Underage

Issue 2/1999 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Leiri (‘Camp’, Otava 1972). Interview by Maija Alftan

In the dark and wet the tram seemed like a stale-smelling and badly-lit waiting room at a country station, its Post Office Savings Bank advertisement set out of reach of vandalising underage hands. The conductress was two-thirds out of sight behind her desk: a small person. I glanced at the time stamped on my ticket. My only timepiece.

It was the time of day when you can see your own face in the window and through to the outside as well. I stood in the doorway, hanging onto the bar. As the tram turned into the narrow canyon of Aleksanterinkatu, the street seemed like some kind of cellar. Fantastic, how the world darkens at the end of the year. And then, when it’s at its darkest, everything goes totally white. The low-slung cars seemed to be slinking round the tram’s feet.

Hanging onto the next bar to me there was a slim woman with nice legs. I could see her face reflected in the narrow window on the door. It was a petite white face. I reckoned it’d last another fifty or sixty years, in spite of her delicate skin and frail eyelashes, the ever-so fine hair in her eyebrows and her eyes’ translucent corneas. After all, the body cells are completely renewed every seven years.

The tram came to a halt, and something the size of a group of tourists got off. We turned towards the Guard House. The young woman was still hanging on to the bar. She hadn’t taken a seat, though there were empty places. The sentry was standing at ease on a low platform. There was a ben hanging next to him. He could go and stand under it. I thought, and push his head inside if shrapnel started falling. He was wearing his military fur hat. You could tell the official beginning of winter from when the soldiers put on their fur hats. They put on their summer caps a month later than other people, and their fur hats two months earlier. It made me think of those Helsinki sports who’d never had a fur hat. How did it feel when they put an army fur hat on? When you first put it on in the autumn, the thing feels so heavy, it weighs your head down, but it’s not so much the weight, it’s the pressure. You don’t even know you’ve got hair, unless you’ve given it a good combing.

The beautiful white-haired girl got off. I felt as if I’d been robbed. I got off myself at the next stop. The tram wasn’t going any further. It was the terminus. I walked to the corner and looked at the street names. No luck. I set off for the next corner. The very same miss was coming towards me. I asked her.

‘It’s over that way. You should have taken the first stop after the bridge.’ So she remembered me from the tram! She was on her way to a dairy, which was down some steps in a cellar. I lingered at the window to see how she got on. There was bread on the shelves. The walls were lined with crispbread packets. The acoustics would be pretty good: there was a young woman behind the counter who’d undoubtedly have a shrill voice.

When she came back up from the shop, she had to watch her step. There were packets under each arm, and a milk bottle.

‘Can I give you a hand?’ I said and rushed to grab the bottle.

‘Yes, please quick with the bottle,’ she said and went down a passageway nearby. It was as dark as if we were in the country. I couldn’t get a glimpse of her. There was a funny corner, and at the other end of the passageway the sort of dim outline of the yard. I groped along like someone blind, but just with one hand. With the other I pressed the bottle tight against my chest. I was pressing so hard, I could feel the cold all through my scarf, my shirt and my cotton vest.

‘Hold the door open till I put the light on.’

‘What door?’ I asked.

My hand met something. I fumbled about, couldn’t sort anything out. It was like a wall all right, but suddenly it quietly vanished. I turned and tripped over a step. The milk bottle twisted from my hand and went rolling down the hallway with a clatter. There was a slope, a long one. The clatter told me how far it went. I dashed after the bottle. I´d have to grab it before it stopped or I´d not be able to find it. I got hold of it and went back. The young woman was holding a door open, with a light behind it.

We started creeping up the staircase. She went in front.

‘Pity they don’t have a lift here,’ I said to disguise my puffing and blowing.

‘They won’t put one in either. They’re going to pull the place down.’

‘A builder told me that a lot of these blocks’ll have to be demolished, and in a hurry, because at the beginning of the century there was a boom, and a lot of jerry-building went on. They put a layer of timber on the ground and then built stone walls on top of that. This place’ll be from the turn of the century too.’

‘Don’t know. Didn’t live here then.’

‘You must have plenty of peace and quiet living in an old house like this, with such thick walls,’ I said. ‘And all the people with families live on the housing estates. You hear no cry of child, no grinding of an axe.’

‘That’s from the Kalevala.’

‘Sorry. I shouldn’t,’ I muttered.

We hurried up to about the fifth floor. I couldn’t bring myself to ask how many. She might think I was bothered about the long haul. Besides, it would have been completely off the mark. I often wish there were a house as high as life is long, so that you’d not have to do a thing but walkup the stairs. It would make life straightforward and easy.

She opened the door and switched the entrance hall light on. Lit up like that, she was more beautiful than in the tram or the street or in front of the shop. The better the light the more beautiful she was. She was beautiful.

‘Big entrance halls in these old houses,’ I said.

She took the milk bottle from me and thanked me.

‘It’s still the same bottle,’ I said.

‘There’s no one at home,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you go and sit down in the sitting room there and recover. I’m going to brush my teeth.’ I didn’t see where she disappeared to.

I went into the sitting room and sat down. That was what it was for. I listened. I could have heard a mouse breathing. I took a fervent look at the coatrack in the hall. No sign of a man’s coat or hat. There was a woman’s fur coat. Must have been an expensive one, for I’d never seen a fur coat like it. I half thought of leaving without saying goodbye. All I had in my wallet was fifteen marks. But I calmed down when I took a more careful look at the sitting room. It looked like a refined person’s set-up. There was a bookshelf, with a radio, empty flower vases, and books: Grimberg’s History of Europe, some Finnish Annals and other romances. Along one wall there was a row of old peasant-style wooden chairs, as if at a country do. They were great, in that no two were alike. There were good carpenters in the old days, I was thinking, but they weren’t up to making two objects exactly the same and it’s not like the experts say, that they didn’t want to make them the same. Everyone does. In the centre of the room there were three high-backed armchairs. They were like three grizzly bears made to sit up, paws outstretched, drooping at the ends. On the wall there was a picture of Vyborg Castle. A photo.

‘Are you Karelian then?’ I shouted.

‘I’ll be there in a minute,’ she called in a melodious voice like tinkling bells, as if she were riding through the snowy forest on a white horse. I imagined she was changing her clothes into something more summery.

She came back in an overcoat and her bonnet. For the first time I realised there was a tassel on it, dangling from a long cord. She went to the front door and opened it. She switched off the entrance-hall light and lit the one on the staircase. On the way down I couldn’t think of anything to say.

Outside, powerful lamps were hanging in the middle of the street.

‘Would you like some coffee? Is there a cafe nearby?’ I asked.

‘I’ve brushed my teeth. I’ve got to be at the dentist’s at six.’

‘It’s only five now.’

‘I’m half way through this magazine serial. I’m reading it in the waiting room, you see. I won’t be able to find it anywhere else – it’s at least three years old.’

‘There’s a good show on at the National Theatre tomorrow,’ I said.

‘I’ve a geometry test the day after tomorrow.’

‘Are you at some school?’

‘Yes.’

‘Evening school?’

‘No, Just ordinary.’

‘It’s a difficult subject.’

‘I’ll get an E.’

‘Are you in the language stream?’

‘No, we’re not split into streams yet.’

‘What class are you in?’

‘Form three,’ she said.

‘So you’ve been held down several years?’

‘No, not once, but this time I shall be.’

‘What for?’

‘The maths teacher hates me.’

‘Why?’

‘When he blows his top at me, I wink at him.’

We parted by the tram.

‘See you,’ I said.

‘Bye then,’ she said and went.

I climbed into the tram. The driver and the conductor were smoking on the pavement. They ground out the stubs with their heels, as if they were crushing a snake’s head.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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