Extracts from the novel Maskrosguden (‘The dandelion god’, Söderströms, 2004). Introduction by Maria Antas
The best cinema in town was in the main square. The other was a little way off. It was in the main square too, but you couldn’t compare it to the Royal. At the Grand there was hardly any room between the rows, the floor was flat and there was a dance-hall on the other side of the wall, so that Zorro rode out of time with waltzes, in time with oompahs, out of time with the slow steps of tangos and in time with quick numbers. The Royal was different and had a sloping floor.
Inside, the Royal was several hundred metres long. You could buy sweets on one side and tickets on the other. From Martina Wallin’s mum. She was refined. So was everyone except us: Mum, Dad and me.
Sometimes I went to the pictures with Gran and Frank. Frank is Gran’s child and a year younger than me. If it was just Frank and me we usually watched a Zorro film. If Gran was with us we watched The Bible.
When you went into the Royal and up to Martina Wallin’s mum to buy tickets you could see Mum was right. Martina Wallin’s mum was refined. She would take the block of tickets in her beautiful white hands, tear one off and push it under the glass partition. That’ll be two-fifty, then. She had curly dark hair, dark eyes graced with crows’ feet, a beauty spot above her mouth, pale-red lips and what looked like little white grains of rice that you could see when she smiled, as she always did when she thanked you and sorted your money into the right compartments in her cash box.
Martina Wallin and her mother lived in Hollywood like all the best families in Borgå. This was a district a little above the town, so that from the villas of the best families you could look down on ordinary mortals. Martina and her mum lived in Hollywood with Martina’s dad and their dog Rex. Rex was big and black and lived under a chest of drawers in the living room. Martina Wallin’s dad was also big and black and lived in front of the telly. It was a colour telly: there was a transparent blue plastic strip across the upper part of the screen, and a green one across the lower part. So that when they showed nature films on TV it looked exactly as if the sky was blue and the grass was green. I wished Dad would glue plastic strips like that on to our telly. No one would ever know our strips weren’t the real thing, unlike Martina Wallin’s dad’s. And I’m sure the strips made talk programmes more interesting, too.
Martina’s room smelled the same as the rest of the house. Stuffy air, roast meat and old linoleum. The brown-stained walls of her room were covered with quality prints of stills from films. The stars looked down on us as we played. Martina and I played at the centre of the universe.
I once asked Martina whether I could have a picture like this too. But Martina’s mum said, No, you had to be in the business.
Mostly I lay under the chest of drawers with Rex when I was at Martina’s. The house was always cold, except under the chest of drawers. And Rex was nice. So was Martina Wallin’s dad. He only seemed angry and large when you looked at him from under the chest of drawers. It wasn’t his fault that things went the way they did and Martina Wallin’s mum got tired and screamed that the child was strange and goodness knows what went on between her and the dog. Then I stopped going to the Wallins. We all realised they were too good for my sort.
It was outside the Royal that Dad first kissed Mum. If you can believe Mum.
Dad lived two lives. One in Helsingfors, where he’d moved when he was thirteen to make his way in life, and one in Österby, where he visited his relations and seduced women. If you can believe Dad.
Dad could dance. Everyone knew that. He had a brilliant smile, a straight nose and a thick mop of dark hair that fell rather carelessly across his head. You could see at once that, quite simply, he’d been born to a better life. When he and Tage were home in the village, dancing and seducing women, they would have a string of girls from Helsingfors after them. If you can believe Tage. He’s Dad’s cousin.
Mum could dance too. And she was cool. Like a film star. Everyone said so. Dark hair, a beauty spot, eyebrows like swallow’s wings and a wasp waist. There would be a string of boys after her, but she would just laugh and swap scarves with Hannele and throw them all into confusion because Mum and Hannele both dressed the same way. Hannele was Mum’s twin sister.
Why those two, each chased by a string of admirers, should have met is a question worth asking. Did it make anyone happier, did it benefit anyone, did no one think of the consequences? Did it not occur to anyone that perhaps a particular combination of chemistry, pheromones, body fluids and genes should not mix? Simply, that there are smarter ways of doing things? No, no one thought of that. What do you think of, when chemistry, pheromones, body fluids and genes come together? Nothing. You just let it happen; you have no choice anyway. You tremble and smile and sigh and vibrate and there you are and then life can become what the hell it will. That’s just how it is. You live in the moment.
Like all enlightened people who have a mind of their own, Dad was an atheist, a socialist and a nicotinist. He didn’t believe that Jesus was the son of God and had died for our sins or that there was any God in the sky seeing everything and lying in wait for us everywhere. Dad didn’t believe any of that crap. Religion is just to fool poverty-stricken and stupid folk. To make sure they just sit and take what hits them and roll their eyes, said Dad. To make sure they can never learn anything or think for themselves, but can be controlled easily from above and will pay up without complaining, like a flock of sheep.
As for Dad, he wasn’t easily fooled and was never happy to pay up either. He belonged to a trade union and stood up for workers, rights and often went on strike for an extra penny an hour and that sort of thing. And he sat and argued with the TV newsreader every evening and when taxes were raised he swore and threatened not to pay. So he clearly wasn’t one of the flock of sheep.
Dad believed in Darwin and was very interested in Erich von Dänicken’s ideas. Von Dänicken had been all over the world and photographed markings cut into mountain-sides and studied the Bible and come to the conclusion that the human race had originally come from outer space. Dad was very interested in space.
We had a map of the moon and a map of the stars and on cold clear winter evenings we’d go out and stare up at the black sky. Dad showed me the Plough and the Pole Star and Orion with his belt.
Orion was the best of all. He stood with his sword lifted like a giant angel in the sky, protecting the earth from invasion. From aliens, that is. Because there may well be life on other planets besides the Earth, Dad said, and it’s quite possible that these beings are so much more advanced than us that they may fly to us one day. If they haven’t been here already. In the time of Jesus for instance, said Dad, and we read from the Bible, in which there are many interesting things. About the two guards, for example, who are supposed to guard the Ark and the stone tablets of Moses. Guards in shimmering silver clothes that never had to eat or sleep. Robots, said Dad.
And the Ark. No living person was allowed to come near it and if despite everything someone did, he would suffer burns. Radiation, said Dad. And we also read how God had once come down to earth and how it had been forbidden to look but despite this some guy had looked and managed to write about it. When God landed a wave of sand flew up and knocked everyone to the ground. Like a blast-wave, said Dad. And flames shot out from under God and he had four shining silver wings on his head. Just like a helicopter, said Dad.
I couldn’t take it in, that God and Jesus and everything had gone. I don’t know which scared me more, the idea that God existed and could see everything, or the idea that he’d never existed and had never seen anything at all. But at least it was a good thing that Orion was up there in the sky with his sword and belt, I thought. People will go to the moon one day, said Dad.
And a few years later they did. It was early one morning in the middle of summer and Dad had just become the first person in Tattarmosan to buy a TV set, and there we all were with eyes as round as moons at 13 Illby Street looking at a rocket standing on a launch-pad in a desert. Then came the countdown in English from ten to blast-off and the rocket began to move straight up into the air. But it seemed to be moving so slowly that you began to wonder how long it would really take them to reach the moon. And it certainly did take time. At least a week. As long as it takes to get to Hammerfest. When they landed we sat there staring at our telly again.
You really couldn’t believe it. There they were jumping about on the moon and weighing nothing. One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind, said Armstrong, as he stepped out of the space capsule. But it was really the opposite. It was really a very long step for anyone from Earth to the moon, but it was a miserably small leap for mankind if you remembered that we’d started by leaping down from outer space to Earth, the whole lot of us.
When you watched Armstrong skipping about on the moon, you realised Dad and von Dänicken were right. It obviously wasn’t all that difficult to go up into space, and if we could do it, why not others? Thousands of years before us. It had taken humanity only one small hop to reach the moon. And how could you have confidence in Armstrong anyway? A jazz trumpeter.
Dad and I lived in another world. That’s what Mum always said. Because we watched the stars and read von Dänicken and the Bible. Simply because we read. We were capable of sitting silent over our books for hours without seeing or hearing anything else. I did my best not to see or hear, just like Dad.
First you’d read for two or three hours with one eye on the telly, then you’d read for a couple of hours in bed, and after that for another hour with a torch under the covers. Or else, if Mum was at Gran’s as she often was, we’d read aloud. Every evening after supper, Mum would jump on her bike and go about twenty-five metres down Illby Street and ten metres down Isnäs Street and she’d be at Gran’s, where she’d sit till nine o’clock. In her other home. What God has joined together, et cetera, Dad would say, meaning What God has joined together let no man set asunder. We come second, you and I, said Dad. Though only a single person can come second, so this must have meant that he and I were one.
When not reading we watched TV. Because when the TV was on, you sort of left everything else and stepped into another life and lived there for a while.
Mostly we watched the news and Newsnight. Otherwise mostly films. American films with strong colours, happy people and big-band music. Films with dramatic gestures and a glint in the eye. With dashing dance-numbers and ironic smiles. It was easy to see that Dad would have fitted in perfectly. The dancing and smiling and the glint in the eye and all the rest of it would have come quite naturally to him. You could tell this was the world he’d been born for, and that he would have got on fine with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin and Gene Kelly. The electrician from Illby Street. And he’d learned English already. From the telly. ‘Don’t you come playin’ no games with me, boy!’ John Wayne would hiss from the small screen. ‘No games with me, Goddammit!’ Dad would hiss back from his place on the mat in front of it.
The films had something else as well, and that was Dad’s intials. At the end of every Finnish film his initials would come up, growing from a tiny dot till they were so big they filled the whole screen. SF. Suomi-Filmi. Stigo Fredriksson. It felt good to know that every time anyone saw a Finnish film, they saw Dad’s initials. Because that way they’d get used to them and not be able to help feeling what I felt. That soon Dad’s time would come.
When I explained all this to Dad, both about his initials and that he ought to be on TV with the other Americans, he looked questioningly at me and said, Why? We’re all in it together already. All actors in the same B-film.
Every day when I came home from school, if I’d finished early enough to have a little free time before having to put on the potatoes and lay the table and make the beds and do the cleaning, I would pull the kitchen table out in front of the big mirror that faced the door of the living room, and go to Mum’s wardrobe and put on her chiffon dress and her gold sandals, comb my hair into a bun, paint my lips with her pale-red lipstick, pickup my skipping-rope with its cone-shaped handle, direct the table lamp by the sofa on to myself, put Creedence Clearwater’s Green River, which I’’d borrowed from Chris Fake-hippie, on my plastic record-player, climb up on the table and begin the show.
I see de baa-ad moo-oon rising,
(cross-step, cross-step, side-step, side-step)
I see de sha-dows on de wall,
(side-step, cross and cross)
I sang into the skipping-rope handle, dancing my well-rehearsed steps, and singing with half-closed eyes as I immersed myself in what I saw and heard. At a quarter past three I would jump down from the table, put away the skipping-rope, switch off the lamp, take the record off the record-player, wipe my lips, loosen my hair, put the gold sandals back in the wardrobe, hang up the chiffon dress, put on my own clothes, and pull the table back into the kitchen; then wash the potatoes and put them on the cooker, make the beds, tidy away any clothes and newspapers that were lying about, and wash up the morning dishes, so that when Mum got home I’d be sitting at my desk with the potatoes boiling.
There was no end of exciting places to play in Tattarmosan. Not only the earth closets and the sewer ditch, but waste land and burial grounds too.
There was a bit of waste land at the corner of Sannäs Street and Gammelby Street, and it had sunk below street level. The whole of Tattarmosan was built on a swamp and Dad always said that one fine day we would all sink straight down to hell, land and all. The bit of waste land was already well on its way. You had to climb down into it, down into a green haze where you could play under the trees. There were apple-trees there, and other trees and the remains of a garden and more. All overgrown by grass as tall as ourselves. You could play Tarzan and Jane among the lianas hanging from the branches. It wasn’t much fun for me, because most of the time I had to stay in the kitchen and heat coconut milk for Cheetah, but Tarzan leaped from tree to tree and beat his breast and fought lions and crocodiles. No, I liked the elephants’ burial place better. That was next to the old slaughterhouse and had been used as a tip for refuse from the abattoir. All you had to do was kick the earth a bit and you’d find pieces of bone and skulls from all the pigs and cattle that had been put to death there.
Frank and I dug up as much as we could of the bones and arranged them in beautiful shining white piles. It was a holy place. Just like in Tarzan. The only difference was that in our churchyard we did surgical operations. Mostly dentistry. If a tooth needed filling, we used chewing-gum. We pulled out teeth that were beyond saving and, if a dental plate was needed, we reconstructed an empty jawbone with a miscellaneous collection of cows, and pigs, teeth. We did worry a little about what Tarzan might have thought of such activities in this holy place, but in the end we decided he would have approved. I mean, he if anyone ought to know how it is to have poor teeth and need fillings, extractions and dentures. Two able dentists would certainly not have been out of place in the jungle, we thought. And Tarzan would certainly have thought the same.
There were of course rats in the outhouses at Tattarmosan. Man’s trusty friends. They’d lived there for generations. Just like us. And just like us they’d multiplied. For generations.
When you opened the door to the woodshed, you could hear rapid footsteps rustling under the firewood, and if you stood still a longtime and kept quiet you could hear the rats squeak and sometimes they came out and showed themselves. They were thin, mangey devils now that Ida no longer kept hens whose food they could eat. Sometimes they were so hungry they attacked Chris’s rabbits. He had five because he thought them so soft and nice to carry around. One of these days he’s going to crush them to death, Gran said. Like in Mice and Men, said Dad.
But sometimes it was good to have rats. If you were playing families, for instance, which we used to play on a large stone in the middle of the Elephants’ Burial Ground.
We had a one-room-and-kitchen apartment on the stone, and a child too. The child was a dead rat we found in Granddad’s woodshed. It had most likely been poisoned because it was whole and in good condition. We stroked it and quarrelled over it and fed it. At least once a day it ran away so that one of us had to go out yet again and search for that damn youngster that would never do what it was told.
The way our child ran off was that either Frank or I would pick up the rat by its tail and swing it round above our heads like a lasso, and when we’d got up a decent speed we’d let go and the rat would whizz off like a flying squirrel. In the evening we’d store it in a little yellow plastic bucket full of water. This kept it nice and soft and stopped it from drying out.
One day when the time came for our child to run away, Frank got up such a speed that the rat’s tail came off and it fell to the ground with a dull thump and burst open. Of course you can’t keep rats in water indefinitely without certain processes taking place. We sorrowed grievously for our child.
Frank was a fine man. We decided we were going to marry when we grew up. He would buy a lorry fitted with a cement-mixer in which, after the wedding, we would set off on our honeymoon, with my white veil fluttering out of the window while Frank pressed a button to start the big round barrel behind us spinning.
Frank and I had been to funfairs so often that he knew exactly how real artists behaved. He would perform his tricks with long sweeping gestures and little pauses in exactly the right places, and in between numbers would gaze deep into the eyes of his audience. But really he had no need of those sweeping gestures, exact pauses and deep stares. His manner was effective enough as it was….
One of Frank’s best tricks was called ‘Houdini’, and he performed it on every possible occasion, though it needed a fair-sized audience. It involved sticking his prick into the Hoover.
The whole show would begin with Chris fooling around and Gran and Granddad going out to a friend’s for tea. Then we would round up all the kids in Tattarmosan we had any hold over. There were plenty of these. Frank was good at luring them into doing forbidden things and would then threaten to tell their parents what they’d been up to, so we had a hold over a good many who were in any case quite willing to get up to mischief again.
In the sixties, every modern household in Tattarmosan owned a Hoover Pulsator, a kind of semi-automatic washing machine. You filled it with hot water and detergent, then put in the clothes you wanted to wash and set it spinning. When you decided your clothes were ready, you fed them between the Hoover’s two rubber rollers and turned a handle at the side of the machine, so that the wet clothes were pressed tightly between the rollers and came out nearly dry on the other side – that was how close the rollers were set.
We dragged the Hoover onto the grass in front of the woodshed, then brought out a little stool which we placed behind the washing-machine, and the large cold-water bowl from the sauna which we filled with spring water. The kids all sat down on the grass and the show was ready to begin.
Frank would strip naked, smooth back his hair with both hands, do a few turns backwards and forwards behind the water-bowl, roll his shoulders and shake his legs. Then he would go to the bowl and sit down in the cold water. At this point the first murmur would go through the audience but let me explain how a boy’s prick is made.
At the end of a boy’s prick there’s some loose skin you can pull. If his prick’s cold, perhaps because he’s been swimming, there’ll be a little more loose skin than usual because his prick will have shrunk, but if it’s nice and warm there’ll be a little less loose skin, because his prick will have expanded to its usual size and shape. For this trick Frank needed as much loose skin as possible. Which is why he sat in cold water till his prick shrank.
He would sit calmly in the water-bowl with his eyes half closed, as if to hypnotise the pale, timid children on the grass before him. And when he stood up from the water you could see that his prick had shrunk. It was now only a couple of centimetres long, with empty crumpled brown skin hanging from the end. He would dry himself and get up on the stool behind the Hoover, then take hold of his prick and pull the loose skin, flattening it between thumb and forefinger. Then he would bend his knees till he was the right height and slowly feed the skin in between the rubber rollers, while Roggie slowly turned the handle. Roggie slowly turned the handle while Frank fed his skin to the rollers. Suddenly it would engage, and the loose skin on Frank’s prick would slowly be wound into the Hoover’s mangle. As soon as his skin was firmly anchored between the rollers, Frank would draw in his stomach, close his eyes, raise his arms by his sides, and lean back a little, the sun in his hair and his prick in the semi-automatic Hoover, leaning back until the only thing that stopped him falling backwards was the fast-clamped little piece of skin on his prick. Frank’s prick was long and thin and the Hoover shone silver against the green grass.
Late one evening one person’s death became another’s bread, and for once the bread was going to be ours. Old Mr Palmu came into the kitchen, grey in the face and with his back bent, and said, Anna’s dead. Anna’s dead, said old Mr Palmu and took hold of Dad’s arm. Then he said he didn’t want to go on living in Sannäs Street without his wife, so now Dad could buy his house. Only Dad and no one else would have a chance to buy the most beautiful property but Gran’s in the whole of Tattarmosan, because old Mr Palmu had no intention of selling to just anyone. I’d never sell to a Swede, except to you, said Palmu, and that was that.
Once we’d moved to 15 Sannäs Street Dad devoted all his time to the house and garden. Every free moment after his normal working hours and overtime. Every minute. For thirty-four thousand isn’t just thirty-four thousand. It’s almost more money than you can cope with. But there is hope. You have your body. Which can work. As much as you want. That’s always been the way. So long as there’s work there’s hope. If you want more you have to work more. If you’re satisfied with a little less you can work a little less.
Dad worked day and night. At SA Electrical Services by day plus moonlighting in the evenings and at weekends, and he would cut copper wire in his spare moments and, if he had time left over after that, work on the house and garden. He’d had weak lungs from birth and asthma caused by dust from drilling holes in concrete walls, and he had back trouble from bending over backwards to screw lamps into ceilings, and his wrists had been ruined by endlessly fixing screws. So you could say that he’d sacrificed his body to his work. And what was left of it to the house. As if he was building his body into the house. And his soul too. Because he was determined to have straight paths and symmetrical forms. One fine day that’s how it was going to be. Yes, it bloody well was! Of course he had learned how to make straight paths and symmetrical forms in the garden at United Wool and of course there’s no need to specify what the model for his garden was.
And he did it. His garden became exactly like a very successful mixture of the Three Gardens at Österby Hall. Only the funerary chapel was missing. Though of course you could say the whole house had become a funerary chapel, since he’d sacrificed his body to it. Till it was as good as dead and not a single muscle could function properly any longer.
We were all very happy and Dad couldn’t wait to tear out all the traditional tiled heating stoves and the two wood-burning cooking stoves, and the tall windows with their many panes of glass and heavy iron fittings, the ornamental panelled doors and everything else; he’d had enough of ancient rubbish and draughty buildings and he blocked up old windows and sawed out new ones and when he’d finished the house looked like something in Beirut.
He put in triple glazing, ripped up all the floors, lowered the ceiling from four metres to two and a half and packed the whole building with insulation material and sheet aluminium, turning it into a thermos flask. It was nice and warm but the air couldn’t circulate and it smelt like a dive because people smoked so much and you often had to open windows and doors to get a through draught, and it was then that Mum developed a chronic runny nose, and had to stop working at the Comfy & Clean Laundry so as not to drip snot on all the clothes there.
And Dad ripped out all the flowers and dug up the whole garden and cleared away all the weeds by hand. And Mum suggested that, Bloody hell, he might just as well cover the lot with asphalt and then he’d be rid of the crap once and for all.
So one day the Palmus were gone and nothing was left but Stigo Fredriksson, and he ruled the roost. When his renovation was complete the windows of 15 Sannäs Street cast rectangles of light on to the floor at night. Windows of that sort cast no shadows.
No one had ever imagined that a day would come when his work was over. A man who had put up with the pay of an apprentice for eight years in order to learn his trade. No one could imagine it. But his work undoubtedly did come to an end. One day Felix just said, Okay, boys, now five of you’ll have to go. Those who’ve been here the shortest time. And the very last to start had been Dad, of course. But Felix took him into the office and said, You’re our best electrician. I’m keeping you on and Matti will have to go instead. But Dad wouldn’t agree to that. Matti, with five kids. Never, said Dad, and left. Even though he knew it was a bad time for all the electrical firms in the town (worsening unemployment, domestic violence, the Saturday bottle of vodka). He refused to eat forbidden fruit but was ready to take responsibility. Not something God could forgive. Because God wanted us all to be sinners and pay for it like a flock of sheep. But Dad had never belonged to any flock of sheep, so even now he couldn’t expect good fortune, only punishment.
The simple fact is, paradise isn’t open to everyone.
Translated by Silvester Mazzarella
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