses. Mikael drew a pair of disposable gloves on to his hands and waited for Keijo to open the right door.

There was a blast of cold air from inside the door, and the sound of the cold-storage machinery grew louder. One cupboard held three corpses, one on top of the other, covered with sheets. Keijo checked the name and pulled the corpse forward as if it were a baking-tray full of biscuits. Underneath the blanket was an old man lying naked and sewn-up, his mouth a little ajar.

The frame from the cold-storage unit was pulled on to a stretcher, and Mikael began to pull socks on to the man’s feet. The cold, purple foot pushed the shapeless sock into something like the shape of a human foot. Keijo set the sawn-off top of the skull better in place and asked whether the corpse would be on view in the funeral chapel. Mikael shook his head. It was as if the back of the man’s head had slipped backward; the glued-looking flap made him look like a skullcapped Jew with his white hair. Keijo grasped the man by his right hand, Mikael by his left and, turning the body between them, they managed to get the shroud on. The old man’s fingers were blue-grey under the nails; his ring-finger had been removed. Keijo said they wouldn’t be able to get his teeth into his jaws.

‘I just can’t get used to this frost,’ Keijo chattered as they pushed the corpse into the chapel beside the coffin and grasped it by its legs and its stiff arms. Mikael held his breath as the corpse was carefully rolled into the coffin; he remembered how a relative’s subdued weeping had broken off as the smell of the corpse had emerged from beneath the shroud during the lifting. The door of the autopsy room behind the cold-storage was open, and Mikael waved at a woman who walked into the doorway, a hose in her hand and rubber boots on her feet, the plastic shield lifted from her eyes. The woman was Armi, the cleaner and tool-maintenance woman.

‘We tasted our last bottle of ouzo with the wife last night,’ Keijo smiled contentedly, setting a lace-edged cloth on the dead man’s face. ‘It was really good. We’re going to book another sunshine holiday after Christmas…. What about the flowers?’

‘I forgot,’ Mikael muttered. He had realised his mistake only as he waited for the departure of the last hearse from in front of the chapel. Even though the mourners hadn’t particularly asked for it, Michael always set a little bunch of flowers on the dead person’s chest under the coffin-lid.

When everything was ready, they screwed the lid on once more. Mikael could still remember the relief with which he had jerked the screws tight six years ago, when he had accompanied the then owner of the funeral parlour and seen his first corpse. As he emerged from the morgue he had staggered over to the slope in front of it and leant his hands on his knees for a long time, his throat making sounds like a tap from which, even when turned to its extreme position, no water comes. He had not, in the end, vomited, not even at home that evening; it was as if his nausea had choked him.

Who had told him the dead were white as sheets? Pallid? Pale?

They were bluish, garish as a stormy sky painted in a child’s watercolours. Around the stomach and the liver they were greenish, and the skull was pale violet, the ear-lobes brownish-green. Nothing recalled a dead body as little as a lily.

The form was not beautiful; neither was the colour.

After that experience, Mikael could no longer understand the desire of some relatives to will life back into the dead body. Once death had glued the eyelids together, had closed them from inside with its cold clamps, the eyes could never see again; only a complete idiot, someone who knew nothing about anything, could hope that life, a twinkle of humour, tears or sullen glances could ever return to that face.

What had gone would not come back. No one could want it to return if they had seen in their lives even one week-old corpse. There was nothing else to be done but to bury it.

Mikael pushed the coffin on to the rack of his car and closed the door. If the back door had not been made of smoked glass, a placard would have been visible through the window bearing the name Matti Jauhiainen.

The name would have peered sadly into the world and seen all the trees which surrounded the hospital over a wide area. Mikael had once, years ago, had a dream from which he had awoken beside Rhea. He had been at his school desk and been asked to answer his teacher’s question: which are the trees of life and death?

‘The trees of life are birch lime rowan!’ Mikael had shouted, his shoulders straight as a ruler, his mouth a horn pointing toward his teacher. She had nodded expectantly.

‘And the trees of death are pine redwood red pine!’

Rhea had not seen anything amusing about the dream.

Keijo stood in the frost, shivering, and took the plastic gloves Mikael gave him.

‘Come again.’

‘We’ll see.’

Mikael took a Finnish flag from the car and set it in the little holder on the left-hand side of the chassis. The flag stiffened in the frost into a melancholy napkin.

If there was a relative of the deceased in the car, Mikael generally put a music cassette on to play at this point. There was a row of them in a little hollow next to the passenger, mostly classical music. Rhea had said that Mikael did it in order not to have to talk to his clients, to listen to their confessions and their sorrow. Mikael had answered with a chuckle: as a professional listener, Rhea could not even imagine what it was like to have to talk about someone who had been. Had been this and done that, loved this and wanted all sorts of things – and generally never got them – and who above all had ceased to exist. Was no longer. Anything. Mikael had said to Rhea that hearing about an unknown dead person was like hearing praise for movies, film-stars or thinkers one did not know.

‘You and your Bourdieu,’ Mikael had said. ‘Your Kristeva, your Lacan, your Derrida, your Levinas, your Baudrillard – and me and my Ahonen and Jokinen and Lahtinen.’

‘It’s a completely different thing,’ Rhea had countered. ‘We have a book-case; just get reading!’

The Chevrolet’s engine was purring almost soundlessly, so quiet at forty kilometres per hour that the purr of the tyres on the snowy road was almost the only sound. Mikael always drove the same route to the old burial ground, circling the centre to the north, behind the vocational school and the university’s chemistry faculty, along the streets of the old workers’ quarter. The buildings were deep at the ends of tiled paths or behind hedges of hawthorn, and the people who lived there were not like those who had lived there decades ago. As an apprentice in the office of his predecessor, Mikael had heard plenty about the history of this part of the city. His predecessor had pointed out buildings scarcely discernible from the street perspective and listed their former inhabitants: the old bakery, whose master-baker killed his wife and himself and his two children, and the old bordello. The whores sent their new-born babies to orphanages, and a bomb went off in that building there. Over there the Whites slaughtered women and children in the garden during the civil war, and that is an old isolation hospital; I was there as a six-year-old with diphtheria.

The sky had begun to lighten, so that the frost crystals could be made out as dense swarms in the air, and the smoke from the chimneys rose vertically in thick columns. Mikael liked the route, how the buildings, at his slow pace, slipped by like the jetties of internal waterways in the films of the first half of the century. There were Christmas lights in each window; the trees of every garden were covered with a veil of light. Farther away, the traffic lights discernible at the cross-roads shone green. Mikael glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw that a queue of traffic had formed, streaming in the frost.

Before the cross-roads there were old, thick-sided birch-trees, and amid them a brown stuccoed house where the parents of the current mayor had lived. The traffic lights were at red, and the street beyond the cross-roads was empty right up to the church. The church tower rose like a giant bell-hanger, and Mikael pressed the accelerator lightly.

As if a crow had flown before him from somewhere to the right. The car rose, tilted and collapsed back on to the road; the back wheels spun so that the windscreen scraped against the birch branches and Mikael realised he had skidded backwards past the traffic lights and into the middle of the intersection.

A black bundle lay on the road in front of the stationary queue of traffic, and Mikael realised that drivers were emerging. Car doors were being slammed; someone ran toward the figure on the ground is if he were chasing bank-notes that had fallen from an aeroplane. Mikael drove the car off the intersection, parked it by the pavement and got out.

The frost crunched beneath his feet as he crossed the road, half-running. People had gathered around the figure on the ground, which was whimpering. Then Mikael realised that it was not a human voice, but came from someone’s mobile phone.

‘You ran her over, call the bloody….’

Mikael bent over to look. A vapour of breath came from the mouth, a small, soft eddy by the nose. The scarf was red and still carefully wrapped beneath the black woollen coat. The head was bloody beneath the cheek, but the eyes were moving. Mikael gazed into the eyes, and was still gazing when someone nudged him on the shoulders with a leather-gloved hand and said this is the man.

Someone in a padded coat pushed past Mikael as if to kiss the woman on the ground, to fumble her lips with his cheeks and mouth and ears.

‘What’s your name?’ the man asked.

Black blood came out of the woman’s mouth with her tongue. Her eyes turned to Mikael.

‘She is my ex-wife,’ Mikael heard himself say. ‘Erja Dufva.’

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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