Dinner with Marie
Extracts from the novel Marie (WSOY, 2008). Introduction by Tuomas Juntunen
For once, Marie decided to plan a dinner without the same old roast beef, boiled potatoes, peas, red wine and berry kissel. And particularly no game. The thought of rabbit reminded her of the hunting trip to Porpakka, the hounds puking up rabbit skins onto the parquet floor, the smell of singed birds, the feathers that turned up even weeks later in a corner of the kitchen, the buckshot in the goose that broke her tooth. Mind you, she had to admit that brown sauce was quite good, especially as an aspic. She had tasted a spoonful once the morning after it was made, when Martta had gone out to buy milk and Marja was cleaning the drawing room, and then Martta had come back quite suddenly, and Marie had panicked and swallowed it the wrong way and had a fit of coughing. ‘Good heavens,’ Martta had said, ‘what’s the matter? I just came back to get my purse. I forgot it on the sideboard.’
The true reason for the plan was that she wanted to show them what a real French formal dinner was like, how much better it was. She planned the menu secretly for months, first in her mind, then in writing, at her bedroom dressing table – the only place she had to herself, although the door wouldn’t lock – at first on wrapping paper, which she later burnt in the tiled stove in the dining room when no one was home.
Marie wrote the menu with a pencil, knowing beforehand that she oughtn’t use Guillaume’s fountain pen, or even the ordinary ink pen, or waste the good stationery. Of course she understood even then that the meal would have to be a compromise, an amalgam of Finnish eating habits, slightly wrong ingredients, tiredness, Martta’s down-to-earth practicality, and her own dreamy impracticality, but that didn’t make her feel any better. She didn’t know at the time that later, after endless years of feeling lonely and out of place, she would come to remember these days with longing, because by then she would have learnt that negative things turn positive when you compare them with complete uneventfulness, with depression and death crowding excruciatingly near.
The menu that she came up with was so ugly and unimpressive that she burst into tears. This was her reward for endless rumination, fantasy, and negotiation?
For this she had argued with Martta, and run to all the best shops in town, only to be treated with contempt? Fazer’s new cafe was nice, but where had the Russianness gone? She needed Tatyana’s advice again, her sisterliness, her contagious laugh, so she got up from her writing, went into the hall, checked to see that the kitchen door was closed, picked up the phone, looked up the number in the directory, and turned the crank, said ‘Hello, chère Tatyana. It’s Marie. May I come and see you? I’m in a pinch again. Not about the language, about food.’ And Tatyana said she didn’t have time today, but she could come tomorrow. So Marie showed her the menu, and Tatyana laughed, shook her head, and sat down at her writing desk. ‘You won’t be offended if I change this around a bit?’ ‘Please do,’ Marie answered, not guessing how long it would take, it was finished up in the nick of time, just before Guillaume came home.
Doctor and Mrs Wilhelm Myhrborgh
Užin 19 4/4 30
Chez Docteur Guillaume Myhrborgh et Madame Marie Myrhborgh
Borštšok so smetanoj
Zarskije sterljadi parovyja
Kotlety molodogo baraška
Frukty v vine
Moroženoje Parfe Neva
Vina Crú St. Emilion 1929
Moët et Chandon Brut Imperial 1920 (magnum)
Cuinta Amarella Port 1902
I wasn’t superstitious then, and I’m not now, Marie sighs, but that was one time when thirteen turned out to be an unlucky number, and I spent many days and several sleepless nights thinking about the place settings. She hadn’t been satisfied with the seating arrangement, because there was one extra man, so five people would sit on one side of the table and six on the other, preferably alternating male and female, bunte Reihe, as the Germans say, not putting married couples next to each other, and remembering that the order of age is not the same as the order of rank – did people with titles outrank other people, aside from how they might feel about the matter? – and you had to remember who had had a falling out, but it was impossible to guess ahead of time who would have a falling out over the course of the evening.
Marie closed her eyes and saw the table in her mind’s eye, from above, so that everything was visible and clearly delineated, neatly set at the beginning of the evening, the forks, knives, glasses, and napkins rolled into cones, all in their places, as chère Maman had taught her, and she herself in front of the sideboard in a stylish coiffure. On the right side of the table, in front of the big cabinet, would be first Old Uncle Sebastian, with whiskers, though they were quite different from Hitler’s – the highest ranked guest, or at least the oldest – then Emma, with her grey hair (why didn’t she dye it?) looking heroic so that no one would forget her wooden leg and her misfortune, next Börje, and Dimman, with Doris between them – hopefully sitting next to a stranger would keep the former from showing off and the latter from drinking too much – and last would be Alli, with whom Guillaume could speak Finnish, which in his opinion he knows better than the Finns themselves do, ever since he was the municipal doctor somewhere in the east, Viitalampi or Rautasaari, or someplace like that, where the children die of of diarrhoea when their stupid parents feed them blueberry soup, he said with a laugh, she not daring to say that adults considered it a delicacy in Strasbourg, too – only if they didn’t have diarrhoea, of course – in the fall when they were in season, and year round after Maman got enthusiastic about making preserves.
On the left side of the table, in front of the open folding door – you could imagine that you’d be able to see through the little dining room window all the way to the sea if you really stretched – first Uncle Pehr, it would be fun to talk with him, as much as a hostess could manage, then Ingrid, sure to be annoyed that she couldn’t sit in Alli’s place next to Guillaume, and Tauno and Simon would definitely get on well, they would talk about money and complain about the stock market crash, high rents, and poor crops, and finally Tante Alexandra – Guillaume wouldn’t exchange a single word with his mother if he didn’t have to, which served the sourpuss right.
Who would notice the menu first? The women would eat their bort… bortch… how did the consonants go again?… their soup carefully and quietly, because they know how hard it is to get beet stains out, but the men would slurp away without thinking about the taste or the tablecloth – bend over your plate, cher Laurent, you can slurp, not loudly like the Germans, but in a civilised manner. On this point Guillaume’s cousins and Tauno weren’t terribly civilised – she had taught Guillaume to eat properly, in the French manner, that is, even before they were married. Uncle Pehr had had an old-fashioned upbringing, and as for Old Uncle Sebastian, both his voice and a quantity of soup was so thoroughly lost in his whiskers that you could only make out what he was saying by guessing, which wasn’t difficult, because he always said the same thing.
Tante Alexandra bent towards her son and whispered something behind her hand, which was so unusual that Marie noticed it immediately, but Guillaume didn’t notice until she tugged on his sleeve and repeated in a hoarse but loud voice, ‘Look at your menu, Wilhelm,’ and everybody heard it and was astonished except for Guillaume, who yelled ‘What the hell? This is in Russian! Whatever for, Marie?’ and she regretted it, maybe it hadn’t been a good way to make a protest, although she’d planned the thing for weeks, and she wanted to just sink into the ground, but it was too late.
Guillaume’s dark red neck and vacant stare and the way he was muttering about the Russian language were ominous, she had to think of something immediately. She ran to the nursery – Little E wasn’t there, but she finally found him in the kitchen, hiding behind Marja’s apron, ‘Come and say hello to the guests. Maybe you can play us a tune from your Hymander book, like the one that goes dee-daadee-daadeeda-dee, Fröhlicher Landmann, or whatever it’s called.’ At first little E was shy, but he agreed to it when Marie praised him for his diligence and quickness to learn – Marie could get men to do a lot stranger things than play the piano this way.
‘Stand here next to Maman’s chair,’ she said, and when she went to fetch more napkins from the sideboard, Doris grabbed her sleeve and asked her when the big day was. ‘What do you mean?’ Marie asked, using the formal ‘you’ because they hadn’t had a chance to agree on the informal yet, and in France and Germany people use the formal even when they’ve known each other for decades, ‘A midwife has an eye for these things,’ Doris answered. A strange profession, she didn’t look at all like a midwife, although how would you know, evening clothes – even unbecoming ones – are quite different from uniforms… suddenly Marie understood why she had been throwing up, she had thought that Martta was using old milk, and she slid to the floor, with feminine carefulness so she wouldn’t hit her head, and she didn’t wake up until she heard Guillaume shouting to Marja to run and fetch some smelling salts from the medicine cabinet in the bedroom – or should they call the doctor?– forgetting that he was a doctor himself.
She saw a circle of faces above her, ridiculous, like the numbers on a clock face, some of them alarmed, some worried, some surprised, some contemptuous, some curious, some indifferent. ‘Help me to a chair,’ she said, ‘and little E will play for you on the piano, a very musical child, Guillaume dear, go and fetch him, but don’t be too strict, and then we can continue our evening just as if nothing had happened.’ How wrong she had been about that – the next few hours were more eventful than whole weeks before and whole years after.
‘I can do it,’ little E said when Guillaume tried to lift him onto the piano stool – when you’re away from home often you don’t notice how quickly children are growing and learning new things – and he started to play, and the guests were politely quiet except for Lars-Olof who was turning into Dimman, whispering in Doris’ ear, who looked vexed but laughed behind her napkin anyway until Tante Alexandra shushed her so loudly that it was more disruptive than the laughter. Just then little E stopped playing, slammed the piano lid closed, ran away yelling ‘Crazy Maman, crazy Papa, crazy grown-ups,’ and didn’t calm down until he was made to swallow half a pill – Guillaume had said that they couldn’t give any more than that to a child – and fell asleep in Marie’s arms. When Marja was comforting little E in the nursery, Marie was comforting herself in the bathroom, two whole pills, because she felt twice as adult as before, but also twice as stupid.
How shameful that she hadn’t noticed – Martta and Doris must have noticed that she hadn’t noticed, and perhaps Guillaume, too. Why hadn’t anyone said anything? The worst of it was that little E understood, and that was of course why he had his attack during his piano performance. Marja had been serving the borscht, Marie could hear in her head how Martta had said ‘For heaven’s sake, don’t let the soup get cold, the fat will rise to the top and stick to the roofs of their mouths, Madame Ingrid knows very well what good food is, she’s from a titled family, she’ll use the opportunity to ask Madame Marie if her Martta is getting old,’ and when she came in everyone quieted except for Börje, who sat with his back to Marie, whispering to Doris that the children in his family didn’t behave in that manner although they did play the piano – no offence, but surely he must get it from his mother.
Guillaume usually took no notice of Börje’s talk, because he considered him something of a simple under-officer, but the menu had made him relatively nervous, he may have had a chance to drink a schnapps or two, and he couldn’t restrain himself, and said it was a good thing Börje hadn’t started singing old student songs, as the Finland-Swedes are apt to do. It was all my fault, Marie had thought at first, but when she was blamed for ruining the evening, she defended herself, albeit later that evening, saying that every individual is responsible for their own actions – when her biology teacher had said that in an argument with the religion teacher, she’d thought it was stupid, not knowing how useful the sentence would be decades later. Börje was just as much to blame, trying to impress Doris, and so was Guillaume – if she exerted herself she could still remember the conversation, because this wasn’t the first time she had gone over that horrible evening in her mind, although she hoped it would be the last.
‘My dear Börje, you can think what you want about the piano playing – you don’t seem to play any instrument but your mouth – but don’t call my wife a hysteric – or my child either, for that matter.’
‘You can’t deny that the child might have been behaving, shall we say, peculiarly, if hysterical isn’t apt, nor that in the Kultje family such behaviour would never have been tolerated. You can ask my father.’
‘Let’s ask him then. He’s dozing there next to Marie. Hullo, Uncle Sebastian! Hullo! He doesn’t seem to hear me.’
‘Luckily his ear trumpet is on the table, so he doesn’t have to hear your impudence. As an officer and a gentleman I can’t condone…’
‘A captain is not an officer and you’ve never been a gentleman. I remember very well how we couldn’t use our sauna all summer and we had to change the stones that time that you pissed on the sauna stove…’
‘Why do you blame me? Why couldn’t it have been Simon?’
Simon swallowed his piece of bread too quickly and his face turned dark red. The baguette was superb, soft inside, with a crisp crust and plenty of salt – Tatyana’s doing surely, Martta never troubled herself to go any further than the corner shop where she bought their milk, and Marja didn’t have time.
‘I would never do such a thing!’
‘No, you wouldn’t, because you wouldn’t dare,’ Börje said, and looked triumphant, although Marie didn’t quite understand why, and for a moment she agreed with Guillaume, that the man was stupid.
But Börje didn’t stop there – maybe the army had taught him persistence.
‘Boys will be boys, like our sergeant used to say. I myself have never forgotten, though I was only ten at the time, how you mercilessly chased our steward’s daughter around the barn when you were fifteen.’
‘Of course you haven’t, because you’re still upset that I was a better runner and you were left panting at the outhouse at the end of the barn halfway through the first time around.’
He never chased me around, Marie thought, maybe because I was too submissive, the way girls were in those days, afraid they wouldn’t find a husband, and according to Maman that was a horrible fate – she hadn’t known then that her daughter would end up living alone for years, and friends dying one after another – but did Guillaume have to say such inappropriate things?
‘You’re an even better runner than I thought, then, because we didn’t have a loo in the barn – it was all the way on the other side of the bakehouse. Careful what you say, man, you would have a duel on your hands if some idiot hadn’t decided to outlaw them, in the old days I would have thrown my glove in your face, now I do it with the sword of the word.’
‘Oh really, with the sword of the word? I didn’t know you knew how to read or write,’ Guillaume shouted, leaping up so quickly that his bowl of borscht spilled across the tablecloth. Horror of horrors – why did Tatyana have to choose such a colourful soup, there are colourless ones, too, like cauliflower soup. Would the stain ever come out, worse than red wine if you didn’t remember to sprinkle salt on it – no need to conserve salt anymore, it was practically free nowadays, not like when I was a child, as Maman used to say – and the ironing will be a lot of trouble – Marja doesn’t have time for it, she’s not used to it, the iron is too hot or too cold, there’s no room on top of the stove when Martta’s cooking, and she’s in a bad mood – luckily Guillaume was drinking beer, at least that wasn’t red, just yellow, like… how horrible, that’s what came of listening to the men’s vulgar talk.
The men remained seated, but the women rushed to Guillaume’s side, except for Doris, who feared behaving improperly in the company of gentlefolk, and Alli, who feared accidentally speaking Finnish, and Tante Emma, who couldn’t manage to get there because she’d lost her cane under the table, which left only Ingrid, who dabbed at the front of Guillaume’s shirt with her own napkin, mumbling ‘My, my, did the hot soup burn you badly?’ Ever since Guillaume had asked Ingrid to dance more than was necessary in the bakehouse at Porpakka, the first and last time that Marie had ever felt jealousy – it was so ridiculous, she had known that Ingrid was smitten with her husband – not seriously smitten, but still, more than she was with her own husband, which was no wonder since Simon was a blockhead, although in a different way than Börje, to be sure. Tante Alexandra yelled hysterically ‘Bring salt! Bring salt quickly!’ It was strange how people could be so much the same, even if one of them was from Strasbourg, which is, after all, a large city, and the other from Inkoo, which is a little country village, and Marie said calmly that no salt was needed, Marja will be so good as to go and fetch one or two large towels from the bottom box in the corridor, to keep the soup from dripping on the rug – little E had already gone to sleep by then – not the new towels but the ones with the frayed edges, and just then Tante Emma shouted in a loud voice that this was the punishment of God, it’s what happens when heretics are allowed into the family, and Marie asked her what exactly she meant by that.
‘I may be crippled, but I’m not blind. Look at that menu, full of chicken scratches like something you’d see in the Russkies’ church. Is that not a sign of Marie belonging to the same bunch? I’ve always suspected it, her eyes and hair are too dark but I just didn’t dare to say it out loud before.’
Maman used to sometimes use a headache or fainting spell to good effect, and Emma has always demanded other people’s attention, though she pretends to be humble and undemanding, but she really threw herself into the martyr’s role this time. It couldn’t have been just the menu or just Marie, and while misfortune is a terrible thing, you would think that she’d be used to it, war invalids too had to get used to their lot, that’s what Guillaume used to say, it happened when she was twelve years old and don’t you think the victim is always somewhat to blame if they run into the street without looking? Had it been the number three tram? It could hardly have been the one or the seven, for why would she have been on her way to Sörnäinen? Perhaps old age does make one angry, but Emma was hardly sixty at the time, nothing like as old as Marie is now, or maybe it was loneliness, but that was nothing compared to what Marie would experience later, or maybe her lack of a man – in that sense their lives were quite different – you never can tell, although it was hard to imagine that she could have a man – where would she put her wooden leg at those times? Was it always attached to her stump, or leaning against the wall or something… stop it, Marie, stop it at once.
‘Forgive me, dear Tante Emma, the Orthodox use that style of lettering, I am a Roman Catholic, although I’m not sure any more, but our lettering is the same as you Lutherans’, one’s faith doesn’t depend on that…’
Dimman was usually so drunk already at this point in the party that he wasn’t willing or able to participate in the conversation, but now he got up, slowly and uncertainly, turned his chair around, and grabbed hold of the back of the chair with both hands.
‘D-dear Tante Emma, if your woo-wooden leg pains you so much, take a pi-pill or two. I know from experience that it helps, indeed only for a little while, and for he-headaches, but still. Over and out. We used to have to say that in the army at the end of a telephone call. The sergeant forbade us from ever touching the receiver and would threaten to put us in the b-b-brig after I answered it once and said Attention! General Mannerheim speaking. Sorry.’
Then Dimman went around his chair slowly and uncertainly, plopped down onto it, then filled his glass with schnapps, his hands shaking so that half of it spilled on the tablecloth, which didn’t matter at that point, it was colorless after all, and was going into the laundry in any case – then threw back his head and downed it in one, like the tsar’s officer in the white uniform in that film after he has ridden up the steps on the white horse, and belched, but luckily didn’t throw the glass over his shoulder, it would have stained the wallpaper or dented the samovar, and everyone got quiet, either from surprise or because they were cleaning up the bort… bortch… how does that word go again? – the rest of the soup. Dimman was the last person Marie would have expected to support her.
‘Let go of me, Ingrid, and go sit down,’ Guillaume yelled, ‘I hate women fussing over me. See what happens, Marie, when you take it into your head to plan dinner? You could have asked me how these things are handled with Scandinavian elegance, but instead you followed some weird Tatyana’s advice. I’m sorry, but those immigrants are all Russkies at heart, although not as bad as the Bolsheviks, it’s no wonder that there are so many Jews among them. It’s rather peculiar the way your family admires the Russkies and hates the Germans, and don’t call me Guillaume – my name is Wilhelm, but for God’s sake don’t call me Kaiser Wilhelm like your brother Laurent does, it’s as bad a joke as his life is, not that I have anything against the Kaiser or his troops – without them it would have been much more difficult or even impossible to subdue the rebellion, and the defeat at Versailles and the shameful peace weren’t his fault, it was just that the enemy had more money, from the Jewish usurers – I was christened Wilhelm, and also Herman, isn’t that right Mama and Papa?’
At first everyone was quiet and Marie thought was this really what their marriage was about? and she had thought – had even been a little proud of the idea – that love would conquer political differences.
‘Of course the Germans are Germanic, the same honourable Aryan breed as us,’ Börje said, ‘But I’ve always wondered, haven’t I Alli, why Wilhelm left the country right when the fatherland was threatened by the red menace. And anyway, wouldn’t a proper German town have been good enough, instead of going to Strassburg? Now the French are oppressing the Germans there, but not for long, our colonel says, and couldn’t you have found a bride from here just as well, that way we wouldn’t have had to…’
‘Isn’t it time we moved to the next course, before Börje suffocates in his own words, and could you tell us what it is? I think none of us can read Russian…’
‘I’m sorry, let’s see, what was it again? I have to ask Tatyana, but she’s not…’
‘I understand enough Russian to serve as translator,’ Uncle Pehr said.
Uncle Pehr never laughed out loud or guffawed like Guillaume and his colleagues, but Marie knew from the twinkle in his eyes that he had interrupted the conversation in order to defend her. Marie reached up to ring the servant’s bell and told Marja in a half-whisper to clear away the soup bowls before bringing the next dish to the table, but goodness, they should change the tablecloth first, and Guillaume took a swing but luckily didn’t hit anything or anyone, and yelled ‘Whatever for? Put the dish on top of the stains and everyone will soon forget that it happened,’ but naturally he wanted to forget it, because he was to blame.
‘Guillaume, Guillaume, I think it’s coming, call a taxi.’ Through the dark night, it was frightening, although she had been through the same thing twice before. Everything will be fine, Mrs Myhrborgh. Why did doctors always say that everything would be fine, when everything wouldn’t be fine? The doctor will come as soon as he gets off duty. At first there were several days of pain and blood, sorry for the mess, Miss, is it daytime or nighttime now? Then worse pain and even more blood, and when she came to, the room was filled with faces full of condolence – We did all we could but we weren’t able to save your little girl, there was no time to give her a name – Marie had thought about naming her Helena – oh, what a nice time they would have had together – and for a boy Lauri after Laurent – Victor was out of the question, because in Finland you couldn’t name anyone that – maybe Hans, or maybe not, you’re still young, in your best childbearing years, your whole life ahead of you, chin up, and Guillaume didn’t come until the room was empty, a longer workday than usual, thank you for the flowers, even though they smelled bad, it was understandable that the hospital chapel was small, but why did it have to be so dreary? No windows to look out of, outside where there was life and hope, no altarpiece to look at when the hours lengthened, luckily the pasteur spoke briefly, in Finnish, although Guillaume claimed that he had specifically asked that the service be in Swedish, you’d think back then that they still could have easily found someone who spoke Swedish, and why didn’t they ask me, since I was, after all – how to put it? – the main character in the tragedy.
The bare concrete walls echoed detestably, not beautifully like the brick walls of a great cathedral, the atmosphere was the most important thing there, and she wouldn’t have minded that she couldn’t understand what the prètre was chanting, although she had studied Latin for several years in school, and would certainly have wanted to study Russian, unlike Guillaume, but mathematics was fun, and when she finally was released from hospital and they told E at the chess table – Papa’s office had one almost the same, and when she asked Guillaume wasn’t it a peculiar coincidence, he answered that it wasn’t at all, many people got them and the chess pieces just to give the impression that they were intelligent – they told him that the baby had been so weak that the Heavenly Father thought it would be best to take her up to heaven, little E dropped down off of his chair without saying a word and left, and didn’t cry like Marie had expected, but smiled instead. I didn’t notice any such thing, Guillaume said that evening, and Marie burst into tears, threw herself into Guillaume’s arms and wet his nightshirt. It used to get wet for entirely different reasons, and at first she had she wondered at wearing a nightshirt like little boys wear, but later she understood that you don’t have to waste time taking off your pyjama bottoms and then putting them back on again, but she still didn’t understand why was there a red drawstring through the hem.
Translated by Lola Rogers
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