Moving on

Issue 2/2003 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the short story ‘Tunnin kuvat’ (‘One-hour processing’, from the collection Vapiseva sydän, ‘Tremulous heart’, Tammi, 2002). Introduction by Harry Forsblom

Last summer, when I was helping my brother with his move, he said I could take as many of his old LPs as I wanted. There were actually two of us on the job: his younger friend Timbe was along, and when we’d almost completely cleared out the flat and my brother’s two cellar closets (he’d rented an extra closet from the next-door flat, as he was submerging under the clobber lying around everywhere), he said the same to Timbe: ‘Just help yourself.’ The records we ourselves didn’t want would be chucked in the rubbish.

There were hundreds of them. Many, many hundreds, and these were only the records he’d abandoned in the cellar for some reason. He’d equipped every record, sleeve or case with a numbered label, stuck on the back. For instance, the album containing the fifteen records of The Complete Chamber Music of Johannes Brahms he’d supplied with the number 1301. The light music he hadn’t numbered, at least systematically, presumably because he had his own very clear view of what was light and what serious: light music could be heavy, such as heavy rock, and serious music flew lightly up to the heights. About Mozart my brother had said – in the days when we were closer than now, or less mixed up, and passing the time of evening outside a rented summer cottage – that Mozart’s music was too much of a divertissement. Too nimbly dashing and flouncing, too radiantly capricious, was undoubtedly what he had in mind. On the back of each case or sleeve there were other entries – like a riverman’s accounts – indicating the number of times they’d been listened to. According to these he’d listened to the Brahms chamber works – all fifteen LPs and all thirty sides – eight times, though the final oblique slash somehow seemed to have petered out.

Timbe and I rummaged through the piles of records spread out on the concrete floor of the cellar. Timbe said he didn’t know anything about classical music except that Sibelius had composed Finlandia and Song of the Athenians, and that Frederik Pacius had composed the national anthem,

‘And The Hunt of King Charles,’ my brother added. ‘It’s the first Finnish opera, with a libretto by Topelius.’

‘I can’t stand people chucking out good junk,’ Timbe said.

I liked the work of many great composers, but I had a feeling you could never cope properly with another person’s records. Above the conductor’s gesticulations and the orchestral rumpus you’d always be hearing the moods of the original owner and the atmospheres his listening had created. I could never listen without my own predilections coming in – about the pieces, or the way they were played – but I also noticed that I was reading, through a wall of sound, or wallpaper, the scores of my brother’s soul and bumping into my own prejudices: that his spiritual life was very hygienic but somewhat confused. I wasn’t broad-minded enough to surmount my subjective disagreements and arrive at the most important thing about the music – its beauty: the individual sounds advancing through aesthetically significant rhythmical principles to a progressively-revealed whole.

I picked the beloved Brahms chamber works off the cellar floor, and another album containing the piano concertos. I chose Verdi’s almost unknown opera Giovanna d’Arco because of the composer, and for the same reason took Puccini’s equally unknown Suor Angelica. I got all Sibelius’s symphonies in one case, together with Schubert’s ninth symphony – Wilhelm Fürtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: considerable treasures in one bang slam. I snatched Glenn Gould’s version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, though my brother said he didn’t enjoy listening to Gould because ‘he was mad’. And when I found Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony my brother said he couldn’t take that sort of minimalism – repeating things ad nauseam to make the same points, as if the listener were a complete dolt. As for Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, he said, ‘A cliché, that.’

Whenever I saw a valuable-looking record I asked Timbe if he wouldn’t like it. Wasn’t he interested in Sibelius’s Kullervo, Haydn’s Cello Concerto or Drumroll Symphony, Carl Nielsen’s Sinfonia Expansiva, record no. 1213, François Poulenc, Ravel’s Au Tombeau de Couperin, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Camille Saint-Saëns’ animals, Carl Maria von Weber? Timbe wasn’t meticulous. Any classical music whatever was OK by him, so long as there wasn’t an accordion in it. In the end we loaded his dormobile with at least five hundred records, after I’d first picked out fifty for myself. Timbe was particularly bucked that he got some rare pop-discs – Cat Stevens’s Teaser and the Firecat, Isaac Heyes’s Hot Buttered Soul and Carole King’s Tapestry.

It was a fearfully hot July day, and we’d been carting stuff out for half of it, when I said I’d soon be dying of hunger. In the morning, I’d left a film at a photographer’s that guaranteed one-hour-processing. On the way to our lunch I popped aside to get the photos, and while we were waiting our turn in McDonalds I showed them off to my brother and his friend. They were ones I’d taken a couple of weeks earlier in the country. They only had one subject, my year-and-a-half-old granddaughter, Aune Maria, photographed against a summertime country-background: on the cottage porch, on the jetty, paddling in the lake, or splashing about. In one Aune was peeping from behind one of the porch posts, with a carrot in her hand, smiling at the camera like the sun suddenly coming out of the clouds. I showed the photo to my brother and Timbe, but I couldn’t see any sign of entrancement passing across their faces. In my opinion that little fairy, who’d learned to walk eight months ago and now already knew over seventy words, was the most enchanting thing I knew: the best that had ever happened to me, I considered. And sometimes I got completely knotted up in my own mind: I found myself in a spiritual landscape where my daughter had given me the child I’d been longing for all my life. Then I had to come down to earth again, quickly, reminding myself she was Sandra’s child, and her husband’s, after all, and that my only child was Sandra. But the only photos I’d taken were of Aune Maria. If there were other recognisable personages, they were in the background or on the fringes. I was a granddad.

Timbe and my brother were just staring over the counter at the wall’s coloured pictures of the various kinds of hamburgers, and my brother said:

‘Ah… should I have to pay for your grub too?’

‘Not mine, at any rate,’ I said. I was thinking of the records I’d got, and I was grateful for them, and even feeling a little guilty now. I’d undoubtedly be listening to them the whole winter. Aimez-vous Brahms?… I remembered a book with that title, from the bookshelf in my childhood home. The sitting room was charged with a sort of ambiguous atmosphere suspended in the silence like an impossible bourgeois question: do you like Brahms? Or: Bonjour Tristesse: sophisticated, inexpiable torment. Was that why Brahms had remained for me the most alien of the great composers?

My brother was flirting fluently with the McDonald’s cashier, a girl with straw-blonde hair hastily done up in a pony-tail with violet pompons. There was a hint of cornflower-blue in her eyes, her mouth was a raspberry, spurting brisk dialogue. When she turned to take the polystyrene cartons from the hot cupboard, I saw she was wearing blue jeans under her apron, and she had a flat, trim little bottom. She granted my brother a momentary flash of her radiance and then turned to serve the other customers. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

The place was full of under-twenty-year-olds. The drink that went with the meal was Coke. It flowed from a tap into a red cardboard cup, and four or five ice-cubes were ladled in, to float on the surface. Finally a hinged greenish-white-striped straw was popped into the cup. The hamburger was juicy and tasty and the Cokes tasted heavenly on a hot day; I’d have liked to spend hours there just sipping. The kids at the next table lolled in their plastic orange chairs, bored-looking, and raucously discussing action-film videos.

Timbe turned confidentially to me and asked how a person became a writer. I began to play down the whole business – said I didn’t yet know whether I was any sort of writer. The years just went by, and I grew older without nothing much to show that might be enduring. I warmed to questions like the uncertainty of earning a living, and other writers’ burdens – such as loneliness, which could really grate on your nerves at times – and how a writer gradually turned into a sort of noble savage living on the fringes of urban reality. I was just about to add that the notion that a writer ought to have strong arse-muscles was bullshit when Timbe interrupted me, saying that all he meant was, How do you get into print? So I went on about how I’d been in the practice of pounding away at all sorts of pieces, mostly for my own pleasure, and with no disheartening desire for fame – mostly prose poems – till in 1967, having started up with my future ex-wife, she found some item among my papers and insisted on my offering it to a journal called Ajankohta, ‘The Moment’. How excited I was, I said, one cold and frosty morning, standing outside the journal’s office, looking at its façade, summoning my courage, going in, pulling out my shabby seven sheets of text, and offering them to the Editor-in-Chief. A couple of days later, I went on, he rang me and said they were going to publish my piece – which, in their opinion, was pretty good. ‘Not perfect, you know, by any means, but creditable,’ the Editor-in-Chief added, honing his point. Timbe looked at me long-sufferingly from the other side of the table and said, the thing was, he had a daughter who wrote, and she read an incredible amount – several books a day.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you want to be a writer you have to believe in yourself.’

Timbe replied that his daughter had been rejected by society.

‘How do you mean?’ I asked.

‘She was given a document that prevented her from getting any work in our society.’

How, I wondered, could society prevent one of its members from seeking work? A young person in particular. His daughter, it seemed, had been given some occupational test for career choice; and she’d found it so stressful she’d had a minor nervous breakdown. Consequently the social psychologist had produced a document stating that Timbe’s daughter was unfit for any kind of employment. ‘She was ejected from our society,’ Timbe said.

Was I being a bit slow when, even now, I found it hard to understand. Society’s expressly an institution that always has space for its members, would have come to nothing if there’d been no trust in society and a certain justice. All society had done for Timbe’s daughter was place a pension for unemployables in her hand and put a stamp on the brow of a twenty-two-year-old.

‘Can you believe it? All her life’s in front of her, and her self-confidence is down to absolute nil. How could she ever get over that?’

I had a cousin, Matti – don’t know whether he still exists not been in touch for twenty-odd years. I remember my mother telling about this alky cousin of mine – how he wrote poems, squeezed them in a ball and tossed them over his shoulder. His mother collected them up off the floor, tried to straighten them out, smooth them, and put them in safekeeping. At one point he broke his mother’s arm, throwing the Singer sewing-machine at her. His sister Eeva who was therefore my cousin too, jumped off the balcony and died when she was a mere twenty. That sort of thing was almost beyond my comprehension: at twenty I didn’t yet know anything about death. Many other people came to mind now – ones who’d published one or two volumes of poetry and then come to a more or less bad end. I got through my hamburger and did some hard thinking: when did art become a saviour, and when did it just hasten the final ruin? And what could I say to a person whose eyes were imploring me for something constructive? For many, writing, painting or drawing were a last straw to clutch at. But if some poorly gifted or mentally afflicted person whose grey everyday life had been ground-down to nothing was hoping creative work would prop up their self-esteem, were they likely to have much luck? Timbe said his daughter had had a couple of poems in the local paper, either as fillers or from pity. I myself often felt my publisher might be accepting some of my own stuff out of pity.

A beautiful summer day. I was getting sick and tired of the whole summer. Its endless abundance and glory were almost beginning to nauseate me. But even so I didn’t want autumn to plump down slap-bang on my neck.

‘But anyway things aren’t too bad, considering she has that pension. Dammit, I don’t know which is worse, earning your living or writing – they’re so pestiferous, both of them.’

After a bit we got up from the table. In the dining area there were rubbish bins at various points, and everything, from the single-use cups and plastic knives and forks to the disposable plates, were tipped into them. The plastic trays were piled tidily in their own place. Life’s multifarious afflictions were still getting at me, so as walked to the cars, with Timbe now clammed up, I told them how I’d once bought a chess-ROM and played the computer. Even at the novice level I’d been up against it, and every now and then a manly voice came out of the machine, commenting: ‘bed mewv’ or ‘vairy bed mewv’. This tickled Timbe and he kept repeating ‘vairy bed mewv’.

My brother had managed to live in a suburban one-bedroom flat for well-nigh twenty years. Before that, after my parents’ divorce, he’d lived in my mother’s flat, till he was thirty-one. My mother divorced my father ‘after,’ as she put it, ‘trying to endure him for too long’; and we three almost adult children followed the mother-hen to her new flat, like just-hatched chicks. Mother had obtained such a spacious flat, she must have been anticipating the rest of us would be staying together forever, after the divorce. There we listened to Procul Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale and Tom Jones’s Green, Green Grass of Home in a large, sunny rented flat.

My brother’s moves were slow, like those of the animal that sticks to a tree-trunk looking like a hardened clod of mud, though it’s actually a mammal whose movements you’d never guess were movements till you saw them speeded up on a film. There are animals that stay put so long they seem to be lying in wait for life itself, though they’re really lurking for smaller creatures or insects to wander close enough. The salamander has a long sticky tongue it can hurl through the air like a spear, and many motionless feline beasts are able to unleash unbelievably explosive mobile power onto an unsuspecting deer or zebra that strays within their acceleration range. But my brother had never seemed likely to prey on a thing, let alone tote prey across his threshold. Not a single hair seemed to have been disturbed on his head during several decades. It’s as if he’d finally decided to opt out of the hunt for deer altogether. Never managing to catch any prey would seem OK, but never even going out to hunt, because you consider it a dead loss in advance, is preposterous, in my opinion, anti-evolutionary. Only after mother’s death, ten years ago, did he begin to speak about ‘his own life’ as if it was something he owned or would like to own. I rejoiced at the possibility that he might, as a fifty-year-old bachelor, wake up and be on the lookout for some sort of wife.

Now, this spring, a postcard had arrived from him in Rome. It was a picture of the Piazza Navona, though he actually called it the Piazza Venetzia, and he mentioned, just by-the-by, as it were, that he’d bought a ‘splendid flat’ in another Helsinki suburb: a two-bedroom flat in a little block near the railway track….

The mahogany bookcase was in place, and the fat hardbacks and leather-bound volumes (music encyclopaedias and lives of composers for the most part) had been shelved behind the glass front. In one corner stood the piano, topped with the tin soldiers my brother had purchased in various European towns on his trips. They were decoratively set up in rhythmical groups, as if lined up for the Battles of Lepanto or Waterloo. In another corner a standard lamp gave out a warm glow, and in the sitting-room’s deep shadows loomed a large broad-screen television. The silence was best of all. It was sort of distilled a thousand – fold purer than the glass of unboiled water Tchaikovsky drank during the St Petersburg cholera epidemic five days before his comparatively early demise. Annikki walked from one room to another, emitting little cries of admiration, not all a hundred-per-cent genuine.

We ate. My brother told us he’d taken out a loan of nearly 80,000 euros for the flat and his brand-new furniture. Everything was shiny: the flat looked as if designed for a five-star hotel. Or anyway a four-star. Or rather, perhaps, for some bachelor museum, then. When he said the repayment period for his loan was twenty years, I worked out he’d be a pensioner of several years when it was paid off, and so his whole life from now on would be spent here. Freedom was really a dangerous thing.

My brother had made spaghetti, and we’d brought along a bottle of Bardolino – a cheap but good red – as a present. He wanted to talk about the enormous change in his life. ‘I finally got divorced, bang off in one go, from light music,’ he said. ‘And from the rasp of vinyl. For a while now there’ll be no money for records or travel.’

I said I’d been enjoying the Brahms chamber music enormously – had already listened to the whole collection once. The flat was so very quiet that when the train went by three hundred yards away its clanking penetrated the kitchen windows and intensified the atmosphere of timelessness and homeliness. Since no one offered to speak for some time, I broke the silence by saying that Aerosmith’s Falling Angels was anyway a much better piece than Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.

After dining we moved to the sitting-room. We chatted this way and that for a while, and then my brother said he hadn’t invited our sister, since she was offended by something he’d said or done. Getting offended, and often for the most amazing reasons, is obviously a social-friction characteristic of our species, and it’s especially prominent in my family. I have childhood memories of some adult having broken off relations with some other; and then, when those relations were restored, another couple would no longer be on speaking terms. Antipathy seemed to pass round the family circle like a prize challenge cup full of poison. Relations between both my sister, my brother and myself had been cut for three or four years running, having been rockily polite for a year or so before that. And earlier still we’d been satisfactorily handing out the silent treatment for two or three years, to the point where they’d both obtained ex-directory phone numbers, and they didn’t communicate with me until my father’s funeral.

My brother began to show us slides of photos he’d taken in Rome. He said he’d taken over eight hundred photographs on his week-long holiday, and he’d picked out a fifth of them to show us. From the journeys I’d made to Rome with Annikki over a five-year period I knew Rome almost as well as the back of my hand: he’d have had more chance of surprising me if he’d shown us slides of Tallinn or Prague. But now, looking at the pictures, I could conclude my brother had walked along the Lungotevere, whereas I’d crossed the bridge; my brother had approached St Peter’s from the Piazza San Pietro, whereas I’d come from behind the Cathedral; in the Villa Borghese Gardens he’d stopped to study different statues than I had, as he’d merged more naturally into the crowd of tourists; and he’d seen an even larger Statue of Vittorio Emanuele II than I had. From its steps my brother smiled at the camera, and from the equestrian statues above him only the mighty hooves fitted into the picture. When I wondered about the mysterious photographer, he revealed that his camera had a timer – he could be both cameraman and subject.

New year came round. January moved into February. Sometimes I’d try to ring my brother; I’d hear his taped message on the answerphone and leave my hello after the tone. He never contacted me. Once I found a message from my sister on my own answerphone, telling me his mobile number had changed. I tried ringing again a couple of times, but eventually decided to let be. Impotently, I reflected that the telephone’s an instrument of communication. I don’t know anyone else who so effectively protects himself from my attempts at contact. When one notices someone’s protecting himself from the most harmless of approaches, one can’t help seeing oneself, through the other person’s eyes, as almost some sort of monster.

I pondered over this for a while, but then I tried to put it out of mind. After all, there was work enough. I was in better shape than I’d been for years. I almost felt an OK person. I went looking after Aune, and it made me wonder how even my life could be so unexpectedly sweet. I was thrilled to see that a happy childhood, which I’d never managed to believe in, seemed possible after all. I saw that when a child was loved, she sent out rays of responsive love everywhere and healed the frictions of the frustrated adults around her. Maybe I was a foolish idealist, but Aune Maria had made me so, after I’d been an embittered cynic. It felt as if, in one short year, she’d succeeded in decisively improving relations between my daughter and her partner, brought Annikki and me closer together in our mutable middle-age, and above all got me feeling a father’s natural feelings towards his own daughter, after years of the sulks; for, in loving Aune Maria, I was loving the child in her mother, and the mother in her child. Moment by moment my mind was filling with feelings of sheer tolerance, which I thought had gone forever, and with some sort of felicity. Occasionally, taking Aune to the playground in the evening twilight, I experienced a strange sensation: as if I’d left my body myself, and my mother had come in my place, pushing the pushchair, and feeling those boundless waves of affection that surged towards the child in the pushchair – or was it from the child to the pusher?

I was sitting on the sitting-room sofa in my daughter’s flat and thinking about all the amazement simmering through my head when Aune came and stood by me, looked me closely in the eyes and said, ‘Granddad, stay where you are, and don’t you move.’

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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