It’s only me

30 June 2001 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the autobiographical novel Pienin yhteinen jaettava (‘Lowest common multiple’, WSOY, 1998)

The weather had not yet broken, although it was September; I had been away for two weeks.
The linden trees of the North Shore drooped their dusty leaves in a tired and melancholy way. Even the new windows were already sticky and dusty. The flat was covered in thick, stiff plastic sheeting. The chairs, the books, the Tibetan tankas and the negro orchestra I had bought in Stockholm glimmered beneath the plastic ice like salvage from the Titanic.
The windows had been replaced while I had been in Korea.
I unpacked the gifts from my suitcase. Lost in the sea of plastic, the little Korean objects looked shipwrecked and ridiculous.
My temperature was rising; it had been troubling me for more than a week.
I smiled and said something, not mentioning my temperature.
It was time to be a mother again, and a life-companion.
And a daughter….

It was not until evening that I telephoned Hämeentie road.
I waited a long time before the telephone was answered.
My father’s voice was tired and depressed, again.
‘It’s only me.’

Her voice was soft, somehow sweet.
She had begun to speak to her father as to a child.

‘Ah. Well now.’
Then the receiver was set down on the table.
I sipped some calvados. It was twenty-four years old; I had bought it on my way back from Paris. It tasted faintly of smoke and even more faintly of apples. It was just what a good calvados ought to be, but I did not enjoy it; my temperature caused unpleasant shivers of cold in my back and thighs. A minute went by, then another.
There was a rustling, the clattering of a stick and a familiar clearing of the throat. Then:
‘Here I am. I fetched a chair. You’ve come home, then.’
‘Yes. An hour ago.’

Why did she lie?

‘So.’
‘Yeah.’
I sipped some more calvados. It burned my throat and brought a sudden sweat to my hairline, which immediately cooled.
‘So you’ve been off on your travels again. You never stop.’
‘This one was business.’

She was making excuses.
For some reason she felt the need to make excuses.

‘Well, how are you,’ I asked.
‘Can’t complain.’
‘Yeah.’
‘Hanging on. Life.’
‘That’s how it is. That’s what it’s like.’

She swayed to the rhythm of her father’s speaking like a water plant in a sea-current.

‘Yes, that’s how it is.’
‘Yeah.’
‘That’s life.’
‘Mmm.’
‘Yeah.’
‘How’s Kerttu?’
Kerttu was eighty-six. Her father called Kerttu his girlfriend.
When she had met Kerttu, ten years before, Kerttu had sat in the same armchair in which her mother had once sat and from which, after her mother’s death, Aune had fled, and Lempi, who drank vermouth and played patience at eight in the morning, and Siviä, who came from a pen-friend ad.
Kerttu was a stylishly ageing widow who, with a graceful cough, had sipped the cognac she was offered with her coffee. In ten years her father had also acquainted Kerttu with whisky, Koskenkorva vodka, Smirnoff vodka, sweet wines made from berries, beers and weak gin and bitter lemon drinks.

‘They take her away every evening.’
‘Kerttu?’
‘Yeh.’
‘Where to?’
‘I don’t know.’

Her father’s voice was now heated.
Now she had to abandon her pleasant, fevered swaying.

‘Well, where?’
‘Well, where do you think old people are taken. They don’t say.’
I light a cigarette. Even that tastes of fever.
‘Who take her?’
‘Raimo. Her son. He fetches her every evening in his car. Every evening.’
‘Oh dear.’
‘Yeh.’
The receiver crackles again.
Now the crackling is impatient.
‘Maybe you could ring them,’ I hear father’s timid voice.
‘Who?’
‘Those people.’

The pause stretches unbearably.
I must take my temperature, she thinks.

‘Okay, I’ll phone them,’ I lie.
‘Yes, phone them.’
‘Yeah.’
‘They’ll tell you.’

I don’t have the energy, she thinks.
Not as a daughter. Not today, with a temperature.
Why am I thinking of myself as her again, she thinks.

‘I’ll come and see you tomorrow,’ I say, lowering my voice so I speak even more softly.
‘Yes, do.’
‘I’d come today, but I think I have a slight temperature.’
‘Oh.’
‘Take care.’
‘Got no choice.’
‘Till tomorrow.’

She sets the receiver down and looks through the kitchen window into the yard.
The caretaker is sweeping the yard and wiping sweat from his forehead.
The flowers in their wooden window boxes look burnt in the evening sun.
This summer will never end, she thinks.

That night I found myself at home in Fleminginkatu street again.
Mother had returned from a long journey again, but she did not have a suitcase.
Cheerful and absent, mother sat in the armchair in her Bucharest Festival skirt, along whose hem nations danced hand in hand.
I stood by the hall door and tried to think of a word or a sentence that would stop mother from going away again.
A ray of sunshine pierced the curtains and threw bold shadows under mother’s eyes and on to her sharp-nostrilled nose.
Mother smiled to herself and did not look at me.

That was when I woke up. My temperature had gone down slightly.

As early as nine o’clock, I telephoned my father.
There was no answer.
At ten I called Raimo.

Raimo said that Kerttu had been taken to an old people’s home the previous Tuesday and had certainly not visited Hämeentie road since.
I set out for Hämeentie road at once.
But

when she got to the North Shore she stopped, for between the tired linden trees there opens up the oil-calm sea, and along it slips a red-sailed schooner.
She commits the schooner to memory.
She needs the schooner and the sea and this moment, which she prays will last forever, so that she will not need to go to Hämeentie road or open the door or find what she already knows she will find on the other side of the door.

In the June of the previous year, father sold the summerhouse.
I did not look at the lake when I went to fetch my things, but I knew that it was glittering and that the birch trees were celebrating the verdancy of early summer as they had celebrated it for the past twenty-eight years.

In November father fetched a stick from the health centre, and in January he put the car up for sale.
As the Lada disappeared down Päijänteentie road, father grasped my hand, realised his mistake, and leaned his hand against the garage’s concrete wall:
‘So now I don’t have anything left.’

In March we buried Jopi.
I fetched my father a meat sandwich and some toffee cake from the buffet table at the funeral chapel which had sprung up beside Malmi cemetery, whose offerings I had in recent years learned by heart.
‘They all go,’ father said,
and

again she was forced to flee the decaying inconsolability in her father’s voice, the indifferent candles and the frigid clinking of the coffee cups she is absent, far away, on a glittering, shoreless sea in her own petrol-smelling boat, which in this daydream is not rotten but a proud, stiffly moving sail journeying away. Journeying away.

In July we buried Sisko, my godmother.
Father was waiting for me in front of the chapel in his white sports suit. His tie hung from his picket; father could no longer tie it, and Kerttu could not remember how the complicated manoeuvres of tying a tie went.
The laces of father’s sports shoes were undone.
I bent to tie them and led father into the chapel.
I fetched my father a meat sandwich and some toffee cake from the buffet table at the funeral chapel. I cut the sandwich up into bite-sized pieces and set the cake on a spoon so that my father could direct it into his mouth. And

she felt irritated and guilty at the approving and pitying glances whose focus she momentarily was: the good daughter.

I rang father’s doorbell. (Twenty-nine years ago it was my doorbell, too.)
Behind it was silence.
I rang again.
I peered through the letter-box. The inner door was shut.
I struck a match and used it to cast light on the dark threshold.
On the threshold was an untouched Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, and the Sunday edition of Kansan Uutiset.
The light in the stairwell went out.
And

she stood in the darkness and wanted to sink into the silent ellipse of time, to be away from here. To be away, far away from the dark stairwell.
But

I turned on the light and tried to think clearly.
I must be quick, I tried to think.
I rang the neighbour’s doorbell; I got that done.
No one answered.
I rang the other bells on father’s floor; I got that done.
No one answered, and

then she is in the lift.
After the lift there is the front door and a long stretch of asphalted yard.
She sees herself running along Hämeentie road, heated and breathless.
She sees herself hoping that she will encounter a police car with a policeman, and that the policeman will have a key and an answer to what she should do next.
She is running to the police station to get an answer and a key and promises to go to her father’s home, to her own home.
She has almost reached the policeman and the answer and the key, when

toward me come two drunken men, their arms round each others’ necks.
Hämeentie road swarmed indifferently, not caring about me, and one of the drunks was my childhood friend.
I was afraid that my childhood friend would ask something about my father, and this was the reason why I rushed into a Chinese restaurant.
I blundered toward the tables, and was stopped by the menu which a Chinese waiter pushed into my hand:
‘Good morning.’
And

She sees herself sitting on the soft chair of the Chinese restaurant studying the menu.
Now I am ridiculous, she thinks.
Now I have to do something, thinks she.
This is a nightmare, she thinks.
This is a scene from a Woody Allen movie, thinks she.
Now I must think clearly, she thinks,
and

having apologised to the astonished waiter, got up and run out to the street, I stop only when I reach the metro tunnel. I buy a metro ticket; I do not remember where I am going, but I remember that I have a fever, a high fever.
I remember that my father is behind two doors and cannot lift the Helsingin Sanomat or the Kansan Uutiset newspaper from the threshold, and

nevertheless she stands by the ticket vending machine and lets the noise of the tunnel led her away from time and space, far away.
A gypsy woman catches her long skirt in the steps of the escalator, and, sleepy and content, she hears the swift steps of the metro tunnel guards, the screech of the escalator as the stairs are violently halted; she sees hurrying past her a ceaseless, noisy stream of families, Japanese tourists, unhurried winos, white-hatted pensioners, veiled Muslim women, Somalis, Senegalese and uncomfortable children flushed with the heat.
She imagines she is in the National Museum of Korea, where a doll in a glass case rides a horse, galloping at full pelt and wearing a golden helmet whose wings she only now realises imitate flames; and then she remembers where she is.
I must think clearly, she thinks and tears herself away from her sleepy fevered dreams.
Then there is only the journey from the ticket machine to the kiosk in the tunnel.
I must buy something to write with, she thinks, and utters her thought aloud to the shop assistant.
The shop assistant looks at her in astonishment.
I must have said it wrong, she thinks, but the assistant is smiling:

‘Pencil or pen?’
I must decide, she thinks anxiously.
‘Let’s say a pencil,’ she says at random.
‘I’m afraid we don’t have any.’
And the shop assistant smiles again.
The shop assistant is a soft, round girl whose speech bears the traces of a disappearing Savo accent.
And now

I would like to stay here, to lay my head in the valley of the sales girl’s softly swelling breasts and complain about my fate, how hard it is to be a mother and a life-partner and a daughter just now. But

she still has energy to fight; she has to.
‘A pen, then.’
‘I’m afraid we don’t have one of those, either.’
Now she sees herself standing helplessly in the shadow of the swelling breasts and the Savo girl’s smile, but she no longer lets herself fall out of the grip of time and place.
‘Bloody hell,’ she hears herself saying, calmly. ‘Every kiosk stocks pens.’
And her eye falls on a ball-point pen, which is innocently lying on top of a block of squared paper.
‘That’s a pen,’ she hears her triumphant voice saying.
‘It’s a staff pen.’
And a threateningly cool current of air enters the suffocating warmth of the Savo girl’s voice.
‘I’m taking it,’ she hears her own voice,
and

then I have to run back along Hämeentie road and remember why it was so important to get a pen.
At the stairwell door I remember; I should ring the caretaker.
I must go to the stairwell and get the caretaker’s number from the notice board and go to the kiosk and telephone the caretaker and get a key to the door on the other side of which lies my father, alive or dead.

The caretaker opens the door.
‘Okay,’ I say.
The bathroom door is open.
Father is lying in his underpants on the bathroom floor, grasping the washing-machine outlet tube, his nails white.
Father’s cheek is blue.
The caretaker is standing on the front doormat.
I am standing by the bathroom door.
‘Okay,’ says the caretaker. ‘I don’t suppose I’m needed here.’
‘I suppose not,’ I say, and before I can go to my father I fish in my pocket for a hundred-mark bill and the kiosk staff’s ballpoint pen and pay for the door-opening. The caretaker leaves. The door clicks shut,
and

then time will not budge.
Now the person standing on the doormat is someone who does not know what to do.
First she yawns and thinks about her fever.
Then she wipes the telephone with her hand, and only then does she manage to step into the bathroom.
Her father’s eyelids move.
‘Hi,’ she says, and does not know what to do with the ballpoint pen, which unwittingly moves from hand to hand.
The pen feels itself to be dirty; it is now an object raped by sticky, cold sweat.
Her father’s lips move, and after a moment’s hesitation she brings here ear close to the toothless, bluish-lipped mouth:
‘You came, then. After all.’

*

‘Didn’t Elsa come, then?’
Father raises his head from the depths of the pillow and tries to look past me.
‘She’ll be here soon,’ I say, and take my father’s hand.
Father pulls his hand away.
My useless hand seeks my pocket, finds a cigarette lighter and caresses its warm metal surface.
‘I need a cigarette,’ says my father, staring wilfully at the empty corridor.
‘They won’t let you,’ I say. ‘Apparently you have water on your lungs.’
‘But the others are smoking.’
There is a little boy’s defiance in my father’s voice, and

for a moment she feels a petty desire to take revenge on her father for the senseless prohibitions of her childhood and their humiliating justifications:
‘Why can’t I?’
‘Because you can’t.’
‘But why not?’
‘Because I say so, and that’s that.’
But then her daughter Elsa arrives.

The corridor rings with the sound of metal crutches.
Lost in the folds of the curtains, the sun casts one lost ray on to the metal, which flashes under Elsa’s arm, and

for a moment she finds herself swallowing her emotion as she looks at her black-haired, metal-flashing daughter.
The old man, too, has forgotten his drip-feed bottle and cranes his neck:
‘There’s Elsa.’

‘What have you done to your foot?’ father asks grasping Elsa’s hand.
Elsa holds my father’s hand.
Swift tears rise to her black-lashed eyes, but Elsa smiles and strokes father’s cheek with her free hand.
‘She’s had a wart removed,’ I reply on Elsa’s behalf. ‘I told you.’
Father stares at Elsa fixedly.
‘Came from too much dancing.’
Father stares at Elsa and wrinkles his brow as if he were trying energetically to remember something. And Elsa allows the tears to run down her cheeks and smiles a tender, comforting smile at my father, who stares fixedly at my daughter, who is permitted to hold my father by then, and

she feels her desolate deprivation so acutely that it takes her breath away.

Fortunately, a nurse passes by, with a bottle of fruit juice in her hand.
‘What would you say the situation was here?’ I ask.
The nurse stops and smiles.
The nurse smiles at me.
I would like to think of something to say that would persuade the nurse to stop and talk to me and smile at me.
‘Pretty normal, I think,’ says the nurse, and takes a couple of steps backward, fruit juice in hand. ‘Recovery-bound, I’d say, but if you telephone the ward doctor tomorrow morning after his rounds, then….’
And the nurse leaves, and I am alone again, and I do not know what to do with my idle hands.

‘What does one of those ciné films cost these days?’ father suddenly asks, looking at me, his hand in Elsa’s.
‘What, an eight-millimetre one?’ I ask, pleasantly surprised by the attention.
‘Yeh.’
‘Seventy,’ I guess, as I am sure father will not be buying any more ciné film.
‘Oh,’ father says in a businesslike way. ‘In my day it was about thirty.;’
‘Oh,’ I too say in a businesslike way, thinking about the days that were father’s days and which no longer exist.
But father turns his eyes to Elsa, wrinkles his brow as if he were trying to grasp something, remembers the thing he has lost, smiles, and cautiously disentangles his hand from Elsa’s.
And his trembling finger slices through the air and finds the tip of Elsa’s nose.
‘Boo,’ says father, gently.
‘Boo,’ Elsa responds, wiping her eyes and cheeks on her sleeve.
‘That’s what I used to do to you when you were little,’ father whispers.

But you didn’t do it to me, she cries, and is ashamed of the pettiness of her thought, prompted by this fleeting tenderness.
She is ashamed of her debilitating jealousy and of the humble admiration which she feels toward her daughter’s naturally feminine tenderness and gentleness.
And

just now she does not wish to remember the afternoon when she and her father sat outside the door which divided them from her mother, who lay in the intensive care ward of Meilahti hospital recovering from a heart attack.
Father was a sombre, handsome, middle-aged man then, and father stared at his hands, which he had clenched into fists, and was irritated by her tears:
‘You’re not allowed to snivel here.’
‘Well, I am snivelling,’ she felt like answering.
But she did not answer; she merely rose to her feet, forced down her sobs and banged her head rhythmically against the window pane, on the other side of which ambulances came and went.
Finally the door opened, and a male nurse stepped into the lobby:
‘Are you the next of kin of Alli Helena Mellberg?’
‘Yes,’ father answered. ‘She is our wife.’

Elsa glances at me inquiringly, her hand still in my father’s.
‘Okay,’ I say.
‘Ah,’ says father.
‘I think Elsa and I are going to go now.’
Father’s fingers grip Elsa’s hand tightly:
‘Elsa, go and get my clothes.’
Elsa looks at me anxiously, and I seek support from my surroundings, but there are no nurses present.
There is only the wilderness of sick, solitary men.
‘You’ve got the car,’ father whispers heatedly. ‘You could take me and Elsa somewhere nice to sit.’
I give a laugh, and Elsa, too, laughs in embarrassment.
‘I think you’re going to have to spend another couple of nights here,’ I lie.
Father presses his head against the pillow:
‘Oh.’
‘Yeah,’ I say.
And then there is nothing left to do but to squeeze his hand, which does not want to be squeezed:
‘Take care.’
‘Got no choice,’ father says into the pillow, and

we are at home.
My feet hurt.
I open the calvados bottle, and the smoky apple flavour burns my tongue. The telephone rings.
‘Let’s not answer.’
‘We’ve got to,’ Elsa says.
‘We don’t,’ and

she still feels in her side her father’s painful elbowing, when her father and she race to wash their hands to get to her entubed mother.
They still have to put on white coats, white gloves and white surgical masks, whose ribbons she too leaves untied when she notices that her father has shoved his into the pocket of his white coat.
But before they reach the bed she catches up with her father, and breathless from the race they stand on either side of her mother.
Mother lies in the bed white, transparent.
And she realises that mother does not dare open her eyes because she is not sure whose jealous gaze they will meet first.

‘It’s from the hospital.’
Elsa stands in the doorway; the backlighting makes her black hair glow white.
I swallow the taste of smoke slowly.
I linger as I pass the sleeping Alexei, purring on his back on the sofa, past the bathroom, its lights accidentally left on, past the yellowing and cracking doorway of the kitchen, which only now do I note needs painting.
The receiver is next to the coffee machine.
I must lift it.
It feels cool and distant, but I must raise it to my ear.

Father is dead.

From the nurse’s voice I hear that this is a great and solemn, astonishing event.
‘Ah,’ I hear myself say, but in reality I look through the window at the back yard, which the September darkness has not succeeded in swallowing.
A sturdy, white flower spreads its veil and I am astonished that I do not remember having seen it before.
And then

what is left is the journey past the cracking doorway, the unnecessarily lighted bathroom, the purring cat, to the carpet, where Elsa stands with a questioning look.
‘Grandpa’s dead.’
And Elsa smiles swiftly and presses against me.
I breathe into Elsa’s hair, and my heart beats against Elsa’s forehead.
And I never want to move again, to leave this moment with my daughter, and

I never did.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

Tags: ,