An extract from the novel Jalat edellä (‘Feet first’, Otava 2001). Introduction by Kanerva Eskola
Once he had sat in the car for a while Risto could feel his thoughts slowly becoming clearer. Tero had been killed by a lorry. He couldn’t think particularly actively about it but perhaps he could have said it out loud. After all, people often say all kinds of things that they don’t think. Maybe even too often, he wondered and decided to have a go.
‘Tero is dead,’ he said and the words tasted of preserved cherries.
In the changing room at the swimming pool Risto noticed that his swimming trunks and towel were mouldy. He had forgotten to hang them up to dry after the last time he went swimming. That was a thousand years ago and now a bluish grey fur was growing on them. He examined the bitter smelling mould on his trunks; the fur was beautiful, smooth and silky like a rabbit’s coat. He gently stroked his trunks. I can use these for ice swimming, he decided, and began to chuckle quietly to himself.
He flung his towel into the locker and went over to the sink to rub the mould off his swimming trunks. They were still as blotchy as camouflage material and the smell had only partially disappeared but he decided to settle for what he’d got. A month ago he wouldn’t have been seen dead in rags like this but the thought of having to go back to the desk to hire another pair of trunks was unbearable. Needs must, he decided. They don’t care about laws. Neither do I any more. I’ve got my degree. Sigh.
He walked downstairs with his trunks in his hand and once he was in the shower he felt the urge to sit down. This attracted some amount of attention but Risto was too exhausted to care about it. Let them think I’m mad or drunk, this is exactly what the doctor ordered, he thought and sat down on the warm tiles. The water knows how to caress, the water is a woman. Or a man, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t fumble about or grope you, it’s tender; like a close companion. The water’s not gay.
So what if it bloody well was?
When the water touches you there’s nothing to be afraid of, it cools down your smarting head. It licks your wounds, it won’t let you down. Not like a person. Like me. Especially me.
Risto closed his eyes as he began to feel like crying. Thankfully no one would see him as he was in the shower. This is almost like rain, like crying in the rain, the most utterly banal thing, the subject of countless mediocre pop songs. Each one of them is right.
He began to hum. He could remember the tune to the song but not the words. It felt good to disappear into the music, the notes driving away thoughts you wanted to avoid. Then suddenly the jet of water stopped.
Who’s that? Risto got all worked up before he realised that the flow of water was controlled by a time switch. By pressing it once you could buy thirty seconds of water and redemption. This is not good enough! I can’t be doing with this, I can’t confess all my sins in half a minute. There should be more water.
Risto pulled on his blotchy swimming trunks. Because they were wet the mouldy fabric was slimy and slippery and the trunks slid onto him as if they had been oiled. There’s life in these trunks, now they’re like the flesh of microbes. My flesh against the flesh of these trunks, slippery and fluid, Risto thought in amazement. It’s usually difficult to put on wet swimming trunks, they’re sticky and tight and just want to roll up inside themselves. Like a condom. Flesh against rubber, that’s sticky.
Risto had now got dressed. He glanced around him and thought he could see a thin, familiar-looking man who was secretly giving him a bleary look, peeping at him the way you look at a person you think you know but you can’t remember where from and so you don’t know whether or not to say hello. Maybe he was shocked by Risto’s dreadful appearance; he himself was glowing a healthy red colour, he’d just come out of the sauna. Yes, I know what I look like, Risto thought. My wife decked me today, God knows when I last had a wash and I haven’t touched any soap now either, I haven’t shaved and my swimming trunks are mouldy. No matter, I am now going swimming and anyone who tries to stop me will get a smack in the mouth, that’s that.
Anger was easily ignited. A little push and it would have turned into violence. I’d better calm down, he realised. Best just to get in the pool.
Risto stood on the edge of the deep pool and looked down into the greenish water. He could hear the crackling of the water drying on his skin, it tickled him through and through and warmed him, but ha haa! The deepness gaped open beneath him, five metres of cool water and of peace, silence and oblivion.
The gaps between the tiles on the bottom of the pool formed a criss-cross, like a cage. He would jump into the cage, voluntarily, and could hardly wait but did wait nonetheless. Helsinki Syndrome. Or was it Stockholm?
There is no reason for anything, nor any meaning.
Let’s go. I am here now and in five metre’s time everything disappears. He dived in feet first and the water enveloped him grating like a cold embrace. Risto suddenly remembered something he had forgotten, a summer from his childhood, the way his father had come out of the lake laughing, the sun had dazzled his eyes so he had to squint and the sand was hot. His father had grabbed him in his ice-cold arms and swung him around wildly, it had felt like this. A tender gesture, a scream, a loving touch, so cold that it hurts. There was always laughter, giggling laughter, at least my father and I always laughed. My mother never laughed, it was always forced laughter. She pretended to like it but she had been getting warm in the sunshine and hated it when we came and got her wet.
Maybe she too was trying to enjoy herself but she just didn’t know how. She had seen me and my father and she enjoyed our laughter. She had to, she couldn’t enjoy it herself. Perhaps it’s a man’s thing; something between fathers and sons. I must pick Tero up like that some day and see if it makes him laugh too, Risto thought and almost breathed in a lung-full of water.
I forgot. That felt really bad. I mustn’t think about it, it’ll just destroy everything. Now I’m just going to dive. The world is up above me and it can’t get down here.
The bottom was getting closer and he could hear the whirring of the water pressure in his ears. It was a bit painful, so he swallowed, his ears popped and he could carry on. He turned on to his back and above him the surface of the water was unimaginably beautiful, he had forgotten quite how beautiful it could be. It was sparkling brightly like a living crystal and the movements of people swimming shattered the glass into a glittering spume. Against the light coming from the ceiling the people were just like fumbling silhouettes, black and deformed like a nasty thought, awkward and frog-like. We are like protozoa, it dawned on Risto, we are tadpoles at the early stages of development. It’s still a long way to the top of the food chain. Bubbles escaped from Risto’s lips; they twirled up towards the surface, shimmering busily towards the destructive touch of the air.
Don’t go up there, Risto thought. Things will go badly for you up there, things go badly for everyone up there. Well I’m staying here. He let his face gently touch the bottom of the pool and could hear his stubble scraping against the tiles. I am an old man already.
At its deepest point the bottom of the pool was slippery; a downy layer of algae had formed there. Risto carefully stroked it with the palm of his hand and it remained hanging in small swirls before settling once again. There is life here, Risto remarked admiringly and he was suddenly so happy that he almost burst into tears. Next more complex organisms will appear, then primitive fish and molluscs. It’ll take a million trillion zillion years before life reaches land and it’s a good job too. I don’t have to be down here by myself. A storm is raging up above, but here it’s calm and peaceful. Beginning to feel quite sleepy.
On the bottom there was a circular opening for the water filtration and the water in the pool was in slow but constant motion. Risto peeked into the hole, which led to the centre of the earth, straight to Hell. He could see something in the opening. There was something there, a small, plastic model aeroplane. It had got caught in the grate covering the hole; its nose-dive towards damnation had been interrupted and the machine was still balancing on the edge of the chasm, hanging on for its life. All it needed was a light push for it to fall into the whirlpool and then it would disappear into suffocating, silent darkness, out of reach.
He slowly reached out his hand, careful not to create any current which might make the machine fall and took hold of it with his fingertips. He gently drew it towards him and peered inside it; through the windows you could see bodies floating in the water, the faces of the deceased looked restful. A monster with the head of a snake peeped out of the chasm, its body was misshapen, unnaturally long, a mangled person who had to crush his bones to fit into the pipe and the pain had turned him into a lunatic. It was screaming with disappointment at having lost its catch, but Risto simply turned his head away and the being became powerless. He lay down because the battle had been won and the plane rested on his palm like a fledgling. He closed his eyes and began to sing a song; there were no words in the song, just a voice and his voice beat back the monster deeper and deeper. The song woke up the fledgling and it began to sing along with him; it had his son’s face, Tero’s smiling face. They felt warm, Tero laughed and then Risto laughed too. They laughed together until something tugged at Risto’s arm.
The hands grabbed him and shook him and he tried to resist them but the attacker was too powerful. Risto turned his head, looked the victorious monster straight in the eye and turned to stone.
His lungs were as heavy as marble as the lean-faced man shook him awake and got him moving. Risto tried to shout, but no bubbles came from his mouth. My lungs are full of water, he realised. The water has raped me.
He gave in. He could make out the surface far away, it was bright and sparkling like oil and honey and he was being pulled up towards it. The snake monster grabbed him by the ankles, it was long and powerful and its teeth let drowsy poison flow into his wounds, but Risto managed to shake off the darkness and struggle towards the surface. The surface of the water shattered and cool air clasped his head, a roar of sounds howled in his ears and then fell silent.
Risto was kissing his wife. Katja had bowed down over him, both of them were breathing heavily and their tongues were playing together. He felt aroused and Katja’s long, dark, wet hair flowed down around them, between them, everywhere. Katja was shivering and her warm mouth greedily kissed Risto’s mouth and her painting filled him with vitality.
‘Oh, I’ve missed you so much,’ Risto said happily.
The lips disappeared from his lips with a smacking sound, someone said ‘he’s coming round’ and he could hear the sounds of hands clapping and sighs of relief. Risto suddenly felt dreadful, his lungs were aching and he felt like coughing and vomiting at the same time but his penis was erect. There’s life in me yet, he thought astounded. Even though I just had a wank.
The people standing around him looked at him as if they were both shocked and relieved. He sat up and saw the bleary-eyed thin man crouched on his haunches beside him. There was a good deal of amazement mixed in with the onlookers’ admiration: it couldn’t have been him. A runt, a poor excuse for a man with not the slightest heroic about him, had saved someone from drowning!
I should have known, it dawned on him. Now everyone will think I don’t know what’s happened. They’ll be whispering shocked whispers, dear oh dear, and trying to account for every last detail. They’ll try to make things clear, ‘now now, young man, whatever made you want to do a thing like that? Things can’t be all that bad, surely. Do you know what? Maybe you should go and get some professional help. Wait, wait!’ and I’ll be given yet another piece of paper with another phone number on it and I’ll put it down into the bottom of my pocket and there it will stay and there it will get rubbed and chafed until it slowly turns into strips and fibres and blends in with all the other pieces of pulp and blood and snot and keys which have built up in there. And they find it absolutely impossible to understand that I was tired and I was lost somewhere in my own thoughts. If anyone makes a big deal out of this or starts fussing I’ll hit someone, damn it!
Except I’m too weak. I can’t be bothered to argue with them, so maybe it would just be best to let them get on with their moaning.
Let’s agree that I can’t remember anything, OK? I’ve got a memory block at that point! I don’t know what on earth got into me. Well, what a thing to happen! I’m very sorry that I’ve gone and done all this.
His erection had relaxed. Thank God, now maybe I dare stand up.
‘Yes, well… I think I’ll just go on into the sauna,’ he said and left.
He could sense the glare of the other swimmers on his back and knew they were all whispering to each other in horror. They were shocked but excited: should he go? I’ll go and watch, just so he doesn’t…. And then they’ll all follow in a long line behind him, worried supposedly, when in fact they’re only coming to have a good look at what a suicidal person looks like sitting in the sauna. Risto made a bluff and snuck into the toilets.
Piss trickled against the cold toilet bowl, hot and dark-yellow, and the heat made the rim give off a hollow booming sound. Its heart is beating, thought Risto. Welcome back.
He suddenly felt the urge to have a smoke and he couldn’t understand why, until he noticed that he was holding his penis in the same way he would a cigarette – between his index and middle fingers. Laughter burst from his lips and his lungs ached, but he just laughed, laughed, gasped, shook and shivered, his penis slipped from between his fingers and he pissed on his hands, on his legs, on the floor, ho ho! Ha ha ha!
Curious pairs of eyes had appeared twinkling in the shower block: everyone was looking somewhere else but Risto could suddenly smell their curiosity, which was as pungent as an anthill.
Risto stood perfectly silently and listened. In the hairs on his neck he could feel their expectant gazes monitoring him. He turned round sharply and looked the flock straight in the eyes. The faces all gave a start and quickly assumed nonchalant, disdainful expressions. Funny bloke, nothing you can do for ones like that. Well, that’s his business, they sneered shaking their heads at each other, not too much though, in case the centre of attention should notice. Unpredictable. Exciting. I’ll be telling people about this when I get home.
Risto looked around to see if he could find the skinny man amongst the group. That loser was no doubt still here somewhere, parading about in the showers with his hands on his hips, pretending to be modest but actually just attention seeking and looking for pats on the back. He’s probably waiting for me to come out with a few meaningless clichés for him as well. Listen, thanks for saving my life, I don’t know what I would’ve done without you. Let’s be mates now, yeah, let’s hug and go for a beer sometime.
The skinny man was nowhere to be seen. This perplexed Risto, it somehow put the man into a different caste, he’d have to relate to him in a different way. New characteristics. Changes, painful surprises. Risto didn’t like this. He took off his swimming trunks, bought half a minute of water by pressing the button and rinsed himself: the water was cool and soothed his anger so much that felt he might just go into the sauna.
The skinny man was sitting in the steam room looking thoughtful with the ladle in his hand. Risto saw him from the doorway as was about to turn straight back but something decisive had happened. This gentle man was radiating a strange dignity, gravity. Maturity.
Some kind of magic had brought the two of them together in the sauna and Risto realised that he had no way out. He climbed up onto the top bench, opposite the man. The thin man was staring into the emptiness, moisture forming in little beads on his face and running down along the furrows of his skin onto his chin, his neck, down along his slender chest. Risto watched him carefully. Never before had he noticed any furrows, any signs of age on the skinny man’s roguish face; perhaps it was just because of the light, but all of a sudden the man looked as though he had become old.
The man lowered his head, water slowly dripped from the end of his nose and the sauna was so silent that Risto thought he could hear the drops falling onto the bench. The metal plate at the back of the stove gave off a quiet boom and the man raised his glance. His short-sighted eyes glimmered in the dim light. They looked at Risto, but at the same time they were looking somewhere else, inside, into the inside of his head.
‘You know, I ran over a little kid a few weeks ago,’ he said hoarsely.
I’m probably having a dream, Risto thought. There was water in his ears, he stuck his finger in and poked around. The water squelched about but didn’t come out, it just kept buzzing. He did not say a thing, just looked at the man who was not expecting an answer.
‘I was driving the last lorry load and the kid just rode straight out on a bike. They said it wasn’t my fault, kid just came out and for some reason stopped in the middle of the road. There were loads of people who saw it happen. I braked but it had been sleeting and I had summer tyres on. I’d just changed them because I didn’t want to put it off until after May Day.’
The man rubbed his hands over his face then shook the water off his fingers. It looked like a movement the man had done quite a lot, shaking water out of his eyes countless times.
‘I haven’t really been able to do anything since then. Even my wife’s afraid of me now because 1 wake up in the middle of the night and shout about nightmares I can’t even remember any more. Sometimes there are long patches I really can’t remember a thing about. I lie in bed all day long staring at the wall. I probably fall asleep now and then. Sometimes I can’t tell whether I’m asleep or awake.’
Risto listened to the man’s story and didn’t know what to do. He felt powerless, he didn’t know how to react, what to say, what to advise or ask. His hands clenched into fists out of frustration and then in his left hand he noticed something he had forgotten about. The plastic model aeroplane. At that point, he caught the man’s gaze and realised that he didn’t have to say or do anything. He could simply be there, listen, and that would be enough, even though it would be difficult. Beneath him was a great pit and as long as he didn’t do anything he wouldn’t fall into it. Then the man continued.
‘I can’t feel happy about anything, I just carry on from one day to the next, I drive my shift just like before, I go home, I eat and sleep. But I don’t feel a thing, nothing makes any difference. There’s nothing…. But now, you know…. I pulled you up from the bottom and I feel good, better than I have for ages. I know this sounds ridiculous but I feel like I’ve paid off some of my debt, if you see what I mean. Of course you understand, it’s simple, right? Christ, yeah.’
Risto thought it looked as if the man was beginning to get embarrassed. No need for that, I completely understand. Why don’t I tell him that? The words didn’t want to be found, the Finnish language just isn’t enough. No. No it’s not to do with that. The words are not difficult, the things are.
‘I found this on the bottom,’ Risto said and showed the man the model aeroplane. At that moment he felt so ashamed that he was about to run out the door but the man looked at him openly, waiting, and there wasn’t a trace of mockery in his glance.
‘Yes,’ Risto continued. His throat felt tight, the words wanted to remain unsaid. He coughed them back into motion. ‘Well, you’ve got that little girl, haven’t you? I thought that maybe she, I mean it won’t fly very well, it’s probably from one of those Easter eggs, and they never fly very well, but… I just thought.’
Risto fell silent. He had said and done what he could and all he hoped was that the man understood, not what he had said but what he had wanted to say. What he meant.
The thin man looked at him for a long time, took the aeroplane into his hand and turned it over. Then he held it back to Risto.
‘Thank you but it’s got little bits in it, they’re not recommended for under three year olds,’ he said and he looked as if he was beginning to laugh. ‘You see, our Ursula’s only just turned one.’
The men looked at each other and slowly a smile grew between them.
‘Risto Jokinen,’ said Risto and took hold of his hand.
‘Shall I throw some water on the stove?’
‘Yeah, please do.’
The water hissed on the stove. Warmth filled the room and surrounded the men, Risto closed his eyes, he was confused but felt a great relief. The water is embracing me again, now it’s warm. Oh, that’s good. Even Jaska looked stronger and more robust. A light was shining out of him that had never been seen before. Risto’s mind was calm and happy, it felt unbelievable.
‘Hey, have I seen you somewhere before?’ Jaska asked suddenly.
‘Didn’t you have a little boy with you? Give him the aeroplane. It’d be just right for him.’
Risto’s stomach suddenly seized up as if he were falling; it was as if the bench had given way underneath him. The steam, which before had been pleasant, now crushed and shook him, it scorched his lungs. It said: ‘Don’t for a minute think that you’ve got any reason to feel pleased with yourself’.
Risto put his head between his knees to hide from the heat. Then he felt a sudden realisation, sat upright and let his ears burn.
This situation was too perfect for it to have happened by chance, he thought and his skin became covered in goose bumps. A situation like this, the two of us here, now, this can’t be a mistake. Destiny, or something, had brought them together in this place, right now. A higher power did exist, a guiding force, God or someone else, this all had a meaning! There was a solution to the puzzle and he was right on the edge of it. Risto felt a deep sense of relief, he would be able to understand everything, he would find redemption, and now he wanted to speak, to erupt.
‘Listen, that little boy,’ he began to explain this incredible coincidence, this twist of fate. ‘The one that you, um, ran over….’
I didn’t quite hear him right, Risto thought. ‘What?’
‘Yes, it was a girl, a little girl. Her name was Johanna. Six years old. If she’d had a helmet she would probably have survived, but it was so cold that she had to wear a hat and the helmet wouldn’t fit any more, imagine. What about it?’
The world felt as if it was spinning randomly through space, utterly vulnerable, and winds were tearing it to pieces because it was indifferent to them. The emptiness surrounding the globe appeared to Risto, it was black and hopeless, devoid of sense and order. You cannot explain the world. He understood that there is no solution to the puzzle. I am entirely alone.
‘Nothing,’ Risto replied quietly. ‘I’ve got to go, it’s too hot for me.’ Risto slipped out of the sauna without looking back because he was afraid he might see little devils sitting on the benches jeering at him.
Translated by David Hackston
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