Suburban dreams

30 March 2004 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Kahden ja yhden yön tarinoita (‘Tales from two and one nights’, Sammakko, 2003)

Reponen, Tane, Aleksi and Little Juha; once we all climbed up the path to the old dump with bows on our backs, our arrows sticking out from the tops of our boots. It was April. In the field above the dump puddles reflected the opaque sky, where we were going to shoot our arrows.

The field was the highest point in our neighbourhood. We could see the shopping centre, the library and the sawdust running track through the school woods. We could see the high-rise flats on Tora-alhontie road and the huts in the allotments. We could make out the thick spruce forest of Sovinnonvuori along the greenish grey coastline at Kapeasalmi. Our homes sat there below us. Softly droning cranes, yellow totem animals of hope, swung back and forth above the unfinished houses. In the distance was the centre of town with all its churches and scars. Here everything was just beginning. The swaggering confidence of ten-year-old boys was straining within us and would carry us far like Geronimo’s bow.

This is an image I treasure: Five boys standing on an open field each in turn aiming his bow at the sky. Their steel-tipped arrows whistle into flight and rise quickly through the air. At the peak of their arch they become indistinguishable, turn, start to fall, accelerate and land quivering in the ground. The arrows whistle upwards again and again. Five pairs of eyes follow every one of them: Will it be your arrow that will no longer fall into the field’s mud?

Our arrows never pierced the sky closing over the dump. We came up with a more exciting game.

We gathered round in a circle. We each took it in turns to fire an arrow blindly upwards. We watched each other’s grinning faces and waited: Will it be your arrow that will land on some poor person’s skull and stand there quivering?
I don’t know anything about you any more, Reponen, Tane, Aleksi and Little Juha. I don’t know how far your swaggering confidence has hurled you from the field above the dump, I don’t know how arrows raining down at the cusp of past and future have taken you by surprise in the years that followed. But I do remember you beneath the opaque suburban sky and I know where my origins lie.

That is why I treasure this image: Five boys standing in a circle on an open field, waiting. Five boys’ faces grinning with the cruel mischief of those who trust unquestioningly in the infinite time granted them. Everything is just beginning and the arrow rising, untouched steel at its point, affecting innocence, truly bright.

Traitors

In the stifling lobby of a hotel in the centre of town Asenyev wants to talk to me about General Jaruzelski and the gas pipe project. Asenyev is a lively, hard-working man, with strong hands and a pure complexion, rather like Prince Charles, only with cropped limbs and with that aristocratic dreaminess common to princes wiped from his eyes. Asenyev expects Washington to react to the project with more widespread embargoes, but he is convinced that relations between Western Europe and the Soviet Union are entering a new era, one which the distrust of the United States only serves to strengthen. I’m sweating in my grey suit. My underpants are sticking to my clammy groin. It’s about 30 degrees outside and I can feel a headache coming on, made all the worse by trying to follow Asenyev’s melodious, richly accented barrage of words.

Asenyev’s secretary hands him a plastic carrier bag. He asks me whether he remembers correctly and I have a son. Yes, that’s right, I reply. Quite a little cowboy, I almost add. He then takes a long, thin brown cardboard package out of the bag, hands it to me and utters a word I don’t quite understand, Spetsnaz, or something similar, and gives a chuckle. He offers me a bottle of vodka and a bar of blueberry chocolate. We agree on tomorrow’s timetable and I make my departure.

I walk along Eerikinkatu street to where I left my car. The sun is beating down. All afternoon I’ve had that annoying Eurovision entry about oversleeping in my head. Inside the sweltering car I open the windows and place the bottle and the chocolate bar on the passenger seat. The black leather upholstery is burning hot. I look down at the cardboard package. I open it up and look inside. Inside the package there is a dark grey pointed object. I tilt the package and the object slips out on to my palm. It’s a miniature submarine. I take a look at it. Pretty nifty. When you twist the tower it buzzes and the propeller at the back starts spinning. I twist the tower back the other way and the buzzing stops. A twist, more buzzing, another twist, but this time the buzzing doesn’t stop. A large wasp is buzzing by the windscreen. It stops for a moment, walks along the window pane wagging its antennae, then resumes buzzing up and down against the slanting glass.

I start up the car and drive along Uudenmaankatu street out of the city centre. The wasp continues to buzz angrily. Once I’ve stopped at the traffic lights, I pick up the submarine and twist its tower to make it whirr. I use it to prod the wasp. After the crisis in Karlskrona resolved last autumn I turned on the radio and listened to the anniversary parade of the revolution. The other Nordic countries had decided to boycott Red Square by way of a protest. I once had a dream where I was lying beneath green water. I was clenching a coin in my hand. I looked up towards the faint light and saw a huge shadow silently glide across me.

In the supermarket carpark I put the miniature back in its box, close the windows and get out of the car. The wasp remains inside. It deserves to die. In the food section I fill up my trolley with all things useful and useless. I make my way towards the check out. An ear-splitting noise starts ringing out from the ceiling. People pushing trolleys stop to cover their ears. Something seems to be happening in between the heavily stacked shelves, their contours appear to be struck by a sudden thinning, an impulse making them somehow fragile. My head is pounding. A bright screen moves across my line of sight. I feel relieved, the sense that now it’s going to happen, though I don’t know exactly what. I think about the toy submarine on the passenger seat, the true darkness inside the box. I haven’t had enough to drink. I need some chilled water. Through the noise I can make out a grating, worked-up voice, as if someone were repeating a single rhythmical word, something like spetsnaz, spetsnaz. This is a customer announcement. We apologise for the current technical problem, a female voice says. The embarrassing Eurovision song starts up again.

I drive southwards in a queue of traffic. The world consists of currents and it is often comforting to let oneself be carried along by them. In the carpark I squash the wasp against the windscreen with the softened bar of chocolate. It sticks to the wrapping paper. I examine the creature close up. It’s not quite dead yet. Its crushed abdomen is throbbing and palpitating and its sting is jutting out to add to its suffering. One of the wasp’s thin legs slowly straightens itself out. It points at me. I look at the leg. You can’t avoid humanising the world’s various phenomena. I chuck the wasp out of the window. I can see the high-rise flats. If we attempt to humanise the world, why is it that some parts of town look like batteries belonging to a distant race?

This area was built up within a few years and almost straight away the whole city forgot it existed. The utmost rational thought went into planning a row of houses in the forest where people could commit thoughtless deeds. In this motionless, temporary atmosphere, lacking in tradition, it is difficult to remember the span of time and destiny, and once you’ve rememebered it, you wish you could forget it straight away. Thus our prefab settlement is balanced between memory and oblivion, between town and countryside, and not even our most thoughtless deeds create monsters, they generally only produce noisy children.

However, not everyone is as lucky with the results of their deeds: as I go in the main entrance I see the retarded boy from next door. He is sitting in the stairwell by himself, his head bowed over, with his hand moving up and down between his legs, quietly grunting to himself. I’m slightly taken aback. Here, in the stairwell? Gradually my eyes adjust to the darkness and I understand: a red plastic yoyo is bouncing up and down on a string, up and down on a string. His hand jerks and the yoyo bounces. The boy gives a grunt, probably counting aloud the number of bounces like some conscientious production manager.

I stand there for a moment watching his immense concentration and say hello. He loses count, the yoyo drops to the floor and the bouncing stops. The boy raises his smiling face and starts to wind the string back around the yoyo. Soon the bobbing resumes and the boy starts counting again from the beginning, sinking back into his own private dusk. I lay the package with the submarine on the staircase next to him. I step into the lift. The cable pulls me in an upward motion and a tragic analogy between my life and the life of the boy next door dawns on me. I start to laugh. Up and down on a cable, up and down on a cable.

Home. My home, our home. When, years ago, I imagined a landscape for the events of my life I didn’t imagine the landscape around Tora-alhontie road: red-brick blocks of flats, a sandpit out the front, rocky pine forests surrounding the houses, behind the forest a slice of the sea. And when, years ago, I imagined events to fit the landscape of my life I didn’t imagine these events: first study, then work, alongside work surprisingly falling in love and even more surprisingly becoming a father, resulting in marriage and moving to the suburbs. But this is the landscape and these are the events which have come true and have pushed aside my original plans, now fading somewhere in my mind’s inside pocket.

Every once in a while my mind will burst wide open and start spitting out the contents of its inside pockets, throwing the whole archive of unfulfilled plans right in my face. This often results in a banal internal drama, the unbearable feeling of a suburban father flailing in helplessness, and bitter grazes wrapped in swathes of tenderness and pity for the two people falling with me.

Every day I come home to find my wife in the kitchen, just the way my father always found my mother. I put my arm around her and touch her lips with my lips. I give her Asenyev’s blueberry chocolate bar. She tells me about her day, I tell her about mine. She fills my glass and puts too large a portion on my plate. We eat facing each other. Yesterday she said: Do you remember, we once said to hell with all the previous generations’ fossilised role models. Traitors, she laughed. That night I lay awake thinking of the people sleeping in the house. How they were lying there, collapsed on their beds, determined looking faces fast asleep against their pillows. Perhaps fossilised role models form a barrier against the wasteland. Thinking about things like this, you can listen to another person’s breathing, glance at the digital readings on an Asian clock radio, worry about love gradually depreciating within you.

Later in the evening Mauri arrives back from a birthday party, a pistol in his hand, dressed as always in his Wild West costume. I can see from his expression that something is bothering him. I take him in my arms, swing him high into the air and carry his lightness until he starts to chuckle. I look at my son. After a moment I don’t know which of us would fall harder if I let go of him.

Sapphire and Steel

Sometime in November I get on the number six bus and go all the way to the southern terminus. When we get there I climb up on to the rocks, somewhere I haven’t been for fifteen years. I stand there. Evening. A thick fog is hanging over the sturdy neighbourhood. I remember distant moments, a time when either I was much smaller than I am now or everything was much bigger than it is now, even the autumn. Is the fog blowing in from the sea or is it rising from the ground, I wonder. Stardust on Tora-alhontie road, Annukka used to say. Lights shine out of the windows in the blocks of flats. In the living rooms a bluish storytelling TV light can be seen blazing.

The windows of one of the blocks are not shining.

The tenants of an eight-storey prefab block built on the edge of the old dump each received a polite letter in a brown envelope from the council last spring. Now all thirty-two of the building’s flats are lying empty. Some of the windows have been smashed in.

Despite this the lights in the yard are still working. A knackered old bike is propped up in front of the house. The deserted view looks almost like an old war monument left over as a lesson for generations to come:

Don’t do what we did.

We used to live on the first floor.

I can see the window behind which, years ago, used to be our room. That’s where I tore the limbs off Annukka’s dolls. That’s where Annukka ripped up my ice hockey picture cards.

And that’s where we would lie frightened in the same bed after we’d watched Sapphire and Steel. But I was far more cunning than my sister and managed to con a mark out of her in return for, seemingly against my will, agreeing to lie beside her, close to her in the warm.

It is the terror I remember from the the 1970s. Conflicts in the sandpit flaring up out of nowhere. Visits to clinic with Annukka screaming her head off. The group of play-school children devotedly drawing pictures of President Kekkonen and the terrible cackle behind the mask of all the Father Christmases at our grandparents’ house. Photographs from those years have lost their shading and turned red. It is a red colour shift, the spectra of distant galaxies slowly moving towards longer wavelengths. Photographs from the 1980s have retained their garish optimism. If I want to tell someone about my roots, I’ll show them a photograph like that. Me with a defiant John McEnroe pose and a mullet. Me chewing five pieces of strawberry Hubba Bubba or slurping a milkshake with sweat bands on my wrists. Amidst the futuristic lights at the school disco me hopping from one foot to the other in time to Alphaville, with a mystical eastern mumbo-jumbo sign drawn on my cheek with eyeliner. Me dreaming Slazenger dreams about easy victories, whilst my careless use of pocket money foretold that decade’s fanatical Pac Man mania.

Sapphire and Steel.

Great name for a TV show. You could easily come up with more of them.

Arsenic and Cyanide.

Cadmium and Mercury.

Manganese and Lead.

PCB and Sulphuric Acid.

I look at the house and I remember playing hide and seek in the dark, the pitch-dark bunker filled with the sounds of tip-toeing and fumbling about. I imagined the one who was It with Darth Vader’s helmet and the face of Mishka the Bear, and a nuclear war as the backdrop to our game. Annoying Annukka was always clinging on to me. When we were hiding she would stand right up against my side. I felt embarrassed by her, even though no one could see us. Above our heads the house went about its business, maintaining its vital functions. The plumbing gurgled. The ventilation hummed. Annukka would fidget with my sleeve with panicking fingers. We tried to listen out for the movements of the person looking as we huddled in a warm concrete corner, we the invisible, at the dark bottom of these giant organisms.

The window in our old room has been smashed. Perhaps a frustrated tenant threw a stone at it in a fit of rage.

I can see the balcony where Annukka used to stand blowing washing-up liquid bubbles through a straw. The bubbles drifted down over the tarmac and burst on the green branches of the birch trees in the yard, but that was a long time ago.

When my sister became ill over two years ago, nobody knew what the birch trees grown handsome on this land had been through, and my sister still doesn’t know.

The swostika

The plastic chairs in the children’s section felt clammy under my bum. A breeze smelling of the end of the summer holidays wafted in through the open air vent. In The Mansions of the Gods the Romans planned to build houses in the middle of the woods. I’d learnt a new word. Caesar used to call the outskirts of town the periphery. My uncle once told me that the world in Asterix really existed a long time ago. The other boys were just reading Bobo books or some other rubbish.

I thought people were wise. They could do almost anything, they could build tall houses and nice libraries and they knew loads about the past.

Little Juha came over from the adults’ section. He sat down next to me and placed a large black-covered book on the round table.

‘Have a look at this,’ he said.

We all gathered round the book and leafed through the pages. The book was full of images that were familiar from my uncle’s adventure magazines: tanks, fleets of bombers, marching divisions of soldiers and ruined cities. We were looking at what people have done throughout time: waving flags in parades, the hands of the dead dangling empty.

‘That’s a swostika,’ said Little Juha and pointed at a symbol I’d seen in the adventure magazines. ‘The swostika means you know which group you belong to. My big brother told me.’

We flicked through the pages until we came to a double-page spread which prevented us from going any further. The picture showed an enormous pit. A group of men were hurling emaciated bodies to the bottom. In the background bulldozers were shovelling heaps of corpses just like any other excess refuse. Naked bodies lay tangled together, caught in an icy thousand-fold embrace. I didn’t know so many people had ever been born. We all stared at the photograph. It cast something so strange into the silent calm of the library that we were forced to pass the heaviest judgement.

The laughter began as a whispered giggle. One of us started to giggle and the giggle passed on to the next, who then infected the third; the giggling passed around the circle and grew until we were laughing out loud, and in an instant our unchallenged communal guffawing had carried us across the hateful pit. Little Juha slammed the book shut and placed it back on the neatly stacked shelf.

We ran out of the library and across the school playing field, we ran past the shopping centre, over the woody rocks towards the high-rise flats, we ran through the fresh air of a world devoid of history, roaring like a pack of monster cubs.

I left the others once we reached the caretaker’s tractor shed. I thought about how nice it had been to laugh and roar together like that. Back home Mum and Dad, chicken and rice were waiting for me. It felt good to know which group I belonged to.

I ran across the grass outside Number Four. There was a white sign with a picture of a black dog and a red cross drawn through it. I tried to jump up and spit at the sign, and hopped over the low wire fence. I was jogging along so fast my lungs hurt. At the corner of Four B I thudded to the ground. I fell on my face and scraped my knee against the tarmac. My palms were stinging. I lay on my stomach and looked at my hands. Blood was beginning to ooze from beneath the grazed white skin.

‘Bloody hell, did you hurt yourself?’ a low voice growled.

I saw a concerned-looking black face. The black man from Four A was standing there holding his yellow Jopo. The handle-bars and saddle had been raised up as far as they would go, but the bike still looked ridiculously small. The black man had once given basketball classes to the older boys. One time we were up on the rocks spying as the black man lay on a blanket with a normal woman, sunbathing in his swimming trunks. His skin shone like the fresh tar in the carpark. I imagined what it must smell like and wondered whether the woman enjoyed sniffing it.

‘Up you get,’ said the black man and offered me a hand the size of a shovel.

I got up by myself. Blood was trickling down my knee. In my stomach and throat I could feel myself about to burst into tears. I wanted to turn and leave. The black man began to rummage around in his bag. Once again he offered me his hand. He was holding a rubber ball. We looked at each other.

‘It’s yours now,’ the black man said and gave a smile.

I took the ball. The black man started pedalling his Jopo across the yard, his broad back crouched above it. I wondered which group the only black man on the street belonged to.

The ball was blue and green. I recognised the continents of the world, although they were drawn a bit clumsily: Africa, Asia, Australia, both Americas and Europe too. I couldn’t make out Finland at all. There were some words in a foreign language. Probably advertising something valuable. I bounced the ball on the tarmac. It sprang up high. I caught it, my hand stang.

There was building work going on across from our yard. Dad said they were going to build some council houses. The walls of these unfinished houses were still open. From the street you could look into the rooms that would soon be filled with all kinds of people. You could have thrown a stone in there without breaking anything. One of the foundation stones had been spray-painted with a symbol, whose name I had already forgotten in all the hurry. I still remembered periphery though.

A deep pit had been excavated next to the house. I thought about going over and peering down there to see what exciting things might be lying at the bottom, but I walked past it. They were waiting for me at home.

Translated by David Hackston

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