Living with Her Ladyship

Issue 4/2003 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the memoir of a Helsinki childhood, Från Twenty Gold till Kent (‘From Twenty Gold to Kent’, Schildts, 2003). Introduction by Pia Ingström

My hair was dark and stuck up from my skull like little nails. My face was furrowed with red, my throat was wrinkled and I didn’t even have a pretty navel. This was because Daddy had to knot my umbilical cord himself while the obstetrician was busy on the ground floor with an appendix.

‘She looks like a forty-year-old errand-boy from the newspaper’s office: Daddy announced.

Mummy said she hoped I would soon change and have a long neck.

At Apollogatan street we took the lift up to the third floor where my sisters were waiting with the new nanny. They had no chance to welcome me with singing as they’d planned because both Renata and Catherine had colds. Nobody was going to be allowed to breathe anywhere near me, Mummy and Nanny were entirely agreed on that.

‘Colds are infectious,’ explained Mummy, carrying me into the bathroom, ‘very dangerous.’

There was no escaping the fact I was a girl. Renata went into the nursery, slammed the door behind her and kicked the cradle. But after a while she sneaked out into the bathroom to breathe on me, because even at that age she liked anything dangerous.

The one who didn’t suffer from divided feelings was Doris Gustafsson. She loved me from the first moment, gently cared for my strange hair and put ointment and talc on my throat till it grew into itself and straightened out. During the next few years we became inseparable, Dodo and I. Even in the cradle I was conscious of her freshly starched apron and white nurse’s cap and they were great symbols of safety to me. In time I took them as much for granted as my potty and the sun. Besides, Dodo believed in God, and her love for God lit up my life like a searchlight.

In contrast, I experienced my mother in glimpses. She was a necklace and a red-painted mouth, or the half-smoked Twenty Gold that stuck straight out of her hand like a sixth finger. Her beautiful dark voice kept everything under control as she came and went behind the scenes. Baroness von Koskull seemed to live an entirely independent life as Her Ladyship behind a smokescreen and was seldom to be seen. She took a lot of trouble to look after the part of herself that wrote articles, worked in an office, spoke on the radio and was active in the Finland-Swedish Women’s League. She also found time to read books on psychology and experiment on us. Just after the war she tested Renata’s intelligence by showing her a picture of a giraffe and asking:

‘How many legs does it have?’

‘Two,’ said Renata. ‘No, four! No, six!’

Mummy was worried and forever after Renata preferred other kinds of animals.

She was regarded as a woman of her time, but gradually also became known for her ability to drink like a man, though she only drank from the best crystal and always took her drinks in the correct order. Schnapps and beer with the hors d’oeuvres, wine with the main course and madeira or port just before the dessert. Then cognac or liqueur with the coffee, and if the meal dragged on she would start the sequence from the beginning again but leaving out the food. The servants served in the correct order from left to right while newly polished silver gleamed on the mahogany furniture. Not even a napkin-ring was ever out of place and the flower arrangements were themselves arranged so as to complement one another.

My sisters and I were often present at dinner but had to go off to our nursery when they reached the coffee and cognac. As I was going backwards through the hall Mummy would be the last person I saw before the walnut sideboard cut off my view. She would be enthroned at the end of the table like a goddess with a cigarette in her left hand and a glass in her right, well aware of her duty as hostess to drink a separate toast with everyone.

Later, when I had grown as tall as the sideboard, Mummy suddenly became old and lost her teeth; she’d had me late in life. But there was time for lots of parties before that point was reached.

One evening everyone except Mummy gathered in the dining-room where the large radio stood. We were told Daddy would raise his hand and when he did we must listen carefully because Mummy would be in the radio. She must have been sitting doubled up, but even so her dark voice crackled loudly through the room. When she mentioned my name I wanted to go forward to the radio, but Daddy shook his head.

Later Mummy appeared in a coat with gloves, hat and handbag and we were allowed to go up to her and congratulate her. Presumably on having managed to fit inside the radio with her outdoor clothes on.

After she’d been in the radio Mummy got a pain in her bottom and left home. She had to lie two months in hospital with Sciatica. I was sure Sciatica was a boy till Dodo told me it was a nerve in your bottom.

I did some drawings and we took them with us to the hospital on Sundays when it was visiting time. But Mummy put them in her drawer for later, because all she could cope with just then was Twenty Gold and the bromide injections Dr Sonck gave her.

When she didn’t come home I began to forget that she even existed. Dodo let me spend as much time as I liked in Mummy’s wardrobe with the ostrich feathers and fox boa and all the party dresses. There was one without shoulders made of silver lame that slithered through my fingers, and another that had so many cloth buttons at the back that I needed Dodo’s help to count them. Furthest in of all hung a dark yellow winter dress with pin-tucks that had to be kept free from dust.

Soon I began to wonder what would happen to the clothes if Mummy didn’t come home again. Perhaps Dodo would be allowed to use them and I’d be able to have the fox boa for my doll’s pram. When I asked Daddy about this he took us with him to the hospital next day even though it was only Wednesday.

We were allowed to sit by Mummy’s bedside so long as we kept absolutely still. She said several times that she felt better and couldn’t wait to come home. Dr Sonck had given her injections of snake-poison for the sciatica. But he’d wondered first whether perhaps Her Ladyship might not be a bit anxious for her complexion because we didn’t really know all that much yet about the side-effects of snake-poison. ‘To hell with my complexion,’ Mummy had answered. ‘Just bring on the syringe.’

Daddy said Mummy had guts and that he hadn’t had a decent omelette for ages because Dodo put flour in everything and Ester Kärki hadn’t had any proper training and couldn’t make anything but pea soup.

I was a bit sad when I heard this because the fact was no one could make such delicious chocolate pudding as Dodo. She used real egg-yolk, creamy milk and added potato-meal as thickening. Right on top she would put a dab of whipped cream which I always ate my way round so as to save it till last. Sometimes I even got a second helping if there were only the two of us at home, Dodo and me. But just as I was about to tell Mummy about this the visiting time was over. All Mummy had time to say was that Catherine was growing more beautiful every day and that my drawings were phenomenal. Renata wasn’t with us on this occasion because there was a swimming competition at the Georgsgatan street baths in which she hoped to win a gold medal.

Sciatica was dead and Mummy came home. When I asked her if she was upset and going to cry, she answered:

‘The only thing that upsets me is my elderly figure, but a new dress’ll sort that out.’

Next week I was allowed to go with her to her dressmaker’s in Mannerheimvägen road. The dressmaker took her measurements and recommended an adjustment to her corset as Her Ladyship had put on weight.

‘The corset will do as it is,’ said Mummy. I think the dressmaker pursed her lips, though I couldn’t see very well because she had so many pins in her mouth.

Afterwards we took the number 3 tram through the city centre to Fazer’s Café. But before we got there something happened. As we were passing the Parliament building triangular black planes appeared in the sky. No! I thought, now it’s happening again! No no! At the same time I seemed to be grown up and Mummy wasn’t really Mummy either. I threw myself down under a seat to take shelter and everything went black.

Mummy’s voice reached me from a long way off.

‘But darling, what’s the matter?’

I got up even though everything was rocking.

‘Was she scared?’ someone wondered.

‘Extraordinary,’ Mummy murmured. ‘She was born several years after the war.’

Suddenly the planes appeared again. In the tram people stood up and a boy clapped his hands. ‘It’s all right,’ Mummy said, ‘it’s only a show. Publicity planes, they’re called. Look how nicely they’re flying.’

But I wouldn’t look. The roar of the planes and their shape still terrified me. At the same time I understood that we were on our way to Fazer’s and nothing dreadful was going to happen. Perhaps Fazer’s would be closed. This did happen once but then we took a taxi to Restaurant Elite instead. That was near where we lived in Apollogatan street, as was Motti’s restaurant too. Mummy and I used to sneak off there when Daddy and Uncle George were playing their LP records. The fact was I needed a bit of flesh on my legs and she just wanted a little peace and quiet.

My favourite was Wienerschnitzel and mash. But if the schnitzel didn’t come complete with anchovy, a slice of lemon and capers I wouldn’t eat it. Mummy entirely understood that, because you can’t really enjoy anything served without a garnish. And neither of us could stand chipped china, or hardbread crumbs on the floor under our shoes. I would drink mineral water from ice-cold bottles while Mummy had wine with her food and schnapps afterwards. At Motti’s our favourite place was the table in the compartment by the wall. As time went on we got so attached to this compartment that Mummy would phone to reserve the table in advance. It didn’t matter that there were only two of us though the table was meant for four, since we were regular customers and so had special privileges.

Both Motti and Elite were good, but at Fazer’s Café they had the best chocolate cake I’d ever eaten. Unfortunately I always had to have a main course first, but I was allowed to leave some of that if Mummy was in a good mood. She explained that I was supposed to be putting on weight, but that on the other hand it was of course quite natural to leave a bit because that was what gentlefolk did. In the Ladies I saw a bit of Mummy’s weight and that there was a safety-pin at her waist to help with it though she mostly just drank and didn’t eat anything like as much as I did.

At Fazer’s Café the carpets were so thick the waiters could creep up on you from behind. In time the pianist began to wave to us between numbers, and then Mummy would ask me to go over to the piano with a coin and curtsy. But I had to cross so much floor to get there that strangers watched me from all the other tables and clapped me as if it had been me playing the piano. Besides, I didn’t like the pianist very much, because he only had eyes for Mummy though I was the one giving him the money.

Once after we’d paid the bill Mummy knocked over a chair and her high heels stuck in the deep carpet. But at the very moment she began to fall, an unknown man caught her with one arm; his other arm was taken up by another lady.

On the way home in the taxi Mummy and I talked about how gallantly the gentleman had caught her and we re-enacted the whole thing in the hall when we got home. But we pretended to the others that it had happened in the street because she wanted us to keep our restaurant trips to ourselves since I was the only one who needed to be fattened up.

We started looking forward to Wednesday even on Sunday, because on Wednesday we were going to see a really big ship. An ocean-going freight-carrier. Mummy was going to take us as she worked for Transatlantic & Wilhelmsen Lines and knew the captain.

On Wednesday morning our best clothes were laid out for us. I was allowed to wear my dark-blue coat with velvet trimmings, and my patent-leather shoes which were normally kept for indoor use only, because we were going On Board.

The sun had disappeared behind the clouds by the time we went up the gangway which was so long and wobbly that we screamed and laughed at the same time. Even Mummy laughed out loud. At one point she stumbled and nearly took me with her. In the end we managed to get to the top despite the fact we’d laughed so much that the seams on Mummy’s stockings had gone crooked. It was Renata who got the job of straightening them as she was wearing soft gloves in honour of the occasion. It was important now for us to behave properly, said Mummy, because we were going to meet the person who commanded the ship who was called Captain.

We went down many corridors and up many stairs before we found the right place. And he certainly did look stylish in his dark uniform and didn’t have a speck of dust on his shoes. I curtsied as deeply as I could because maybe some day we were going to cross the ocean with him; he promised us this in a language called Norwegian which was difficult to understand.

After a while two sailors came into the room with bottles and glasses, and chocolate bars for us children. Royal was usually my favourite chocolate bar but this time it somehow didn’t feel right in my throat. I nearly choked and wanted us to go home, but Mummy wouldn’t hear of it. She and the captain kept drinking toasts till coils of hair began coming loose from her coiffure. After a bit the captain said something to the two sailors, who obviously had a job to do. I didn’t want any more chocolate and pulled at Mummy because I didn’t like the ship any more. And if we were going to cross the ocean I wanted Daddy with me. But the captain was also pulling at Mummy and almost immediately got her up from her chair. Though she then sat down again because her glass wasn’t empty. All her lipstick had come off round the edge of the glass and she didn’t look her usual self at all. She and the captain were going to go off and look at something and while they were away we were to be with the sailors and have chocolate.

I looked over at Renata who had turned away and was picking with her fingernail at the windowsill. Catherine was eating chocolate and turning the pages of a paper. The sailors tossed me another chocolate bar. When I pushed it away they grinned as though I’d said something funny. I could see Renata’s nail was getting sore.

I sat absolutely still for as long as I could, but when Mummy didn’t come back my hands started to feel cold. When I tried to warm them between my legs the sailors doubled up with laughter. I got up to go and look for Mummy.

A little way down the corridor there was a door open and a lady lying on a bed. She was wearing a corset like my Mummy’s but no knickers. Mummy usually wore pink knickers with longish legs. Suddenly I saw the captain was in there too. I curtsied again and was about to ask him about Mummy when he hurried into another room and closed the door after him. Then the lady in the corset lifted her head and I saw it was my Mummy. Everything was cold now, almost like outside, and I began to shake. We looked at each other but she didn’t seem to recognise me. My silent tears sank straight down into the thick carpet. I looked at the patent-leather shoes Mummy and Daddy had given me for Christmas. When I moved my leg my shoe moved too. She turned her head again, I could hear that because the pillow rustled a bit.

The captain opened the door and I saw there was a bathroom behind him. He looked at me a moment then shut the door again. Now it was so cold I could feel nothing, just that my tongue was lying in a hollow somewhere deep inside me, I could feel that a little.

‘What…?’said my Mummy thickly. ‘Whadyou want?’

I looked at her without moving my head. Just looked at her face. And after a very long time she began to know me again, and I managed to move my legs a little. I stretched them and could feel my woollen stockings prickle in their usual way.

When it was time to go back down the gangway it was harder than when we came up because Mummy still wasn’t herself, her nylons were wrinkled round her ankles and her legs kept giving way all the time. But it was too difficult for us to hold her up.

That spring I often cried behind the laundry basket and once on the spur of the moment I hit Mummy. I wouldn’t let anyone but Dodo touch me, and late one evening I tore down a piece of wallpaper from above Mummy’s bed.

I began getting Fazerina chocolate bars and liquorice from Daddy several times a week, but even so I wouldn’t kiss him.

Renata wanted the two of us to start a patrol. The plan was we should each watch through the keyhole every other night. But except during weekends and parties not a great deal happened at night out in the hall. So as founder members of the Society of Clever Slyboots we decided it would be safe to go to sleep after ten if all was quiet.

One Saturday when Daddy had bought us all Royal chocolate I stamped on Mummy’s fox boa till one of its glass eyes fell out. But she said nothing and sewed it back herself though Dodo could have done it better. After Aunt Saga married Uncle George and took him away his room was different, with dark but very clean corners, and I was always afraid I’d get sucked out through the window. If I turned my head quickly I could see figures slinking away from the corner of my eye though there was no one there. I felt happiest when the door to the room was shut and an armchair in front of it.

One evening I was on keyhole patrol when I heard Mummy and Daddy talking about me.

‘Can it be because George has moved out?’ said Daddy.

‘Oh no,’ said Mummy. ‘It’s just her age and she’s always been sensitive. She’s not specially fond of George anyway, is she?’

I put my lips to the keyhole and yelled: ‘Yes I am!’

I just had time to throw myself into bed and pull up the cover before Mummy opened the door.

‘Quiet in here!’ she said, looking over at my bed. ‘You’re nearly six now. Old enough to know better.’

I couldn’t understand how she knew it was me that was awake. When she didn’t move I shouted through a slit in the bedcover: ‘I hate North State!’

She had in fact stopped smoking Twenty Gold and switched to North State instead. North State was difficult to say properly and besides Twenty Gold had gold paper inside the packet.

‘You can also say Nortti,’ she answered.

She didn’t seem afraid of waking the others but went on standing in the doorway.

‘Let’s go to Fazer’s and have some cake tomorrow,’ she whispered.

I got even angrier but I did want to go with her to Fazer’s.

‘Can Dodo come too?’ I whispered back.

‘It’s our secret, you know that, no one else must know.’

‘Can I wear my patent-leather shoes?’

‘If the streets are dry.’

She went on standing there without saying anything. I could see her clearly all the time through the slit in my bedcover. Once she sighed so deeply I could actually see her sighing against the background. I could hear Daddy whispering her name out in the hall, but she still went on standing there.

‘Is your name Elsa?’ I asked after a bit.

That seemed to make her a bit happier.

‘Elsa Amanda,’ she whispered, ‘Elsa Amanda von Koskull, née Behm.’

When she’d gone, closing the door after her, I farted several times and bit my pillow so that a feather come out.

Every other Tuesday evening the whole family would go to Fänrik Stålsgatan street to put the washing through a mangle. It was great fun because if you did it the right way you could get the table-cloths to come out like silk. Also, I used to be allowed to sit under the sheets and get my hair damp while Renata and Mummy spread them out and folded them up.

But on this particular Tuesday Mummy was distrait and lost her shoes. She told us she had no future and that a lot of talent would go with her to the grave.

‘Hush, Elsa,’ said Daddy.

But that didn’t help. She just kept losing her grip on the washing-basket so Renata had to take over.

The big mangle took up nearly the whole room and had cogwheels like incisors on each side. You had to keep well clear of them or you could be in trouble.

In the middle of everything, before we’d even unpacked the washing, Mummy deliberately rushed over to the cogwheels to stick her hand into them. She looked entirely relaxed and not particularly serious so at first I thought she was joking. But Daddy knew better.

‘Stop that, Elsa!’ he shouted, reaching her just in time. He pushed her down on a stool I often used for standing on. But she just laughed and said:

‘Sho mediocre… shimply without talent… though of coursh I can cook potatoesh.’

‘I love potatoes!’ I said, hoping to calm her down a bit.

But Daddy still looked worried and nodded towards the window-ledge to indicate I should climb up and sit there. I’d only been sitting there a moment before Mummy was off again. She threw herself headlong over the large mangle and began to slide in with the sheet. Just as her hands were about to go between the rollers I screamed as loudly as I could and Daddy turned and flew across the room. At the last moment he managed to grab her feet and pull her anticlockwise back over the sheet. Then he switched off the mains and shoved her out of the door. The washing-basket was so heavy that pushing it made Renata’s lips go thin but we managed somehow to get Mummy home. She kept trying to light a cigarette and when we stopped her she threw away her handbag.

‘Leave it there,’ said Daddy.

But Catherine took it home to Apollogatan street anyway. When at last we’d got the damp washing into the hallway, Daddy pushed Mummy down in the basket so that her legs stuck straight up like pegs. She looked astonished because he’d never done anything like it before. But we thought he was right because of course she’d ruined our whole evening.

At school on the day of my twelfth birthday the headmistress, Karin Allardt Ekelund, got up on the platform after morning assembly.

‘We have a famous visitor today,’ she said. ‘At one o’clock the writer Astrid Lindgren is coming to meet us. Wind up your watches, girls, because the doors to the hall will be closed at five to one.’

‘I’m sure she looks like Grace Kelly,’ I said, hazarding a guess. ‘She writes so well.’

‘Or Doris Day,’ suggested my friend Carina.

‘Ava Gardner,’ I said.

‘Sophia Loren.’

‘Gina Lollobrigida, but lighter hair.’

‘Jayne Mansfield.’

‘Ugh,’ I said.

And so we went on till it was time for History. The teacher, Olga Nygren alias The Madonna, had a heavy reptilian stare behind powdered eyelids. The moment she appeared in the corridor our look-out motioned the class to stand up. The Madonna was strict and demanded absolute silence during lessons. History was one of my favourite subjects but at the moment all we could think of was Astrid Lindgren.

‘Rita Hayworth?’ I whispered to Carina….

Many of Astrid Lindgren’s books had been set out in a row on a shelf up the assembly-hall stage. Carina and I ended up a long way back in the hall, but even at that distance I could identify the cover of every book. But Astrid Lindgren herself didn’t look the least bit like what we expected. She was quite old and had a brown beret on her head. Her lips were extremely narrow, definitely not a Hollywood mouth. Nor was she high-breasted either, at least not like any of the women on our list. A huge disappointment. Nor was it any better when her beret came off, for the hair under it was straight and flat. She talked for a bit about Pippi Longstocking, then walked right to the front of the stage where the prompter’s box is set into the floor.

‘Does anyone here have a birthday today?’ she asked in a high, clear voice.

I turned cold and pinched Carina’s arm as a sign not to so betray me. But it was no use.

‘Here!’ shouted Carina, lifting up my arm. ‘She’s twelve today!’

So Astrid Lindgren asked me to come up on the stage to get a present. I had to go all the way from the back of the hall in my check shirt, which had a button missing, and my favourite brown trousers which had a shiny backside and knees. I could sense certain girls were exchanging glances behind me. Up on the stage Astrid Lindgren shook hands with me and asked my name. She also wondered whether I’d like to have a book.

‘Yes, please,’ I said.

‘Which one would you like?’ she asked.

‘I’ve read them all,’ I said.

‘Then I’ll choose one for you,’ said Astrid Lindgren.

She chose one of the Noisy Village books, opened it and wrote something on the first page. Then she led me to the front of the stage and raised my hand in the air.

‘And now I think we should give four cheers for our birthday girl!’ she cried. ‘Four cheers for Agneta hurrah hurrah hurrah hurraaah!’

Going back to my place was even worse. All the way between the rows of full benches my face was exposed, but I craftily held the book in such a way as to hide the missing button. At first I tried to look unconcerned, but when that failed I fixed my eyes on Carina instead. She was more suitably dressed for a birthday than I was, in a beautiful blue mohair jumper with a collar. I kept my eye fixed on this without blinking the whole of the last bit of the way. When I sat down several girls bent forward to get a view of the book, but I held it against my chest and didn’t look to see what Astrid Lindgren had written in it; I wanted to keep that for when I got home.

In the evening I let the family pass the book round the dinner table.

‘What a fine dedication,’ said Mummy. ‘Congratulations!’

‘Why does she always have all the luck?’ Catherine burst out. ‘It’s not fair!’

‘Jealousy is unbecoming,’ said Mummy.

When we heard Daddy’s key in the lock Catherine asked:

‘Can I show him the book?’

‘Only the cover,’ I said, ‘I’ll show the dedecation.’

‘Dedication,’ said Mummy.

Carina was allowed to sleep over even though it was midweek, and for dessert Mummy made a meringue tart with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. In addition she kept completely sober all evening despite the presence of an open bottle in the umbrella stand.

I did so badly at school in Finnish that I had to do remedial work during the summer holidays. I was forced to spend the whole of June in Helsingfors having private lessons.

After the exam I took the bus to Lill-Kroksnäs, where I found Carina waiting at the bus stop with a bag of Fazer’s Mixed to celebrate my arrival. We went straight out on the landing-stage and ate the lot, but it did nothing to lighten our mood.

‘Now you’ll be Bernice’s classmate again,’ Carina pointed out.

‘Finnish is like an illness,’ I said. ‘Some words give you a sore throat and others make you want to throw up.’

We tried to think about something else but couldn’t. We spent all afternoon sitting indoors hating Finnish. Mummy was unusually understanding and tried to cheer us up. She brought us evening tea and sandwiches on a tray and said:

‘You’ve still got two months of holiday to go so you’ve got plenty of time for all the fun you like. Try and do something meaningful, that’ll make you feel better.’

‘Shall we play Canasta?’ suggested Carina.

But Canasta didn’t seem sufficiently meaningful. So we sat side by side in the window and stared out till the sun began to sink.

‘Why do they have to have so many case-endings in Finnish?’ I wondered. ‘The whole language seems abnormal.’

‘Ees taas ees taas niin se saha laulaa,’ sang Carina with loathing in her voice.

‘Laulaa niin ja katkaisee monta pölkyn kaulaa,’ I added, grimacing.

Gradually the sun and the landscape disappeared before our eyes. At first the veranda was brightly illuminated, then it glowed softly and finally it went black. We went on sitting there without being able to think of anything meaningful at all. Now all that was left for us was bed. But then something happened.

Under the window a cigarette flared up briefly. A cheekbone became visible and vanished again.

‘Mummy?’ I whispered.

We pressed our noses to the windowpane and stared at the glow which began to move about through the dark. We followed it breathlessly from puff to puff. Once we caught sight of the tip of her nose, and the last bit of her we saw was two fingernails.

‘She’s heading for the lake,’ said Carina.

Somewhere near the clump of birches everything went black again. But we’d come to life. We took a pencil stump each and pretended to smoke, drawing smoke in and blowing it out again, and between whiles rounding our lips for smoke-rings.

In the bedroom we emptied our pockets on the bed and got together forty-five pence, not enough for a packet of Kent. We’d have to wait for Saturday and our pocket-money before we could begin serious smoking.

Translated by Silvester Mazzarella

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