Briefcase man

Issue 4/2000 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Aura (Otava, 2000). Introduction by Mervi Kantokorpi

He was born in the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland the year the world caught fire. He learned to read the year of the revolution, and spoke two languages as his mother tongue border – language and enemy language, as he often used to say. He was proud of only one of his languages; the other, he loved secretly. He spoke one loudly, the other softly, almost in a whisper.

At night, on the telephone, he spoke far away – you could see it, even in the dark, from his expression, his half-closed eyes sometimes breaking into song. It was so beautiful and soft that I wept under the blankets and hated myself because of the effect that language had on me.

Stinking tinker Karelian trickster Russian drinker, little Russky’s dancing in a leather skirt, skirt tears and oh! little Russky’s hurt.

Count to ten, he said. But count in Finnish. Or Swedish, that’ll baffle them. And if they call you a Swedish bastard, it’s not so bad. I’ve taught you the numbers in Arabic and Spanish, too, but I don’t think you’ll be able to remember them yet.

And when you buy sweets from the Colonial Stores, remember that your father is a colonial and that we don’t have the money to buy expensive truffles and soft-centre sweets.

At primary school, I remember the teacher asking anyone who was the child of an evacuee. When I didn’t react fast enough, Susanna pointed at me and said loudly: she’s one of them too!

Later I came to understand that Karelia was a little colony. In summertime, there was the festival of the hundred days, when rich Russians came to the isthmus to enjoy life, to drink and make merry, and to have the local people wait on them.

Little Ensio was one of those who earned his first pennies from the Russians, and sometimes from the French and German gentlefolk. He sold bunches of flowers that he had picked, ladybirds in jam jars, ran cigarette-­buying errands, took messages. Once a Polish princess gave him a piece of a gold chain which had broken on the dance floor. He kept it in a secret place he had hollowed out of a tree, in a little birch-bark box that had been his moth­er’s, and even wrote a poem about the event, The Princess’s Gold Chain.

In his stories, shame is always mixed with pride, his homeland is being sold, in delicate wooden villas people are seeing the dawn in, while the hired hands watch the extraordinary goings-on in amazement, it’s summer, and inequality flourishes. His grandparents polished boots and silver and remembered to wipe their palms on their thighs before shaking hands.

The first row, the edge of the arena. We had the best seats. The benches had been covered with red velvet. I was excited to be so close – next on stage would be Raisa Rubin and the dancing bears. I wondered what their breath would smell like, bitter or sweet. Perhaps they would come close enough for me to be able to pull out some of their coarse, brown hairs and sellotape them into my diary.

I thought I could already hear them growling behind the curtain. He quieted me. If there was something to be heard, it was bears’ language, listen carefully; he smiled so that his gold tooth glittered. What do bears talk about? Perhaps they tell jokes. That’s what you do when you’re a bit nervous. What kind of jokes do they tell? They’re probably about freedom, he replied, slightly impatiently, watching as two clowns stumbled into the arena. The bears were in chains; he had seen them not long ago in Moscow. He had contacts.

After his day job as an insurance clerk, he was a night porter at the Ursula hotel; at weekends he was an interpreter for Finno-Russian trade delegations. He travelled a lot. Mother always called him Briefcase Man: Briefcase Man comes and Briefcase Man goes, she said. The briefcase had two sections; it was brown, and smelled of sturgeon, vodka and dark chocolate. The bottom was the colour of silt from everything that had lain forgotten for too long underneath his interpreter’s papers. It’s a magic briefcase, father said when I stared. Sometimes when the briefcase was leaning flat-looking, against the sofa-leg, I crept up to it and pushed my head inside, breathing in, deeply, the air of his eastern journeys.

Suddenly we were under the spotlight, the trumpets blared, and the two clowns came and pulled him on stage. He resisted vehemently, as if he had been grabbed by the police; I saw his coat-sleeve tear and the cream-coloured lining appear.

Luckily mother was not with us.

I didn’t know if I should laugh. Was it the right thing to do? Had this been arranged beforehand? The clowns dragged him forward. I glanced furtively at the faces of the rest of the audience. Tears were already pouring down their cheeks, and some were slapping their thighs. A little red-headed boy in the third row stuck his tongue out at me and thumbed his nose.

In the middle of the arena, he was sat down on a low stool where he slipped and almost fell. Part of his metal leg-brace showed briefly under his trouser-leg. Had anyone noticed? Mother and he met in a military hospital where she, a nurse, was fitting a temporary orthopaedic supports to a wounded soldier; that was where their eyes had first met. Your knee’s a complete mess, isn’t it, was mother’s first comment to her future husband. And a moment later she asked whether the same shell had done that too, pointing to the soldier’s cheek. A horse kicked me, the patient responded, after a moment’s thought. A warhorse with a temper, then, mother had continued as she changed his dressing. Aye, a mare with a flaxen mane, she was; I’d had a few and I was trying to land on her back in’t field in the middle of the night, the patient had replied. Later they remembered those words, marvelled at each others’ ways of speaking’ endlessly comparing one another’s language, how do you say ‘I could drown in your eyes’, ‘I’m freezing’, ‘this winter will never end’.

The clowns placed a towel on his chest; the short, fat clown snatched the towel away and showed the tall, thin one how it should be done: the elephant approached them, slowly swinging its trunk.

In front of him were two buckets of water. In one there billowed thick white foam, while an enormous brush stuck out of the second.

The audience howled. At what was, inevitably, going to happen next. And it was no time at all before his head disappeared in the foam, before the elephant began to whisk the brush to and fro over his face. The music played, the clowns jumped up and down and the audience clapped in rhythm. I pushed my fists so deep into the pockets of my pinafore dress that the stitches broke. I jumped and swallowed my chewing gum.

The elephant sprayed him with its trunk. His dark suit was already wet through. His best suit, his interpreter’s suit. The elephant went on enthusiastically spraying it him, sucking up water from the bucket and aiming at his face. I feared for his false teeth, worrying that the water would take them with it. He took them out when he was sick, and in the morning they would be in the left-hand pocket of his suit. If I woke up before him, I would take them to the bathroom and put them in the water-glass on the mirror shelf.

Finally the elephant upturned the bucket over his head; the music followed the elephant’s movements skilfully. The elephant flapped its ears against its sides and kept opening its little pink mouth. A man in overalls ran up to take the animal away.

A camera! I had his little black box camera in my lap. He would be cross if there wasn’t a single picture of the circus. I snapped lots of pictures, one after the other. My hands were shaking and I could feel my cheeks glowing.

Then it was time for the applause. The clowns ran round the arena in their floppy-toed shoes and giant peaked caps while he staggered between them; his leg-brace had finally slipped completely, the Thirteenth of the Third, as he called it, after the day he was wounded. He bowed and tried to set the brace back in place. The clowns mimicked him, bowing to one another and to him

so that their heads banged together and their backsides bumped into each other.

What’s your name? Our Finnish comrade is going to tell everyone his own name!

After the question there was complete silence. Then the orchestra rolled the drums.

Don’t you have a name? This comrade doesn’t have a name of his own?

The audience screamed and whistled. He staggered heavily forward; his damp trousers were covered in sawdust to the knee. I had a terrible thought: what if he had peed in his trousers – how would we get home, with everyone staring at him, never mind the smell, in the tram-car?

The clowns began to imitate his way of walking, limping round the arena. The orchestra played a limping rhythm. I pushed my nails into my palms so hard it hurt. Suddenly he stood still. The music stopped. He said something to the tall, thin clown.

The clown pushed a microphone up to his mouth. A sound came from his throat. I had not heard anything like it before. It was something like the voices of the bears as they waited behind the curtain. And whatever it was, he also repeated.

On the way, home, we stopped at the Bear Park. He sat on a bench with his head in his hands and wept. I thought about what to say to him: that it didn’t matter that we didn’t see Raisa Rubin and the bears. Would I dare to say that I’d remembered to take some pictures, since the whole shameful incident was immortalised in them. Of course, I wouldn’t say anything to mother, just as I had never told anyone about the relative who had caught sleeping sickness in the Red prisoners’ camp during the civil war and died in the sleeping-sickness ward at Nikkilä mental hospital.

I wanted to tell him I was loyal, that I had kept and that I always would keep all our family’s wordless agreements. Shame was a certain seal.

The evening darkened, and his shoulders were like those of the statue at the edge of the park. I knew the park. When I was quite small, I had been sat between the statue’s legs while my mother visited a nearby shop. The bear will look after you, my mother said.

There aren’t any circuses like that any more; wild animals no longer tour with circus troupes; the audience no longer whispers, during the trampolinist’s performance, about whose wife has fled to the West and whose brother has been sent to the gulag. Rabbits flee; goulash is something you eat. At home, lots of things were talked about in lowered voices, whispers. When my friends asked about strange words they had heard, I told them what I knew, that some people wanted to move from East to West, but weren’t allowed to. The ones that tried were taken to prison camps or gulags. The ones that succeeded were called defectors.

So why does your dad always travel to the East? I was asked. If everyone wants to move out of there.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to say for two reasons.

I didn’t know what exactly he did out there in the East; he did a lot of things, officially and unofficially, as my mother said, and I wasn’t quite sure whether I was allowed to say anything about the icons and the gold jewellery. And I couldn’t easily call him dad, our dad. He was Ensio, Briefcase Man and the Big Man in my mother’s language of the present day, Ensu inthe language of their engagement and Enska to his colleagues and other, jazzier company. The people who came to the funeral came to honour Enska’s memory. For many of them, it was a surprise that he had a family.

I didn’t have a name of my own for him.

When he came home from work, he wrapped me in a great grey blanket and laughed hoarsely when I squealed and squirmed against the pressure. His breath smelled of liquor. I could hardly breathe in my tube, but he just rolled me round the living room, shouting: quiet as a mouse, mute as a fish, that’s how the blanket destroyer flies!

Sometimes I asked my mother the reason why he behaved like that. Mother thought about her reply for a moment and said that Ensio’ s best childhood friend was a mute boy. They were inseparable. Ensio was talkative on behalf of his friend, and the mute boy, on the other hand, had something which Ensio did not: loving parents and a large family. When war broke out, the friends were sent to different parts of the front, and the mute boy was killed.

Did mute people have to go to war too? I wondered. And, after all, the boy didn’t even speak Russian? I added as I totted up the injustices.

Mother shrugged her shoulders.

War is war. You need a lot of deaf ears for a war to start.

Later, when asked whether I ever travelled with my father, I have answered that I went on four trips with him, all westward. It is not true. Those evening blanket-flights were trips too; it was just that he never told me much about the landscape he was flying me through.

At the front, he wrote on scraps of paper which he bound together to form a book which he had christened, ‘A small dictionary of war.’ In it, during periods of leave, he wrote words and phrases he had invented, dialect terms he had not heard before, and ordinary peacetime words which he missed.

Vocabulary, he said. is everything to human beings. A human being is nothing without vocabulary. Everyone has his own; everyone is the first keeper of that arsenal of words. One should treat vocabulary with at least the same respect and caution as a military arsenal.

There are words which one shakes hands with and treats with indifference, with mechanical interest, certain that they will never mean very much to one’s own life. There are also words which one approaches slowly, almost fearfully; even from a distance, their influence seems dizzying, or like a strange coolness at the neck, barbarian words, threatening in their terror and beauty they can suddenly strike one to the ground. Even kill. But such words are written only by true writers.

Look, I have an artificial joint in my knee, he explained. A substitute. You can’t see it, but I can feel it. Walking isn’t right. It’s the same with writing. Enska has lived everything that Enska has written. An artificial story is an artificial story. It’s always clunky; and in the end it gives way.

Every morning, sitting on the sofa, he arranged his leg brace, with careful movements, around his calf, and set his foot under the arch. Then he pulled on the specially made black, always black, invalid shoe. Tightened the laces and pulled down his trouser leg, and no one noticed, except if he began to run. The support brace at his calf was of dark yellow amber, like the preserved light of the past; you could see insect legs in it.

He never lost it, although all sorts of other things disappeared on his trips and travels. Once he walked home barefoot along Hämeentie road, his face bloody, his leg brace in his hand, his socks and shoes who knows where but the brace in his hand. The price of a little country cottage, he said, if someone happened to ask. History rests on my calf. I’m Lightfoot.

He slept with the brace against the sofa; when he woke, the nrst thing he saw was the yellow mass which had entrapped small insects.

He went to the library twice a week, always bringing back the same number of books: one for each day. He said he had read a book from beginning to end every single day of his life, whether it was a guide to playing patience or a Sillanpää novel. A book a day; on good days, two.

After his second heart attack, I took the books he had ordered to him in Meilahti hospital; the offerings of the hospital library did not satisfy him. I remember being astonished by his list – Blixen, Lagerlöf, Södergran. We never talked about literature. He gave me books for Christmas, books for my birthday, always with the receipt so that I could exchange them if I didn’t like them. I never exchanged them. He never asked me what I thought of what I read.

After the television programmes ended, we both wrote by lamplight, I at the kitchen table sheltered by my homework books, he at the coffee table in the living room, a dark, bowed silhouette against the red-black Karelian evacuee’s wall-hanging, puffing away at his pipe.

On those evenings, he took out the iron, spread a grey blanket out on the kitchen table, his best dark suit on the blanket and a piece of gauze over the suit.

He was in a solemn mood, and smelled of a cloying eastern shaving lotion: there was work in prospect, important gentlemen. The Overseas Insurance board of the USSR. An award ceremony, flashlights, important guests. Much to interpret, and not just official negotiations, but small-talk, toasts, glasses thrown into the fireplace, jokes from the bluer end of the spectrum.

You should send those writings of yours to the papers, too, and you’d earn some pocket money, he said as he hung his suit up on a hanger from the door­frame.

What writings? I asked grumpily, slamming my journal shut.

He smiled broadly and his gold tooth twinkled. Was it a superior smile, or did it just feel like that to me? He had just won second prize in some dialect word gathering competition and his summer nature poem had been published. More certificates for the wall, more cuttings for the cuttings book.

He adjusted his suit trousers and laid the gauze gently over them; his white shirt reached almost halfway down his thigh and left his pale, hairy legs and all his scars visible. His legs were surprisingly thin although his stomach was big. His leg-brace was in place, the piece of amber against his calf.

I went out, and the door slammed behind me. I fled once again to the laundry room to write, sitting on a small wooden stool and writing with a washboard on my knees, leaning on a large iron cauldron where, as a little girl. I sometimes curled up when they were quarrelling at home. I pretended I was a little white girl on an island full of cannibals.

We got on the number three tram at its end-stop in Porvoonkatu street and changed to the number four at Mannerheimintie street.

I sat by the window looking at people and streets as they flashed by. The palms of my hands were sweating and I thought everyone could hear me swallow.

He sat beside me, holding his briefcase. From time to time he lifted his chin, as if his shirt collar were too tight. He looked straight ahead, just as if something interesting had happened in the front part of the tramcar.

Mother sometimes called us the Great Hate and the Little Hate, after an episode in Finnish history, since both of us sulked by sinking into wordless ill-temper.

What if there weren’t any watches I liked in the watch shop. What if the one I wanted was too expensive. What if he had already made a deal with the owner of the watch shop. The watch shop was in Töölö, opposite the insurance company, and the owner’s name was Sergei, what if he spoke Russian with him and other customers came into the shop and heard. What if he called me Pat­ent, as he always did.

I didn’t know how to talk to him, or even in his company. We didn’t share an atmosphere, words, language. He had his nightmares, I my daydreams. He had lists of words about birds and winds but no language for his daughter.

He died when Finland’s eastern neighbour was still called the Soviet Union. His gravestone records Viipuri as his place of birth and Moscow as his place of death. He died in the middle of a very long sentence concerning a trade agreement between Finland and the Soviet Union.

It was a longtime before I understood that he would never return, smelling of Russian tobacco, ruddy-faced, with his briefcase. I often had the feeling that he was just on a trip somewhere in the Soviet Union. Perhaps the trip had been extended, perhaps he was looking for suitable icons to sell, searching through the cellars of this and that old house or always interpreting commercial negotiations for new delegations. In a word: he was drinking vodka with the businessmen of both countries.

I have since heard that he danced the trepak from one end of a long dinner table to the other. Some of us were wounded that way.

In the summer, my hair was bleached by the sun so that he called me Flaxenmane. Sometimes he stroked my hair as he passed. I knew that he longed for a horse of his own, for riding. After the war and his wounding, he was never again able to get on a horse’s back; his weak calf meant he could not give the right commands.

He strokes my pony-tail and asks me to scratch his back. I fetch a long thin back-scratcher from the green clay vase where it’s kept. He calls it a maracat’s fist. He brought it back from Egypt.

What are those? I ask when the head of the back-scratcher catches on his skin.

A bear-hug, he says.

What? I’m startled.

From a grenade.

I scratch the skin on his back and don’t say any more. It’s awful to think that someone shot at him. He was aimed at. He almost exploded. A tank almost drove over him. Bombers howled over his head. There’s a bear in every Finn’s heart, he says. Just look at the pictures in our album, for instance; there they are, a dark shadow behind every one of them.

What are they, those bears?

Dreams that have grown fur coats, he answers.

What nonsense you talk to that child, comments mother as she walks by. Why don’t you talk about Winnie the Pooh like other children’s fathers. You should take the child to the circus like other children’s fathers.

I will, father answers, I will.

Later, mother remembers that when he was younger Ensio had a bad case of acne, and that the holes in his back did not, strictly speaking, come from the war. And that his favourite place in Viipuri was the Black Bear Bar; there were clear crawling marks from there to his front door.

Father was half quarry, half battlefield, mother used to say as she polished the photograph on the bookcase. The photograph stood in front of Sillanpää’s collected works, mother’s shy hommage to her husband’s great dream. Not a Nobel prizewinner, but a quarry and a battlefield.

On his birthday, the day before May Day, I often telephoned my mother and reminded her how old Ensio would be if he were still alive. Oh, I don’t want to think about the war any more, my mother said uncomfortably’ and asked when I was going to graduate.

Which war, marriage or the other one, I wondered.

Mother did not wish to think about her husband’s dim family background or the years of his youth in what was now Russia, for in those thoughts lay the possibility that the two of them – and all of us – lived there and spoke Russian, drank bitter tchai and listened to the May Day speech of our drunken, swollen president.

Blanket Destroyer Bear’s Tongue False Bottom Horsey Name Sicklecheek Hatsize Balsam Russkywrong Flaxenmane Fake Joint Amber Support Patent Lightfoot. How he loved words, their shaping, baking, exploding, tacking, naming. When words were not enough, he smashed furniture, slapped his wife’s face, slammed his fist through a glass door, cut his tongue with a knife. I carried his urn in my lap. Our last journey together. So close to him, and no trace of the smell of liquor. A brave soldier, a qualined drinker. At the graveside, I spun round a couple of times: quiet as a mouse, mute as a fish, that’s how the blanket destroyer flies.

After writing the above, I went into the living room and drank a glass of wine. I switched on the television and flicked through the channels. ‘Do you want me to blow your brains out?’ ‘I want to lick your little pussy!’ ‘Well, it’s kinda like, you know!’

I turned off the television and set the television remote control next to the video remote control on the glass table. I look at them, lying together there. The video remote control is smaller, and for some reason curved, like a link sausage, as if it had started to shrink on one side. As if it had bowed, been humiliated.

My father came home in a zinc coffin, wearing his dark interpreter’s suit. His briefcase came back to Finland separately, and had to be signed for at customs on account of the number of vodka bottles it contained.

My father died, drunk, in a foreign country, his mouth full of words; he suffocated on the lies between our countries. Alcoholism, too, is a language. It was my father’s third mother tongue.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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