Night decorator

Issue 1/2007 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from the collection Yönseutuun (‘Around nighttime’, WSOY, 2006). Introduction by Jani Saxell

Hardly a night went by.

I didn’t want to offend him in any way by my indifference, but as I went to bed I was totally beat, squeezed dry by my day. My most important chore at home was to guard my own rest; people’s survival depended on it being consistent and nourishing. I didn’t concentrate on anything else in my free time.

But often when I was ready for bed, a sharp metal ‘zzzip’ would come from the direction of the living room. A little later I would hear a drawn-out ‘clllack!’, which told me the measuring tape had retracted into its case, the newest interior design had taken shape on the back of some receipt, and Y would soon be coming to see if I was awake and open to suggestions.

If I had made it as far as my nightie, I would jump under the covers and jerk the lamp chain, because Y respected my sleep and wouldn’t intentionally come to wake me up. I didn’t always manage to turn the light off in time.

Y was a one-winter stand. Sometimes I got a little tired of him, or maybe more like tired of the situation we lived in, but something in the ease of it all appealed to me. There certainly wasn’t any way to dispute the utility of Y’s nocturnal activities.

‘Listen. What would you think if…’

This late-night phrase in the bedroom was always followed by an exhausting discourse on details that needed changing and steps Y wanted to take. First, in the autumn the issue had been the placement of the desk, the cabinets or the pictures. Lots of things improved immediately. Often when I woke up, some picture that had lain forgotten in storage for years had made its way onto the wall, a lamp had been moved to a position that spread light better or a bit of long-crumbling plaster had been repaired; the furniture also realigned under the light of the stars to more harmonious, useful positions, where it was immediately apparent it belonged.

That was the sort of thing he did in his own time, of his own desire, that mole. I didn’t know why he pottered around like this, why he decorated. To make a home for the children he didn’t have, or in place of the rent I didn’t collect?

I’d bought this large, rundown stone house on the cheap with the idea that I would only keep a couple of rooms warm. On the first night, when he arrived at my home, Y climbed on the roof and straightened the crooked weather vane. I considered it a good omen and allowed him to continue: he was the first of the catches I had dragged home who rolled up his sleeves and started doing something without prompting for the benefit of our cohabitation. Nor could I have expected such a thing from some poet or keyboard player, but Y was a real man and he had all of the virtues of a man.

Relatives who occasionally dropped by soon didn’t recognise the place. They said the house was developing into a tiny manor house. Over the winter a luxurious cherry wood parquet was tapped in to replace the inveterate laminate floor. The guest rooms were insulated, wallpapered and furnished, one in blue tones and the other predominantly in red; the kitchen work surfaces were expanded to be more practical – including sanding and painting the cabinetry – and the walkway from the washroom was rebuilt such that you could walk straight from the sauna onto a sheltered pergola. An appraisal revealed that the value of my investment had multiplied many times over and the house itself was now judged to be so lovely that I wouldn’t dream of selling it. It needed to be lived in by me!

Female relatives, flitting about in small swarms early in the morning, as their breed is wont to do, wondered grinningly what kind of man this could be who had done all of this but never showed his face. When I told them he had returned from work a few hours earlier, they forbade me absolutely from waking him, crowing and tittering. Perhaps I should have shown him as he slept to them, perhaps I should have lifted the covers a little for them.

Now as spring was approaching, the energy he generated in his spare time was channelling outwards and through the veranda. In this manner by midsummer my whole house would be remodelled from its stone foundation to the topmost timbers, just at the cost of materials, free, and without any other expense than time lived alone.

I put other people to sleep for a living. If as I counted doses the decimal point started to look for any little chink between the numbers measuring the millilitres of medication, then there was no place for games, and according to regulations I had to ask another doctor or theatre nurse to check the tallies. Sometimes when I was exhausted I caught myself on an O.R. shift thinking of the weight and age of a previous patient who stuck in my mind for some reason, even though I was already giving anaesthesia to the next. Then I would have to shake myself awake immediately; usually the mistake could be fixed. It was most obvious when the patient had received too little of a local anaesthetic and sprang into the air screeching at the first stroke of the scalpel. It was more work when a surgical patient had received general anaesthesia a bit too free-handedly. Then I had to know my resuscitation skills; thank God I never lost a single patient due to my errors; or if I had, the fault was more on the operating surgeon’s side.

Of course Y knew my job description and didn’t intentionally try to keep me up. He couldn’t help himself. He was just like a gerbil or mole, ready to spring into life as soon as the sun set. The later it was, the more active he became, and sometimes, judging from the nocturnal scratching and rustling, he appeared to have difficulty waiting to set off on his nocturnal rounds. That is to say, he went to work at three in the morning and regularly stayed up until then. So it was understandable that ten in the evening, my last conscious moment, to him was just a refreshingly brisk morning moment, the beginning of everything, when it was just coming up to time to print a fresh newspaper.

In addition to remodelling, while I slept he cooked for the next day, cleaned, and did a load of laundry. He lifted weights and watched late movies; he knew all the truckers’ radio stations. At two thirty he got up, strapped on his helmet, lifted his mountain bike onto his back and pedalled on his way. Although I never witnessed his nights with my own eyes, I could imagine him being happiest in that vast emptiness, dashing from building to building in the dark scents of the night, galloping up and down stairs with his bundles of newspapers, freed of obstacles, feverish, tenacious as a pine-scented squirrel.

We generally met in the mornings before seven, while I was getting made up for work. Before he left in the early morning he put my morning coffee grounds in the percolator, and for my part, after I woke up I would build him two bologna sandwiches topped with tomato slices. Then in the doorway we exchanged a kiss of length and wetness depending on the morning and parted. As I was prying my eyes open in the car, he was rubbing his in the shower; I had the coffee he had prepared in my belly and he would soon have the cold-cut sandwiches I had prepared in his, as if this exchange of foodstuffs somehow extended our presence in each other’s innards, making our few seconds of meeting more substantial.

When I was at work, in my moments free from concentration, I imagined how he might look just at that moment sleeping in my house, his hairy male limbs and all the rest of his manly accoutrements in comfortable positions in my bed. As I thought of this my coffee cup trembled a bit; we inhabited the same bed, but in alternating shifts.

I wondered whether he might imagine me sleeping while he was away, but I doubted it, because in his work in the dark, empty streets he was loose and full of the thrill of movement, running and climbing, always in motion, purposeful action, burning away everything unessential to his masculinity. There were no moments in that kind of work, no little gaps to fit in a picture of a woman.

But perhaps he did come to look at me sometimes while I was sleeping in the early night. This is how I comforted myself, and sometimes it felt like I was sure of it. I often had the feeling that my hair had been stroked and a kiss pressed to my temple, but in all honestly I didn’t know if it was the real Y or my mother, appearing in a dream.

‘So when are you together?’

This was the kind of question I got in the break room on the surgical ward, after they had first snapped their fingers in front of my eyes, dimmed by daydreams. Right, we didn’t sleep together, except once on a confused vacation, or on the rare occasions when I did a different shift. We spent a few hours together each day when I returned from work. It was too little for a domestic partnership, but enough for a relationship.

It would usually be seven o’clock in the evening, and I would be totally beat; luckily Y had usually prepared supper, his own brunch, which we consumed as silence reigned. That is, Y was cranky in the morning and there wasn’t any point in talking to him before the evening news. Before that we ran our errands in silence. Sometimes in the car park of the hardware store I looked at the reflection in the display window and wondered aloud: who is that stubble-faced man in cycling pants next to that sharp-looking professional woman? I didn’t want to say anything personal to him then because I knew that after the news I could at least get a smile out of him. Then we would go to the sauna.

And then it was already my time to wilt. If after the steam of the sauna I asked him to stay and snuggle with me, he would look at me impatiently: Now? Who would want to stay in bed now, when the day is just starting?

I would have wanted to chat, for example, about the law books I had accidentally found in the cupboard in the study while I was looking for bulbs for the car lights. Was Y reading for entrance exams? Did he mean to leave for the capital? To find this out I would have been willing to negotiate for a little while about details related to finishing my house. The idea of my house being left desolate during my work days flashed into my mind. It was astonishingly frightening.

But he had scurried off to the shower again. He was more hygienic than many a doctor. After finishing towelling off, he was soon clattering about in the scullery tool shelves; the door opened and shut and outside the window the sound of sawing began; the rebuilding of the porch railings that had begun the previous night was underway again.

Sleep fled the day’s events.

For my last patient I had given general anaesthesia to a pregnant mother in the last stage of pregnancy whose birthing attempts had led to foetal distress.

‘Have you been put to sleep before’, I asked the woman immediately when she had been hastily lifted from the trolley to the operating table. I saw and heard her hill of a belly over all the buzz of the crash.

‘No’.

‘Everything will go fine. This is routine’.

I released the first consciousness-relieving substances into her left hand cannula. The operating physician, Tarja, barked about where the hall’s operating gowns were, Reeta was flushed red from running, Kirsti slapped EKG electrodes on the patient’s chest, Susanna wiped the belly with orange-brown disinfectant solution, some new nurse loaded up the instruments.

The woman raised her head restlessly on the operating bed she had already been shackled to.

‘How long will I sleep?’ she asked me, because I was close to her and the only one present staying still.

‘As long as necessary.’

‘And what will I be told next?’

‘Sweet dreams!’

I nodded to Tarja, who slit the patient’s stomach open from the navel to bikini line with a brisk outdoorsman’s stroke. She hunted moose. The paediatrician, Liisa, ran over from the other end of the building; a fit woman, she had been paged on account of the danger of aspiration and her suction tube was indeed ready the second when the blue-green slip of a thing wrapped in its umbilical cord was raised out of the green sputum-spewing boghole. Tarja swore; she had never seen such thick, filthy amniotic fluid before. She continued busying herself dredging out the afterbirth, while at the same time the paediatricians and company had already sucked the child’s throat clean. There it was in their arms as the women stated: ‘And he didn’t manage to breathe it in!’

Soon it screamed out its first trembling shock – the sound we were all here to hear.

The work continued and our breathing slowed. Our shoulders relaxed as always when the most violent stage of the crisis is past and the day with its meetings and neck pain continues as if nothing had happened. The drudgery of routine in our line of work meant merely that someone’s life had continued with our help or someone else’s had been able to start. I talked with Tarja about the anaesthesia that was still needed and she cursed the horrible cleaning this green-stained womb needed, and look, there is a septum here too and so the foetus was stuck in the posterior cavity. We decided to set aside an hour and a half for cleaning and suturing.

The placenta was rushed out of the hall first like a round blob of black pudding. Then the child was taken to his father, the child we had unstuck from the womb that had become a trap, gutted out live, a boy, who if he had been left inside his mother, would now already have died.

The bedroom door opened.

‘Sorry, I thought you were awake…’

I had fallen asleep with the lights on and had already gulped down an eyeful of delectable sleep when Y, that devil, was standing in the doorway with a touch of paint on his face. He sat on the edge of the bed in his coveralls, on the sheets it cost piles of cash to have washed; I paid dearly to have their crisp, clean pleasure without any effort.

I tried to keep my eyelids from falling back shut.

‘Listen’, he started, and it was like he had lifted me up by the hair with his whole hand, violently and painfully up from the vortex of pleasure sucking me down into sleep. As he always began at this hour, he began to hammer out his plans. For heaven’s sake! He was the only person in the world I couldn’t make fall asleep when I wanted.

At issue was something about the porch and painting it. I was forced to listen to how outside, around the bedroom and house, it was a dry, light May night and a good time to do the first coat before leaving for work, if I would just pick the colour, one tormented colour from the multitude of paint tins calling to me from the storage cellar. I glanced at the clock radio. Its red numbers shrilly glowed 00:06.

‘For god’s sake, paint it whatever colour you like and leave me in peace!’ I found myself shouting. ‘And don’t ever bother me at night again! People are asleep at this hour – normal people – it isn’t some strange little quirk of mine!’

Y rose stiffly. ‘Don’t you care what colour your own veranda gets painted?’

‘I do, but this isn’t the time to be discussing anything! Why do you always torment me in the middle of the night!’

‘You’re totally awake.’

‘I am, thanks to you, damn it. Do you understand that I have to be in the operating room again tomorrow at seven thirty? People die if I don’t ever get my sleep! I’m afraid for these people. Nothing else will help. I have to be able to sleep. Sleeeeep!’

‘We’ll leave off the painting then’, Y said. ‘I don’t want to be a murderer.’

A shade had drawn across Y’s face and he left.

‘Hey, listen’, I yelled after him. ‘Are you studying for entrance exams?’

‘How so?’

‘It’s just that it’s such a long way to the university.’

He was already somewhere far off.

I laid my head on the pillow. I waited for Y to return to the porch to resume his work. He didn’t. From the direction of the kitchen I could hear the muffled sounds of night chores. I realised that I’d got used to them like a child for whom the best, happiest thing is to fall asleep listening to her parents’ steps, the rustling of the paper, the muffled knock of the tea cup against a wooden table, the familiar bump whose tone revealed which of the tables which kind of mug was being laid on at which moment. From these particles of information fished out of the air by her ears the listener formed a picture of the home behind her tight-shut eyes, of its many rooms in which her parents moved about, its friendly distances when inhabited, a picture of familiarly patterned cups and the hands holding them, the slippers, the expressions and rituals that repeated every evening, and when her ears were able to confirm all of this calming information, her eyes could stay shut.

After watching this night’s dreams, I returned to the sunlight, which warmed me pleasantly and helped to explain everything. To Y it was vulgar and philistine. He had succeeded in dividing space in two with the aid of time, in order to rule virtually uncontested the less inhabited pasture, whither nature prevented most from passing.

I clutched the corner of the duvet between my hands and chest. The idea that when I awoke Y would have returned all of the surfaces he had painted to their previous state and everything to its previous places started to make me laugh hysterically. He would have scraped new scratches into all the furniture, dug the same number of holes in the walls as before, pulled the kitchen cabinet doors out of true… Tomorrow would tell, as would whether the prophetic coffee grounds had been left in the pot.

I couldn’t share my days with him and so I couldn’t share anything else? We weren’t separated by the normal things like a language barrier, race or the lack of residence permits, we weren’t even cruelly born separated by decades, but otherwise made for each other. We were born in the same year, but I in the morning and he at night. We obeyed the clock strokes ingrained in us, the time frontier when we changed from foetuses to babies, rose to the surface and drew that screeching, stinging breath, our first air which then filled our unfurling lungs, perfectly unused, and closed the connection of the chambers of the heart as they are in a healthy person. Our mouths opened to accept something other than amniotic fluid, they started to demand incessantly; we gulped air and then nipple, our stomachs received the breast’s first nourishment like a liquid communion wafer and the umbilical artery’s wellspring dried shut.

I don’t have any other explanation for this. The gap between our rhythms was like that between generations. There was desire and caring, so something love-like, not indifference by any means. But always when we met, one was young and one was old, as if ground down by each day.

Translated by Owen Witesman

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