Blind man’s buff

31 March 2002 | Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Laituri matkalla mereen (‘A jetty to the sea’, WSOY, 2001)

Ten steps along the path marked out by the poet

In a gravel pit illegally dug by the sand-king Gropius and later abandoned, the colonel and Henry were shooting at tin cans with pistols. The pit neighboured the Colonel’s home, and he was in the habit of carrying out target practice there with the help of Jovan, to keep his hand in.

The cans were placed at twenty-metre intervals in front of a sandbank and were raised on coil springs, so they swayed freely in the air. Each of them was attached to a long line; this, when pulled, swayed the cans, rattling stones inside them. Following the sound, the colonel identified the can’s position, aimed and fired. The hits he heard himself, the misses usually struck the pieces of hardboard behind the cans. These were divided up dartboard-fashion into sectors and rings, and Jovan used binoculars to spot the hits on them and announce the points of impact as clock-numbers and distances from the can’s central position, enabling the colonel to correct his aim. This he did with the aid of a rake. He held the rake upright, prongs downwards, so that its handle stood roughly perpendicular to the ground. Moving the handle sideways with careful estimation, and sliding his pistol hand up or down on the handle, he was able to make corrections with reasonable accuracy and determine his aim.

The colonel fired with his Parabellum pistol, which had been fitted with a five-and-a-half-inch long barrel from the Finnish Tikkakoski firearms factory. Henry shot smaller cans with a Red Army Tokarev pistol.

‘You ought to give the blind a bit of a handicap you know,’ the colonel said.

While the colonel was firing, Henry did the can-swaying and checked with the binoculars. The Colonel’s accuracy was remarkable. He managed one hit out of three, Henry the same.

‘You’re no bad shot for a pedagogical rostrum-spouter, Loimu,’ the colonel said. ‘That’s three hits for you already.’

‘Six misses, though, and I’ve got my sight, for God’s sake,’ Henry moaned.

‘And I’ve my hearing, and my wits about me,’ the colonel said.

When, at his turn, Henry again missed, the colonel said, ‘Never mind. The Tokarev’s not for sharpshooters. It’s meant for taking out people at close range. It’ll have snuffed a few out here too. First Finns, then Russians.’

‘In that order?’ Henry wondered.

‘Must confess, I didn’t get that weapon in Russia,’ the colonel said. ‘Had it for decades. Dad brought it back from the front. It belonged to a certain Colonel Gavrilov, who fell at Kuhmo. My father got hold of it in that battle and took it, so to speak, into his keeping. That was the usual thing then. Don’t feel bad, do you, that I didn’t bring it specially home from Russia, as your present? I did intend to bring you something, but then time got short. So yesterday I came across this pistol of dad’s. I thought you’d value my gift anyway: this pistol has sentimental value for me, you know.’

‘I value it all right, but don’t for heaven’s sake give it away. Keep it as a memento of your father.’

Henry took the pistol out of his pocket and thrust it into the colonel’s hand. But the colonel wasn’t having that and forced it back on him.

‘A gift is a gift,’ the colonel said. ‘A coming-home present isn’t something you can take back, though this is more of a going-away present. You might still need it. Who knows, maybe soon too.’

‘What would I need it for?’ Henry wondered.

‘You could use it as a personal, supernumerary pocket-weapon in Bosnia,’ the colonel said.

‘Are you still on about sending me to Bosnia?’ Henry laughed.

‘I’ve got a very strong premonition you’ll be off there of your own accord,’ the colonel said. ‘You’re a kind of natural for a peacekeeper. Full of noble principles, and you have some kind of historical sense, though very theoretical. You’re brainy with languages, and you even know a bit of Russian. You’ve had enough military training, you’re brave, not to say foolhardy, your life’s lacking direction and just now you’re frustrated as hell.’

‘What makes you think that?’ Henry asked.

‘Even the blind can see that,’ the colonel said. ‘What’s keeping you here any longer?’

‘I’ve got my dog,’ Henry said, with an attempt to turn the thing into a joke.

‘You’ve given the dog away to your ex-wife,’ the colonel said, and it gave Henry the creeps that the colonel knew that too.

‘It was just a temporary arrangement,’ he muttered.

‘What in human life isn’t?’ the colonel said. ‘Or in a dog’s life? Nothing’s very lasting, not happiness, not sorrow, not being in love, not a dog, not even the Drina River Bridge. Nor would your posting in the SFOR be. You’ll do your stint abroad, come back a little older, a little wiser, and perhaps have seen the Drina River Bridge with your own eyes. For it’s still well and truly there, in spite of everything – someone let me know when I rang Camp Jussi at Doboj. Think about it. Make that bridge your thing. Also, agree to accept that gift-pistol, and give it another try. See that brandy bottle over there at the foot of that telegraph pole? Of course you do. Funnily enough, it turned up in the leg-room at the back of my car. My best brandy, Monet XO. I picked up the smell on the way to the dance but didn’t know where it was coming from. Hadn’t been drinking it myself. Hardly Mavra either. Take a pot at that.’

‘Do I have to start up again?’ Henry asked reluctantly.

‘Fire away. It’s empty, isn’t it? We’ll easily clean up the bits of glass,’ the colonel said.

Henry aimed carelessly and fired.

‘Missed,’ he said.

‘So I hear,’ the colonel said. ‘You bungled. Maybe we’ll call it a day now. Come and have tea, will you? Mavra’ll be delighted.’

It occurred to Henry to slope off and leave the colonel by himself in the sand pit. The thought shamed him, and he decided that if the colonel wanted to play cat and mouse, he’d play the game to the end. As the mouse. But he’d never enter the colonel’s house again.

‘I’m sorry, but I can’t just now,’ he said.

‘Not got tired of her, have you?’ the colonel asked.

‘By no means,’ Henry affirmed. ‘She’s a wonderful Russian teacher.’

‘Yes, isn’t she?’ the colonel said proudly. ‘Dedicated to the job and conscientious. I heard your language sessions often went on from morning till night. No, it wasn’t Mavra who told me, be assured of that. It was Söderholm. I don’t know how he knew: the old geezer’s incredibly short-sighted. He lives over there across the road, you know. Maybe he recorded your radiation coming and going and calculated his conclusions. I drew my own. How should I put it? Should I give it to you straight, or indirectly? I think I’ll put it straight, after all: I came to the conclusion that you’d got an oral-erotic relationship blossoming with my wife. I suppose you’re not going to break it off just because I’m back?’

Henry looked over at the tin cans swaying in the wind. They clattered hollowly, though they were shot full of holes. The entry holes were neat in the human body as well. On their way out the bullets made a nasty breach.

‘You’ve gone very quiet,’ the colonel said. ‘Does that mean you’re saying yes? Or no?’

‘I’m not saying no,’ Henry said.

‘That’s what I thought,’ the colonel said. ‘You’re a straight fellow. And quick off the mark. You flash about so quickly, you leave your own shadow behind. You’re here, there and everywhere at one and the same time. With my wife in fact. It’s a rare gift, that. But love’s the mother of invention. You of course love her sincerely, don’t you? You want to make her you own, etcetera?’

‘I don’t deny that either.’

‘And I, for my part, am not giving her away. So what’s the way forward?’

‘Supposing we let her choose?’ Henry suggested.

‘I’m not sure about that. She might choose you,’ the colonel said.

‘It doesn’t look that way,’ Henry said. ‘I’ve tried in fact.’

‘I’m sure you have,’ the colonel said. ‘So this is how it is. What’s the way forward? Have you any suggestions?’

‘Supposing I withdraw?’ said Henry.

‘That’d be a simple way out, but I very much fear you’d not be up to it,’ the colonel said. ‘It’s impossible to withdraw from Mavra. I know, if anyone does.’ The colonel walked over to a fallen pine and sat on its trunk. Henry was astonished at the sureness of his movements.

‘Don’t think you’re the first young man she’s been drawn to,’ the colonel said. ‘There’ve been some before. Maybe she’s told you about them. I’ve not made a fuss over them: I do understand our tangled situation. I’m already getting on and she’s just beginning to blossom, after that hell she went through in Bosnia. I knew that if I kept a tight grip on her, she’d stop loving me. I venture to say in fact that we were once really in love. You can always tell, you know. If that’s beyond you, it’s because you’re young and therefore lacking in imagination. I thought, give her her freedom, and she’ll perhaps stay with me and gradually settle down. I tell you this at the risk of sickening you: I didn’t fall in love with Mavra because she was so young and beautiful. I often wished she was older. Naturally I wished more often that I was younger. My life with her has been a switchback ride. One minute she makes me feel I’m a young hero, the next I’ve become a useless, repulsive old geezer. Nothing in between. It’s not her fault. She didn’t intend that. I don’t blame her. I did it myself, tortured myself like a flagellating monk. Self-centred self-hatred – imagination the whole thing. I didn’t even know how old I looked, as I couldn’t see myself in a mirror. But in spite of it all, I’ve been her security, and she’s been my comfort. Mutual dependence like that is wearing. For both. As for our love life, that I’m damn well not going to speak about. But this much I will say, especially as I fancy we’ll not be seeing each other any more: I have certain physical troubles, cramps and wounds. And mental problems coming from those. And a bad conscience, getting worse and worse, because I haven’t been able to give her a child. Why, I’m not going to tell you; and I’m not sure myself. If she’d had a child of her own, she would have settled down: it would have fulfilled her, and me as well, and we wouldn’t have needed to hang on to each other like horn-locked red deer.’

The colonel went quiet and took a flat brandy flask out of his breast pocket.

‘Can’t talk this kind of crap without wetting your whistle. I’m eating my heart out and going on like old Prince Gremin to Onegin,’ he said and took a swig. ‘He didn’t give a damn, he just spewed up his love for Tatiana, the old fool. Have a swig yourself. Better cognac I can’t offer, unfortunately, since someone drank my Monet.’

‘I drank it,’ Henry said and drank from the flask.

‘I’ll get you another bottle,’ Henry said.

‘Who cares,’ the colonel said and gave a deep sigh.

Henry felt compassion stirring inside him, rather like a bubble seeking its home in the cavities of his body. He was tempted to say that perhaps everything would still turn our right, as Mavra was expecting a child, and the child would fulfil her and free her from the colonels’ horns and from Henry’s horns, and she’d begin to live her own life, and so would the child, and the child could be looked after and loved as much as one liked, and for that one didn’t need to be the father…. But the compassion had crept up from his stomach to his windpipe and paralysed his speech-organs.

‘So where crushes on Mavra are concerned, I can truly say I’ve produced my share of patience,’ the colonel said, put the flask back in his pocket and stood up, revealing his full height.

‘Jovan now, he’s taken a tougher line from the start. There you have a proper straight-up-and-down Balkan father. He kept those men well away from Mavra. Not that he killed them. They left voluntarily, every man-jack of them, and didn’t come back. You’ve not left. You’re a sticker. But then again, you’re lethally in love. From the sidelines, I’ve been taking note of the kind of feelings you have. I’ve seen the warm glow blazing up into a bonfire – one you could roast all the town’s bumptious hypocrites and bad-mouthing witches in. You’re not able to give her up. You may even have tried, but it won’t have worked. And I understand you. I even feel a tiny bit of empathy towards you. It hasn’t been easy for you either. And it’ll only get more difficult. Because both of us are going to hold on to her for as long as we’re alive and breathing. So that one or the other of us has to stop being alive and breathing.’

‘Look, to put it bluntly, I’ve been messed about quite enough,’ Henry said, but the colonel didn’t hear, as he was bringing out his crowning thought….

‘We’ll settle it with a duel. That’s how they did it in Pushkin’s time. You like Pushkin, don’t you? We’ll follow his example. We’ll gaily walk the path marked out by the great poet.’

‘You must be joking,’ Henry said but knew nothing was going to make the colonel change his mind.

‘I know what’s holding you back. You can’t of course agree to fire at a blind man. But supposing we’re both blind? In other words, you’d blindfold yourself with my scarf.’

‘With all respect, I’d like to skip all this,’ Henry said.

‘Or let’s do it this way. You sing for ten seconds, loudly, so I can hear where you are. What about the Soviet Pioneers’ Song, for instance. How does it go? “Together now, our song we raise: the Pioneers we praise.” And you’ll promise not to move. Then we’ll count to ten and fire. You’ve still got one bullet left. It’s enough. I’ll take mine out and leave just one in the breech.’

The colonel took the magazine out of his pistol….

‘I’m not firing. I’m not singing and I’m not firing.’ Henry said in a strained voice.

Henry took the Red Army pistol out of his pocket and fired into the air.

‘There goes the last one,’ he said.

‘Then there’s apparently no other solution but for me to shoot you, here, on the spot. Or a bit over there. I’ll give you a handicap. You take ten paces, and I’ll take the same. Then I’ll turn and fire!’

The colonel took ten paces away and turned. Henry didn’t move.

‘I didn’t hear your footsteps.’ the colonel said. ‘You’ve worked it out that I won’t get you. You could be right too. But I may be able to. I forgot to tell you that my eyes were operated on in St Petersburg. It was in Professor Alexei Kulygin’s clinic, which a speculator called Soros put his money into, so that blind millionaires can be led from darkness to light. It swallowed up half my savings, but now I’ve got new eyes, probably from some Chechnya freedom fighter’s fanatical holy-war eyes, dug out of his head while his body was still warm. In Russia they have the skill to replace people’s eyes, yet the lavatories in that clinic didn’t work properly. Very odd. If my eye sockets don’t take it on themselves to reject my new eyeballs at this very moment and spit them out a yard or so, I think I’ve a great chance of hitting you.’….

The colonel aimed his pistol in Henry’s direction, the barrel swung from left to right and back again. He sharpened his aim, and for a moment the barrel pointed straight at Henry. Then he lowered his weapon.

‘Do you still want to say something? I don’t mean a defence or a request for forgiveness. You don’t need to defend yourself, because I completely understand your motivation, and asking for forgiveness would be demeaning to all the parties, especially Mavra. So do you have some last wish or greeting, or some wise and memorable last words?’

‘I congratulate you on your successful operation,’ Henry said and wondered whether the colonel could see his pale face or just a vague figure ten paces away.

‘Thanks for your congratulations,’ the colonel said. ‘You’re a cool customer. What a great peacekeeper our unpeaceful world’s losing in you! Remember that Georgian story about the king’s portrait painter? Professor Kulygin told me it before he operated on me. I memorised it and decided to tell it you, if there was occasion. And there was. I hoped you’d find as good a way of getting out of a scrape as that painter. I’d have been as sorry about your departure as you.’

‘May I have some time to think?’ Henry asked.

‘You may. Precisely one minute. The time starts now.’

Henry turned his back on the colonel. He put his hands in his pockets and looked at the empty Monet bottle. He recalled its flavour on his tongue, and the aftertaste still made him feel nauseous. This can’t end here, he thought. One’s whole life can’t come to an end in this absurd fashion, and with a revolting ghost of a flavour like this in one’s mouth. The fear of death, he’d imagined, would taste of iron.

‘I started wondering how Mavra will get on when you’re in gaol for murder,’ Henry said.

‘Well considered,’ the colonel said. ‘I’ve of course taken that into account. Your death’ll seem an accident. Such things do happen on a shooting range. My Parabellum went off by mistake, and you happened to be in the path of the bullet. An extremely unfortunate incident. Chief Inspector Nurmi will chide me for it, and I’ll reproach myself for the rest of my life. But no one’ll suspect murder, or me of being a murderer. After all, I’m an old blind peacekeeper veteran. For no one in fact knows my eyes have been operated on and I’m no longer walking in complete darkness. Even Mavra doesn’t know. You’ll know it for another moment or so. Jovan knows, but his solidarity’s sky-high. So don’t be worried about me and Mavra. A good try, though. Try again. Don’t give up. You’ve still got half a minute. Why did you turn your back?’

‘I can think better when I’m not staring at your pistol,’ Henry said.

‘Come up with anything yet?’ the colonel asked after a moment.

‘I have.’

‘Well do let on, time’s running out.’

‘It’s how we are,’ Henry said.

‘How?’ the colonel wondered. ‘Aren’t you going to turn round and explain?’

‘No, I’m not. Shoot me in the back if you want.’

‘Damn it, I’m hardly likely to shoot a man in the back,’ the colonel spluttered.

‘No, you’re not,’ Henry said.

Surprise silenced the colonel. Then he burst out laughing.

‘Very ingenious you are!’

‘Are you going to make me a present of your darling wife?’ Henry asked.

‘No, I’m not.’

‘Then I’m going to turn,’ Henry said.

‘If you turn I’ll have to shoot you,’ the colonel said. ‘Since the promise was made.’

‘I’m not all that bothered,’ Henry said and turned. They stood for a moment confronting each other.

‘You really love her, don’t you?’ the colonel said.

‘Like you,’ Henry said. ‘So what shall we do?’

Someone was running from the forest, it was Mavra, running towards the sand pit and yelling from far off in a medley of three languages.

‘Stop it! Have mercy! I’m expecting a baby!’

She ran towards them and stopped some distance away to get her breath. The colonel took a few steps towards her. ‘So we’ve finally struck lucky?’ he shouted back. ‘Whose is it?’

Mavra walked slowly over to them.

‘So then – you can see!’ she said, out of breath.

‘Tell him whose it is,’ Henry urged her, but she didn’t hear. She stood in front of the colonel and studied his face. The colonel turned his face away.

‘Show me your eyes!’ Mavra demanded. ‘ Take your glasses off!’

‘Let them be,’ the colonel said. ‘What do you want with my eyes?’

‘Can you see me?’ she asked.

‘I’m seeing you with entirely new eyes. Let’s know whose child you’re expecting.’

Mavra looked at Henry and then looked away. She turned to the colonel.

‘Yours!’

‘Great!’ the colonel shouted, fired his pistol in the air and threw it on to the slope. Henry shook his head, went over to the pine to sit down, undid his shoelaces and shook the sand out of his shoes.

‘”Truth’s eternal, but a lovely lie only lasts a lifetime”,’ the colonel said. ‘That’s enough for me. So let it be mine! I acknowledge it. Did you hear that, teacher? So this is how it turned out, then. Don’t be sad. You may kiss the mother-to-be.’

Mavra went over to Henry. Henry put his shoes back on and stood up. Mavra turned her face up to be kissed.

‘Do you still love me?’ Henry asked.

‘More than ever,’ Mavra said.

Henry kissed her on the lips.

The colonel’s white Mercedes swept up to the sandpit and braked hard, sending the sand flying. Jovan leapt out.

‘Hands off my daughter,’ he yelled.

‘It’s OK,’ the colonel said, ‘I gave then permission.’

‘Well, in that case…’

Mavra ran over to Jovan and hung weeping on his neck.

‘Father! I’m expecting a baby!’

Jovan hugged his daughter in amazement and patted her shoulder blades.

‘So it’s… Congratulations! What are you blubbering about? So I’m going to be a grandfather? Don’t cry, Mavra. Life wins.’

‘In life everyone gets what they deserve,’ the colonel said. ‘And some without deserving it. Did you bring the application papers?’

‘Yes, I’ve got them,’ Jovan said and released himself from Mavra. He went to the car and brought a file for Henry to see. ‘All that’s needed is Mr Loimu’s signature.’

‘I guarantee that you’ll be accepted in the battalion,’ the colonel said. ‘So first things first: read the conditions, obligations, emoluments, and all the small print, before you sign.’

Henry took a pen out of his pocket. He felt strangely buoyant. He gave Mavra a smile and signed the papers. He took the duplicate for himself, folded it, put it in his pocket and walked away. Mavra ran after him, and they walked side by side towards the forest edge. Jovan watched them going, very disturbed.

‘Let them go. They’ve still got a few Russian verbs to conjugate,’ the colonel said. ‘There’s some champagne in the boot, in the coolbag. It’s the right temperature.’

When, seated on the pinebole, the colonel and Jovan had finished off the last remaining bottle of traditional Soviet champagne, they set off for home. They left the car at the gravel pit. The colonel leaned on Jovan and said the champagne had gone to his legs; so again he couldn’t see anything. But he’d invented some new words for the song about Viegrad mountain, and he’d teach them to Jovan.

Slurping champagne
we acclaim Mavra’s child
the news made us wild
though we don’t give a fart
who the father may be
because who gives a fart
for biology!

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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