Down to business

Issue 1/2006 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Ystävät kaukana (‘Friends far away’, Gummerus, 2oo5)

The half-day secretary Oksana Pelkonen was already bustling about the office as I squeezed my Mercedes onto the side of Viherniemenkatu Street. I had kept my office next to the Hakaniemi Market even though newer places had been pressed on me. There were new messages taped to the doors and windows, anyway. They explained, in what I thought was a quiet way, that the so VK Corporation’s office was here and that Kärppä Construction, VK East Trade, VK Consulting and Hakaniemi Eastern Aid also belonged to the Group. The slogan was at the bottom: ‘Two centuries’ experience trading with the East’. Would have been just as true to put ‘two millennia’, but the customer might have started to wonder.

‘Good morning, Vityuha, good morning!’ Oksana greeted me doubly. ‘I just put the tea onto steep for you. And look, on top of the pile of mail, three letters to Viktor Kärppä. That’s how I knew you were coming.’

‘I don’t suppose you need omens for that. I come here every morning at the same time, give or take 5 minutes,’ I croaked. ‘Moreover I’d say most of the mail coming to my office is for me.’

Oksana’s mouth took on an insulted pout, but she kept bustling. ‘My goodness, is Vitya’s heart aching? Are there lumps in the road of love?’

I did not choose to relate an accounting to my secretary even if her guess had hit near home. Marja had curled up to read on the couch in the evening, gone to bed early and left me sitting there alone. This morning she had left early after a hard-lipped kiss and a bye.

‘Bumps, not lumps. And you don’t say that of love,’ I corrected her, and poured tea into my mug. Oksana had bought it at the outdoor market. The round side of the mug said ‘Boss’. Oksana ended her short sulk and began busily printing out invoices and sealing envelopes.

I had no need of a full-time office assistant. Oksana Pelkonen just came to the office two or three days a week. She took care of bills, understood basic bookkeeping, answered faxes and e-mail and when necessary transferred the office phone to ring the mobile phone, which she then would answer, wherever she was, with a springy, ‘VK Corporation; may I help you?’

I had met Oksana back when I was doing work for Ryshkov. She had been enlisted for the task from an old Leningrad district, some forgotten little town or depressed factory complex.

Oksana had been decent-looking enough to be transported to Helsinki with a load of girls in an Ikarus bus with steamed-up windows. But nothing came of that work. Oksana was a good, humble girl, child -like and awkward, and about as hot as a pair of nylon tights in a fridge. Ryshkov had set the girl aside to cook and wash and await a return ride to St Petersburg. Oksana had first stayed for one month, then another, renewed her visa in between and always returned to Helsinki for little jobs for Ryshkov.

So when Ryshkov died, I took responsibility for Oksana along with the rest of the business I inherited. Oksana had Finnish blood on her father’s side and spoke passable Finnish. I put her into classes, taught her the paperwork for my small businesses and got the girl additional income from the laundromat. Now Oksana already had a Finnish passport. She lived with her grandmother in Vuosaari, on the east side of Helsinki.

‘Speaking of visitors, the St Petersburg men are coming right now,’ Oksana chirped like a finch in spring.

‘What the hell men from St Petersburg?’, I shrieked.

Oksana became frightened instantly. ‘What you shout? Two like businessmen, young, neat.’ In her alarm Oksana lost her Finnish and sounded three-quarters Russian. ‘One day back they popped into here. Talked like you were a friend and there would be a meetink…how I know to doubt?’ She went back to her chattering, inhaling with sharp whistling intakes at intervals.

I had no chance to calm her before Oksana came close to screaming and began working her hands in the sign of the cross. ‘Now they’re coming, my God, what will I do?’

‘Never mind, never mind, don’t panic,’ I soothed. ‘Just stay there at your desk and tend to the papers.’

Oksana was still bouncing around in the middle of the floor and I had to say it a second time. She opened her mouth again but sucked the words into inaudibility when she saw my warning finger. Oksana pulled back behind the partitions to her own side of the office.

I slurped down the rest of my tea. The door spring gave its familiar grating sound. I placed my hands evenly on the desk, fingers spread, and concentrated.

In the army’s special training we’d been tried, tested and taught to with-stand pressure. We trudged through forests and plodded across steppes till we trembled with exhaustion. We suffered through hunger and sleep deprivation and interrogations that were so realistic that some people were ready to denounce their mothers for treason. We’d been isolated and incited against each other, disgraced and suspected, without an inkling of the insinuation campaign underway.

And the whole time they kept drumming it in that we had to be able to hang on to our own ability to function. Cool head, think, reflect, focus on the essential, the division leader Major O. A. Sorokin had drilled. Command your heart to beat more calmly, find it a rhythm. It will obey, he had insisted. And when you keep your expression steady and make your breathing even and your pulse calm, your mind will work, too. Be like carbon monoxide – no smell, no taste, no colour, but fatal.

Comrade Major’s comments had amused us at first. The young man looked like a Ukrainian peasant boy, a sturdy sprout of a man, flushed with good intentions, who ought to have been sitting on a bag of grain waiting for a shot of vodka. But it didn’t take long for the sneers to fade. Sorokin knew what he was talking about. And the last trace of a smile vanished when we understood what we were capable of after the training.

But at this moment I was not at a psychophysical operational tactics lesson. I was sitting in my own office chair, neither rocking nor spinning, readying myself for my visitors.

There were two. They were of average size, slim, smooth-skinned, and fashionably individual, like twin babies dressed in different-coloured playsuits and jackets. One had dark hair and the other had blond. The dark one had frameless glasses and the blond one had a diamond stud in his ear. The dark man’s suit was blue, his shirt checked, his tie diagonally striped. The blond wore a grey-brown jacket with a striped shirt and checked tie.

I was more used to teams in which one had muscles and the other had brains but both had tattoos. Chat a moment with that sort and you already discover mutual acquaintances and soon you’re sitting somewhere having a little vodka, what’s the hurry, warming the sauna and chatting about women and soon flushed red and singing. Issues are then discussed the next day in a cordial frame of mind, with pickle juice to temper the hangover. With these guys the groundwork for the conversation should have been laid by fermenting tea leaves the orthodox way.

‘Zdrástvuyte, my boys!’ I greeted them as if they were schoolkids in breeches. I was trying to keep control of my room.

‘Good morning, Viktor Nikolayevich,’ the darker of the twins allowed graciously. The blond settled for a slight bow. It crossed my mind to wonder if I had completely misinterpreted the signs – what if the gentlemen actually were businessmen with respectable business to discuss and here I sat ruining prospects with taunting.

‘Or it was good up to this point,’ the dark man continued. ‘I’m not spending any more time on this than is necessary. I’ll be brief: we want you to hand over your companies and business and the money they’ve brought you. As a matter of fact, we have the papers ready.’

He nodded toward the blond comrade. He in turn took a small black file from a thin briefcase, pulled the elastic straps over the corners and revealed neat sheets of paper.

‘Yes. We would like this business… back. You know what we mean,’ he smiled.

I smiled, too. I had been right all along. Crooks is what they were.

Translated by Jill G. Timbers

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