Like father, like daughter

Issue 1/1999 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from Tom Tom Tom (Gummerus, 1998). Introduction by Soila Lehtonen

A father and daughter in a hospital back garden

Bits of nail flick to the ground as Kokko cuts Tom’s nails, leaving rather brittle nail-ends among the lichen. In the middle of the hospital afternoon they’ve made their way down to the little park, to care for the hands of both of them, all four.

In the days before Africa Tom used to nurse Kokko on the living-room sofa and cut the nails on her most difficult hand, pushed the cuticles back and taught her the care that ought to be taken of nails, or she’d have smarting and pain round the cuticles. Kokko used to plead to be taken into his nail cutting lap oftener than she should, even when she’d really have preferred to grow longer nails.

Tom demands special treatment for the thumb of his paralysed hand. Kokko can’t understand what he’s saying. Yah yah yah yah yah yah, he keeps on. Kokko doesn’t understand.

Why doesn’t she understand? he frets. It’s perfectly obvious. Use her brains, not the holes in her head.

The pines are shedding pollen onto Tom and Kokko. In Kokko something snaps. The front wheel of the invalid chair strikes a root and the tyre flops off. Tom shouts yah yah yah. Kokko tries to put the tyre back on, twists and turns it, but it won’t go. She swears. Tom shouts. The tyre flips from side to side. Can’t she even push a pram? Tom rages.

Kokko tries to restrain herself. She’s about to blow her top, she wants to vanish, tear off into the forest, from the forest to the highway, from the highway to the airport, into a plane, and off. Where to she can’t think, but somewhere, far from here. Preferably a couple of continents away, or more, not Africa, no, but further still, though can one go further still? Tom tom tom – that song again. Tom tom tom, I hear the beat swell, I feel its spell …

The tyre flips back into place and Kokko pushes Tom back to the ward. The corridor floor’s wet, it smells of washing fluid.

A nurse offers Tom a shiny sheet, a fax. From Africa, from an African colleague, direct from the power-station director’s office, sent on his secretary’s machine.

Kokko isn’t sure whether Tom can read or not, even though he often sits appearing to read. He tries, she thinks, and she takes the fax and starts reading it aloud.

‘I hear you’ve had a nasty attack. It makes me marvel at my own long-term good health, and nowadays too I’m still managing a decent life here, what with being director. I look up at the splendid starlit southern sky here, very like when we looked up at it together, dear brother, and treated ourselves to a drop of whisky, of course I was a mere lad then, and you yourself were a real young lion. Who’d have believed we’d still be at it now, each in his own way. All the best, Antero.’

Tom’s been focusing on a bit of pudding, but now he snatches the fax and hurls it to the floor. Bloody Antero, the smooth-tongued creep, always out for number one, spoiling for the job of director and finally grabbing it. It just suits him, me being in this state, Tom thinks, a string of pudding dribbling down from the corner of his mouth.

And how has it all changed, how’s it come about, that the former managing director’s shoved in a hospital corner, unable to speak or write, and the power station’s in the hands of a nitwit, someone truly handicapped? And the once shoved -aside daughter, temporarily in working order, is manoeuvring a spoon and fork for me, Tom thinks angrily, yah-yahing and not noticing the pudding, though finally Kokko wipes it off him with a napkin.

‘I don’t get it.’

‘Yah yah,’ Tom yahs.

‘I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re on about. Give us a sign at least.’

Tom gives no sign. He can’t, though he’d like to. The wires are severed. Tom just moos.

I can’t stand it, can’t stand it. They think me a sorry mess, send me letters they’ve tossed off, faxes, chivvy me up a bit, smooth me down, babble on at me a bit, as if I were a pet dog or some stupid garden statue. I can’t stand it, they treat me as if I were some babe in arms or old fogey, first and second childhood.

The nurse looks in at the door and slips off.

‘No one can bear to look at you,’ Kokko says. ‘Yah yah yah,’ Tom says.

‘There’s no reason to shout.’

‘Yah yah yah. ‘You think so, eh? Tom’s voice is rising. Kokko’s voice is about to cave in, but she tries to hold back her tears. ‘Yah yah yah,’ Tom goes on. So why’s the girl crying now, no, I shouldn’t go on like that. Tom’s feeling sorry now.

‘You’ll have to try and settle down, I can’t stand it here any longer. Shut up, stop whinging all the time,’ Kokko shouts, slams the door behind her, runs to the lift and down to the cycle rack. There the bike’s vanished. Someone’s taken it. Stolen it, nicked it! Appropriated the blasted thing. Tom tom tom … Tom tom tom, I hear the beat swell, I feel its spell …

Tom sobs in his room. The nurse peeps in again but doesn’t come in this time either. Tom’s face is red and damp. The messages of the brain and the tear ducts have got tangled up with each other. Another, older nurse comes in and wipes Tom’s face with a hand towel.

Kokko swears in the street and starts across a pedestrian crossing. A car brakes. Hell. Should keep an eye open. Or should I call the police? Yes, should go to the police station. Tell the tale there, ten bikes have been stolen today, and the policeman’ll listen.

The beds in the ward are full and the first lot of nurses have left for their summer holidays

In the loo-side bed there’s a person who was paralysed the day before. Tom looks healthy compared with this new man, who stares at the dry walls with moist eyes. Nurses come and go replenishing the intravenous drip.

The man opens and closes his eyes. His design of a concert hall was left unfinished. Just as he was considering the material for the walls he collapsed on the hard tiled floor of the architect’s office.

‘Here you are,’ the nurse says, ‘there’s a bed-bottle and a toothbrush and an electric razor and the medicines, they’re entered on this sheet because you’ll have to administer them, and it tells you what and when,’ and she hands the lotto Kokko, while Tom manoeuvres himself into his wheel chair, already able to do it on his own now.

Tom’s nervous. With reason. Kokko’ s nervous. With reason. For the same reasons. The last time she slept in the same house as her father was fourteen years ago. And in those days Tom didn’t need pushing about, didn’t need feeding escorting from the loo or to bed, he kept an eye on what food was being ordered, on when her fringe needed trimming, and when her bicycle tyres needed pumping up.

The taximan helps Tom into the front seat. Kokko folds up the wheelchair, and the driver puts it in the back. Mid-day’ll be warm. Kokko settles herself on the back seat of the hot car and can’t find anything to say to the driver. Awkward.

‘The telly says we’ll be having a splendid midsummer,’ the driver starts.

Kokko tries to think of a reply. Can’t.

‘Yah yah,’ Tom says.

‘Can’t complain,’ the driver adds.

‘Yah yah.’

‘There’ll be something to look back on when Christmas comes round,’ the taximan continues.

‘Yah yah.’

Kokko’s able to settle back for the whole journey, as Tom’s taking over the conversation. No problems. Beyond the rusting oil drums the shore is sparkling.

Tom isn’t sure whether he does want to go home, how everything’ll look, how it’ll all go. The house will be so new to him, nowhere near a home as yet, though where else should home be but here? Not in the hospital at any rate.

The fibreglass boat is roped to the quay, the two oars locked together with a chain going through holes in the blades. Two oars are better than one. The rope and the chain together are better than either of them alone. It’s better rowing with someone in the back seat than rowing completely alone. Father and daughter are better together than alone, maybe, if you want to follow the thought through, Kokko reflects.

The taximan helps Tom and the wheelchair into the rowing boat and then pushes the boat out. Tom keeps an eye on his daughter’s rowing as she transports him in his own boat. Chewing gum in her mouth, wide army trousers, plaits, specs, blue eye-shadow, and blue nailpolish, splitting again.

Tom sees the house. The old maid’s old house that Tom bought, Tom’s own house, now his home, in the midst of the forest, a place of stones and little snakes, not out on the savannah patrolled by large animals, but here, under this sky, whose stars are waiting for darkness to reveal themselves to mankind.

Tom points to the garden with his sound hand, the plants have grown, and a complete haymaking job would hardly cope.

‘Tend it, tend it,’ Kokko understands. ‘Well, I have mown it a bit.’

Tom settles down, breathes in. During the last hour he’s travelled more than he did the whole month, if you count the kilometres.

Kokko wheels the chair up the slope. The stones make it bump along, and a crow gives a croak at the newcomers, flaps off the dirty dishes on the veranda and perches on the compost heap.

Tom wants to stay in the garden.

‘Ah yes. Yes.’

Kokko blurts something out. She ought to have done it many times over but is afraid of appearing over-zealous in her father’s affairs.

‘It rained in.’

Should have guessed that, yes, should have, Tom thinks.

‘I repaired it.’

‘Yah yah?’ Tom is surprised.

‘It was quite a difficult business,’ Kokko continues, warming up. ‘If you look here, I first cut a piece out and then battened it with laths and then put in groove-and-tongue boarding and then felted it, it’s that practical new felt they’ve been advertising on television, it’s only temporary, but it doesn’t look half bad, and it’ll certainly hold, but sometime you can get round to putting a whole new roof on yourself.’

‘Yah yah,’ Tom nods, thinking he’s hardly going to be climbing on the roof.

‘So it won’t rot,’ Kokko says.

But there are those others, women and men, in the world who’ll come and do a job if you pay them. That’ll stop the rot, of both people and roofs, Tom thinks.

Kokko tries to think what she can turn her hand to, goes off to make some coffee but then remembers Tom has switched from coffee to tea in the hospital. While she’s spooning the tealeaves she considers what she ought to do, should she think up things for them to do together? Can she do more than rest, read the paper, ring Linda Muuri and ask what’s new, go for a swim in the sea, the sort of things she’d be doing today anyway? Must she keep company with Tom, follow him about, keep an eye on him?

Tom’s wheeling himself round the garden, poking about the flower beds. He breaks off a dead daffodil. Spring’s already so far on that the first flowers are dying. Kokko’s laying the table inside, it’ll be ready as soon as the spoons are in place.

How is she going to drag Tom up the three steps in his wheelchair? Why had she never realised it might be a problem, hoicking someone without legs half a yard upward.

Kokko balances the wheelchair, takes thought, begins to back it up. Back wheels, front wheels, back wheels, front wheels. Tom shouts yah yah for the lift up. Kokko concentrates on the haul. At last they’re on the veranda.

‘Yah yah.’ Tom’s voice has a new note. It’s the voice that says, yes, that’s the way, that’s what I said, that’s how they did it in the hospital, though I wouldn’t have thought that you, my daughter’ d be up to it, Kokko presumes, interpreting, and ladles soup into one of the old-maid’s old cracked plates, depicting an arctic fox licking its cub. He may see a good omen in that too but can’t say it.

There they sit. The hot tomato soup burns the tongue. Kokko pushes the medicines over to Tom and scans the day’s paper. Three different tablets. Tom sits back. So what’s this, nothing special, just sitting at home. Yes, there’s a big difference, here you feel good.

Kokko rings Linda Muuri. Tom starts watching television, but turns it off at once. Kokko rests on the sofa and snoozes off for a moment. The wheelchair moves round the quiet house, stops for a while, then starts up again.

I planned it all, Tom’s thinking. The amount of board I’d need, what order I’d do the repairs in, and what size of nets I’d drop in the sea. I planned to talk with my daughter, sometimes make meals for her here. Clean out the earth closet, build an internal WC, mend the roof, paint the sauna, strengthen the jetty, burn the old maid’s old junk. A cat maybe. No, not a cat, that’d really make me feel an old geezer.

I laid my plans carefully, and what did it come to. Why didn’t I just die, I’d have been liberated without a thought from all this. I’d not be a nuisance, I’d have no need to be ashamed. I’d be out of people’s way. Like I was before.

The wheelchair moves round the house. Tom picks his nose with his sound hand and regards his unpolished shoes. No use bothering.

Kokko eats her eighth cheese sandwich of the day, until Tom taps on her shoulder and indicates he wants to go to bed. Kokko sets two bed bottles and a glass on the bedside table. Tom takes a toothbrush and has a shot at rinsing his mouth with a little water. He spouts it towards the glass, but it flies straight onto the floor. Kokko gets a rag cut from the old maid’s blouse and wipes it up. Tom gets undressed. Is it embarrassing for a daughter, Tom wonders, this sort of father in this sort of situation?

Kokko studies the bookshelf. Tom pulls his trousers down, takes his shirt off and, using his one hand, slowly eases on pyjamas dug out of the cupboard and placed on his pillow. It takes time. Kokko has to start her tour of the bookshelf all over again, this time studying the texts on the backs of the jackets and the serious-looking photographs of the authors.’

Tom sits on the edge of the bed in his pyjamas and leafs through an African album with one hand. It gives him no feeling. He’s not exactly indifferent, but he doesn’t feel a jot of longing for Africa, or at least there’s no feeling of wanting to go back.

Brain, body and feelings, they’re not geared together as you’d expect, Tom meditates.

Kokko’s not up to going closer to Tom. How can she comfort him? What to say if he starts crying, particularly if she’s crying herself? Though there’s nothing particularly new in the situation, no obvious reason. Here in your own house. In your own corner, where usually you can do what you want.

Tom edges the album to the end of the bed with his one hand, and only then does Kokko come over to say good night and go upstairs.

‘Yah yah,’ Tom shouts after her. Kokko can’t work out what the tone is. At any rate it’s not alarmed, nervous or worried. Just rather ordinary, the usual thing.

An orchestra of birds starts up and fills all the forest and the earth

Kokko’s sitting on the jetty and eating spaghetti, it’s August. She takes a look at her hairy legs and some scars that stand out blond on her brown skin.

‘Nails are important,’ Tom impressed on his six-year-old daughter.

‘What are they for?’ Kokko asked.

‘You have to look after them.’

‘Why?’

‘So they won’t start ingrowing.’

There are seagulls in the sky, and Kokko regards her nails. Animals can grip things with their nails, birds perch with them, nails can scratch, nails can sink into another creature’s flesh, nails can defend you from attack, what else. In a book of records Kokko saw a picture of a man with metre-long nails. They were ugly and stupid.

‘Hanging on by your toenails.’ The doctor says Tom will be able to walk sometime, but his right arm will dangle like a piece of hose. His nails will grow however.

What about speech? Kokko asked. The doctor said he didn’t dare to say, didn’t dare even to talk about it.

If the other hand doesn’t get better, someone’ll have to help with nailcutting, Kokko reflects. He can cut his toenails himself, but it’ll be impossible to cut the left hand’s nails with a paralysed right hand.

Kokko looks at her lacquered nails, coloured green, peeling off in places but shiny. Ridged nails and torn cuticles. She throws the last of the spaghetti into the sea and starts up the overgrown path to the house.

She’ll cut Tom’s nails and cut her own at the same time, take more care of her nails too.

The old stones that edged the path have fallen seawards, some are actually on the sea-bottom. The island’s a handy place to cut nails, you can sit outside and the nails can flick where they like.

Kokko leaves her plate on the veranda table, can’t be bothered to wash up, but hides it under the plastic cover, as the crow’s hanging about, lurking in a tree, been plumping up during June and July and would make a tasty dish roasted, its flesh being delicious. Kokko’ s read in a paper.

She lingers by the telescope hanging on the coat rack. Tom’s telescope, a fine new one, or rather not so new any more, but unused.

Kokko lifts it out of its case, turns it round, looking it over. It’s a fine blue telescope, substantial, weighty.

Should take it to Tom in the hospital.

What would he do with it there?

Look up at whatever there is to see in the sky.

If I took him the telescope what would he say, would he say a one-handed man can’t handle a telescope, but no, he’d say nothing.

Supposing I went and took Tom out in the dark. I’d go along in the night and smuggle him out into the yard. We’d stare at space. We’d see the same things as before, or at any rate the same sort of things, we’d look through the telescope and talk about what we see. Not what we think or what we feel all the time but what we see. All the better when one of you can’t use words.

A telescope, a tube, a hole going through from this world into another.

Kokko puts the the telescope back into its protective case and leans it against the hall wall, to wait till she’s changed her trousers, washed up and locked the house’s four doors.

An august evening suddenly begins to get darker

The city’s traffic is silent. People have left in convoy for the shores of their summer cottages, to huddle round the grill and complain about mosquito nets and German tourists eating all the wild bilberries. Kokko walks along with the telescope on her back, listening to. The sun is shining on everyone the sun belongs to everyone on her walkman. She changes stations but the same song’s coming over, It warms the cold from everyone it charms the cares from everyone. Tom tom tom …

Her hands have got browner, Kokko notices, and, without meaning to, starts humming along with the song, rather too loud.

In the town’s dim late-night warmth she feels the wind in her hair and on her scalp, her stomach rumbles. Mobile phones beep and people answer. In the hospital courtyard the nurses are coming off evening duty, getting into their little cars and driving off to their families in the country. Those on weekend duty will stay in town. Kokko recalls how Tom’s nurse said she was going to go abroad to work, as the ward was closing next autumn. The tarmac in the hospital car park is hot and sticky and people’s leisure time trainers cling to the tar. On the average, Kokko estimates, every third car has a children’s seat in front, every third car, and every other car has a first-aid kit on the back seat. Kokko’s head is aching. My brains are aching, she thinks. Supposing I got a brain clot, what would happen, would I stop saying anything, all those words I’d intended to say. A clot comes, and you change, not into someone else, but you do change, into something. A new version of the same thing.

Kokko goes up to the fourth floor, checks there’s no nurse in sight. She waves to Tom, who’s wheeling his chair in the corridor, from end to end, from the first paper rack to the other. Tom notices Kokko. Or rather he first notices the telescope.

Tom waves with his sound hand and wheels over to her at high speed. Tom’s wearing a shirt of his own, the light blue one Kokko chose, with very narrow light blue stripes. ‘Yah yah yah,’ Tom shouts and begins to open the case.

‘Shush. I thought we’d go out and have a look.’

Should wait till it’s darker. Half an hour, Tom would like to say, but sets off for the lift at once, beckoning to Kokko. ‘We’ll have to creep out without letting them see.’ They’ll not notice a thing, there are so few of them. Let’s just get out and have a look, see what’s going on up there in the sky, Tom’s thinking and summons the lift. They go round to the back of the hospital. Tom sets up his tripod. It can be done with one hand, slowly, but there’s no hurry.

‘I thought what’s the use of letting it hang about there on the island, I’ll bring it here, I can lug it back again,’ Kokko says and fixes the telescope to its tripod.

Tom nods. Bright girl, he thinks. ‘I don’t know what we can see but there’s always something, something anyway,’ Kokko says. She’s nervous. The telescope stands ready on its firm tripod. Tom turns it to Kokko. Kokko puts the eyepiece in place. ‘Haven’t looked through it for fourteen years,’ Kokko says, starting to peep through the lens and focus it.

A long silence while she focuses.

‘Hell.’

‘Yah?’ Tom asks.

‘Bloody hell.’

‘Yah yah?’

‘I don’t understand.’

What is it, something new, what do you see? Tom’s getting worked up.

‘I don’t believe it,’ Kokko says.

What is it? What can you see? Something special?

Kokko looks at the sky with her naked eye, stares for a moment. Only then does she let Tom see. Kokko closes her eyes. Tom looks, there’s a moment’s silence, he adjusts it carefully. Kokko opens her eyes. Tom bursts out laughing. Wonderful sight. Really something. Splendid. Wonderful. Tom laughs, a big loud laugh. It resounds through the park, through the evening forest, it echoes back from the hospital walls, it goes on ringing still further, a big hoot of a laugh.

Kokko stands there red in the face, would like to howl.

Tom’s laugh gets louder, it swells, the peals ripple through the forest. Already it’s echoing back from somewhere.’

‘That’s not what I had in mind,’ Kokko says.

Tom laughs, his eyes are watering.

‘I don’t understand, I’ve no idea when it happened.’

Through the lens all that’s visible is a dim fog. A dark background, vague stars. No space there, no brightness, no splendour. The lens is damaged, the telescope non-functioning for now, out of order.

Has something got into it, when did it happen, how can it be mended? Kokko doesn’t know and Tom can’t advise.

Tom’s laugh carries over into the neurological department, two night nurses think it must be the town drunks at it again. Tom’s eyes are running, he just laughs and laughs, holding his tummy with his one hand. Broken, though not on purpose. Out of order, though supposed to work. So what? The laugh flies into the treetops, over the forest and disappears beyond. A laboratory assistant drops a measuring glass on a laboratory floor. The splinters spread. Tom’s laughing. Your body does what your brain doesn’t want, but so what? Tom thinks. So what, if you can’t control everything? One telescope here or there. A few commands from the brain. Broken washing machines and stolen bicycles. Machines don’t behave as you want them to, but so what? You can’t manage everything. Neither your own body, nor your own goods, they’re not your own anyway.

‘Yah yah,’ Kokko says, beginning to laugh. She has that big hoot, inherited from Tom.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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