Do you remember the yellow house?

14 February 2011 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Enkelten kirja (‘The book of angels’, Tammi, 2010)

[Tallinn, summer] The past will not go away

and the present is insurmountable. Summer vacation has begun, the newspaper hasn’t come; it doesn’t get delivered here anyway. Can you remember the Isabelline yellow house? Remember the alley with the name that means hurry? Surely you remember the home with all the maps on the shelves, the important papers and the brass objects bought from nearby antique dealers? Also the rugs from North Africa and the obligatory cedar camel figurines on the windowsill. And so many glasses and plates and empty lighters in a cardboard box on the shelf on the left hand side of the kitchen.

Tallinn, June 7th. The floors creak. One step has split in half; some of the lights have burned out. This is a lovely home. A small window upstairs is ajar to the courtyard. Tuomas had latched it behind the Virginia creepers. The fountain in the courtyard is dry. On cold nights the smoke from the fireplace grows like a statue for the crows until it wraps around over the layered rooftops like a snake eating its tail. Russian men are repairing the attic of the house across the street for wealthy people to live in; they laugh in front of the window and smoke. Tuomas waves at them, and they wave back. The courtyard is creepy when it’s empty. Soon the neighbours would go about their day and quietly close their doors behind them, and two nearby churches would divide the hours into quarters, Russians and their gossip would make their way to the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, and the Estonians and their gossip would go to their own churches where a wise and peculiar, almost human scent would rise from between the headstones. Tuomas wouldn’t smell it, Aino would and would move to stand beneath the the center tower.

In the alley a man wearing a jacket one size too small hides by the wall until the sun starts to slowly sweep up the city and the nascent day; imperceptible, the light sweeps away the shadows, moving them over to await the night. The dust takes wing. Ships shout near and far and people stop rubbing their sides along the stone walls. Houses so tall, people so small. Tirelessly, without ceasing,without waiting they rush forward across the alleys to work, to see relatives, some on stolen bicycles. People as far as the eye can see.

Tuomas watches them through a window of forty panes, eating bread and fruit while listening to Aino’s snoring.

Aino lies coiled up like a comma.

Aino wakes up looking at him as if he were a stranger. Tuomas goes over and strokes her long hair. Aino is remembering her dreams now as well. They negotiate about breakfast. There’s not much to negotiate about as the fridge is empty. They would go out to a café and then go to the grocery store. Tuomas would make tea. Aino wants to go to Stockmann, the fancy department store she remembers from a previous trip, and Tuomas can guess why she wants to go there in particular.

So part of the morning goes by, and their dreams leave them in peace for the day so they can return as something different. They brush their teeth and get dressed. They see the alley behind the window of forty panes and go out. People are walking around as they always do in the morning, shy, busy, and clumsy. Only the ballerinas tiptoeing elegantly in their high heels. Tuomas digs in his pockets. He finds his cigarettes and matches and lights up. It’s been six years; it’s been over thirty years. Aino hops on the cobblestones. Aino’s hair is flowing in the air and her low-cut socks are flashing in her shoes. It’s July, and things feel incredibly painless.

The sounds of a song can be heard through the working-class-blue door of a bar. They reach Venekuja Alley, pass the market stalls, pop into a courtyard off the alley, and step into a café. Aino knows what she wants; she always wants the same thing in this same café. They order and head to a table to wait. The day goes slowly; another spell of rain is coming. They’re in no rush; they chat about this and that. They’re usually in no rush; they often share the same views. And just as often they can burst into a sudden argument that quiets down just as quickly. Maybe Aino has understood that she is Tuomas’s daughter and just as happily Tuomas has understood that he is Aino’s father.

Joy, sometimes happiness.

With joy and memory

….The day passes like a ringing of heavy bells. Aino would be coming after two. They would go to the swimming pool or a cafe. Saara might come later, toward evening. The girls would play and Tuomas would make hot cocoa. He should come up with something fun and sensible for the evening. Tuomas hasn’t always been listless; once he radiated strength. Tuomas, house cat, roof tiger. They say people who know how to live don’t fear. Tuomas must have lost that skill, and he has to get it back. I’m not sure if I should tell, if you should know Tuomas better for me to be able to reveal it. That when Aino was still a baby there was a car accident, when Tuomas still had a car. Aino’s mother was in the front, on the passenger side. Aino was whining in her car seat. Tuomas was driving too fast on a rainy road, and a lorry turned in front of them from a side road. Aino’s milk bottle had fallen to the floor, and Tuomas’s wife took off her safety belt to reach back and pick it up. And at that moment the rain’  ’ ’ ’  ’ ’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’ ’ ’ ’’ ’’’  ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’ ’’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’  ’’’’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’’’’ ’’  ’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’’’’ ’’’ ’’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’  ’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’’’ ’’ ’’’ ’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’’ ’ ’ ’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’ ’ ’ ’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’’’’’ ’ ’ ’’’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’ ’ ’ ’’’ ’’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’’’ ’ ’’’ ’ ’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’ ’ ’ ’’’’’’’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’’ ’ ’ ’’ ’ ’ ’’ ’Tuomas braked, but the car hydroplaned toward the other, and Aino’s mother catapulted side-first through the windscreen, and it wasn’t long before Tuomas was standing in the hospital hallway scalded by the bad news.

A little later a nurse arrives with a social worker. They study the navel and neck folds with a fine-toothed comb, study the kitchen, the boiled baby bottles, the bathroom nappy shelf, the linens and the contents of the refrigerator, asking about baby care and inquiring after Aino’s routine. Tuomas is so pissed off that he almost vomits.

‘I know how to take care of her’, he says in a gruff voice.

From then on Tuomas began to speak literary language, from then on Tuomas’ face began to twitch when he spoke about the things that were most important to him.

Tuomas goes to smoke half a fag, remembering the drunk Slavic philology professor who fell into a plumbing repair excavation in the middle of Fabianinkatu Street after his student’s graduation celebration. He was found, taken to jail for the night and then home in the morning. He crawled on the hall floor to the landline phone to call an ambulance. Was it already too late then? Tuomas wondered. When Tuomas tried to visit his teacher later, he had already fled the hospital and disappeared without a trace. Tuomas had gone down in the elevator, stepped out of the lobby and stood for a moment on the pavement, on that Sunday, on that morning, in that moment when the bell of a church or some chapel had sounded once, and Tuomas again wondered whether it was too late to operate on the man’s shattered hip.

Tuomas hears worse stories too; he tries to forget them just as quickly, for once.

One of man’s greatest insights

is to realise that he is not alone although he often imagines so. A person becomes stained when he speaks of how lonely he is. A person who feels alone pushes others away. He lets no one draw close to him. He pushes them away with excuses. He is unable to see people; he is unable to keep them around himself. He has given up. Words turn inward instead of passing out into the world. Realising that one is not alone is both a spiritual and physical insight. It is a return to the land of the living.

Loneliness is reminiscent of sorrow, but like sorrow, loneliness must also be worked through. It happens in a hospital bed, in a stairwell or at home. It happens constantly, and the question is: how long can you bear it? The second question is: what, loneliness or suffering?

Tuomas, our stand-in Thomas Aquinas, is about to realise that loneliness is a romantic image. Before this he wanders the shoreline, consumed by self pity. The shore tells nothing. It only roars. A ship cuts through the water toward the West Terminal alongside a thousand-fold glistening reflected from the porthole windows. The rocks grow beards, the gastropods stuck to them their shells. Life is what you hear here, dead silence. Tuomas, swinging between extremes, turns and returns home. It is 4 PM. Tuomas calls his former workplace, gets his boss on the line, and says he would like to return to work. They chat for a moment. The tone is friendly. Tuomas does not carry a grudge. He has never been capable of that. That is a rare quality. And Tuomas is a rare case. There are not many like him. One could even say that certain characteristics which do not advance the survival of the species make him a good person.

Tuomas drinks a beer and considers whether to go downtown in the evening. His former workmates have asked him out many times, tonight too….

The late autumn night is frigid, dark and silent. No one is visible at the end of this street, not even any taxis. Tuomas’s footsteps are clearly audible. Their rhythm is the same as that of his thoughts, and those thoughts churn in Tuomas’ head, sometimes falling silent, sometimes surging like waves. The first snow is falling. The flakes are big, light and fragile. As they hit the ground they rustle briefly and their unique structure begins to crumble. Look at a flake. Find two alike; find two stones alike. Win the lottery. Meet your doppelganger. Find the right one. Be healed by a miracle. Be the one person left alive after the plane crash. Listen to expressions of finality. Tuomas thinks of the Muscovite saying that the winter corpses are like snowdrops that peek out from under the drifts in the spring. He turns onto Vilhonkatu Street, which leads to the railway station square, and quickens his pace. He wants to get home. He does not hear a man walking behind him. Only when the man is right on his heals does Tuomas hear him and wait for him to pass. But the man shoves Tuomas roughly toward the stone steps next to the casino’s gatepost. Tuomas’s temple hits the steps first and here his memories cease. The man continues on his way. At 2:11 and 2:34 AM he will assault two women. The first he meets on Kalevankatu Street and hits her in the face with his fist. Later, on Ludviginkatu Street, he puts his fist in the mouth of a woman walking in the opposite direction. After the woman falls to the ground, he kicks her in the temple and the back of the head. The women file police reports later, and the police realise that the man was one and the same. The police also figure out that Tuomas’s injuries were caused by the man. They do not catch him immediately. He continues on his way. I don’t know whom he is walking behind now.

And I don’t know how many more minutes will pass before Tuomas recovers. Maybe two, maybe three, maybe it doesn’t matter. Tuomas gets up and finds he is bleeding. One of the lenses of his glasses is in pieces on the asphalt. Tuomas begins the long march toward home. The skin under his eyebrows and eye is torn. Blood is flowing down his jacket and pants. The few passersby avoid him. No one comes to talk to him. No one offers help. Tuomas pulls his hood over his head, walking and just wishing he were home. He cries in rage. Not about his injuries but that he had no possibility to flee or defend himself. He considers the method of the crime to be worse than the crime itself. All the streets and all the buildings and all the parks pass on the borders of delirium, dream, and an inhuman clarity. What is good? What is evil? Full stop Full stop. And on top of that, balance and being, for you. And beyond it anxiety and darkness. And behind it the grinding of the angels’ teeth. Full stop Full stop. And on top of that you can go one infinitely or nothing else will ever be again. At some moments Tuomas realises where the border lies. He recognises the streets and basement shops. All of these scenes are distorted because of his broken spectacles. They resemble dreams, some nightmares, streets that narrow and narrow, buildings that lean toward you, the feeble orange glimmering of the sewage-coloured sky or maybe the ink black of Rothko’s later period. Tuomas has tendencies toward unrealism, as I do; I live on the moon too. For some reason Tuomas thinks of Bakhtin’s final words: ‘I come to thee.’ Or the last words crafted by Capote for the murderer Perry Smith to utter, which Smith was never actually willing to utter: ‘I apologise.’ Tuomas’s favourite in this blood-stained blaze of snow is Plotinus: ‘Try to unite the divinity in yourself with the divine in all things.’

‘Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls,’ Mother Teresa said; Tuomas considers that sometimes people are born famous and die anonymous. Sometimes people are just born to the wrong family, and sometimes the opposite. Often we do not see things as themselves, perhaps we never do, as we never see the stars, just their light. Habit is a terrible power, like the golden mean, Tuomas laughs out loud, he marches in shock, walks down Malminkatu Street, he marches and knows that he must get somewhere to have his face cared for. He also knows what it is like in hospital on Friday night: a wino woman’s sweatpants slip down to her knees and a piece of a free newspaper peeks from between her buttocks. A college boy rocks back and forth holding his bloody head. An old man sits quietly, another old man doesn’t. A handful of young men argue amongst themselves. Soon they will be driven outside and a fistfight will ensue. Thankfully children aren’t brought here. A young woman sits silently. Her wrist is broken because she fell from her bicycle on Kluuvikatu Street at 11:46 PM. A young man sits quietly. An aged drunk sits next to him who fell and hit his head in Hakaniemi at 12:12 AM, a result of vertigo and visual disturbances. Thanks to his padded jacket the bottle didn’t break, but he has to sit, his eyes glassed over. Next to him sits Tuomas. The doctor is not taking patients in order. Tuomas doesn’t understand why. He waits for half an hour until he is called in. The doctor is an Iranian and speaks perfect Finnish. He has a Greek last name, Kouros. Kouros cleans Tuomas’s wounds, plasters and binds them. He prescribes pain killers, but doesn’t see any need for an X-ray at the moment. Kouros shakes his hand, and Tuomas is let out.

On a cold, gray bridge being covered by snow the right side of his face starts to pulse and ache. The heat of the hospital didn’t do it any good. Tuomas doesn’t know how he will get to sleep. He would be home in twenty minutes. The city’s thin first snowfall outlines Tuomas’s footprints and the stray drops of blood that begin at Vuorikatu Street and end at Maria Hospital. Say that I said there would be much more snow this winter. The lights conduct Tuomas on his way. The street lights friendly and regular of course, but the office and apartment lights capricious. In their order lies their fault. Tuomas feels light and heavy. His feet are heavy, his head light. Here the blade and butt of an axe. The head splits the crisp air, the feet crush the fresh snow. Hands swing rhythmically like the street lamps. The wind blows, blows, the snowfall stops. There is still time until morning, even more until the oncoming night. He can already hear the sea. The sea is sounding in Tuomas’s head. Sounding brass, sounding brass. Saturday is beginning and good will abounds.

Monday morning at nine o’clock

the police call Tuomas and tell him the attacker has been caught. The pot moves toward the shore until it breaks. The woman with the black dog, Gunilla, Eeva, the others, the big man who pushed Tuomas against the stairs, the random, turbid loves, they all break up.

But now the morning is shining and bright.

‘I don’t have any demands,’ Tuomas responds.

‘Even though you don’t, I would still like to have a chat.’

‘Do I have to?’

‘Of course not.’

‘I had already forgotten it.’

‘I understand. It’s just that this half-Russian man seems to know or at least know of you.’

They chat for a few minutes. They hang up at the same time. Tuomas scratches his chin, and police sergeant Koskinen on the other side goes to get some coffee.

At least something connects people. They are connected by an infinitely stretchable rubber band or inflexible piano string. They are connected by rope or cord, both delicate in different ways. Sometimes good comes of it, sometimes mornings of worry.

Tuomas has arrived at work and now he is listening to his manager, or more precisely manageress’, briefing. The job description is the same, but the pay system has changed, verging on insanity. Tuomas gets his old office back. It has a view onto the courtyard. The courtyard is a parking lot. There are cars in the parking lot, in the sky the last seagulls. Look, they’re milking the clouds. The computer screen is more significant dark than turned on: it shows you, an empty vessel, honestly. Tuomas turns the machine on and enters a new password. There are fewer people in the halls than before. The others greet him, surprised, excited, expectant. A familiar clomping in the hall – some footsteps you recognise. Tuomas feels remarkably empty, or worse, unremarkably hollow.

Work and life, those islands, oh, those worn-out words contain a treacherous string of repeated affectations, Tuomas thinks, or someone else in him thinks.

So this is how morning begins, day comes, afternoon comes. Work ends. For Tuomas it didn’t begin at all; he returns home empty, but when he sees Aino he feels full again….

[Tallinn, winter] A dark, north-eastern sky

over the distant gray towers of the city and St Olav’s painfully beautiful, heart-piercing tower began to darken, approaching night, and the sheen of the sun setting behind the rain made the approaching towers shine against the puffy-clouded sky.

Spierdalai, kurwa!’ one tourist hisses to another as Aino and Tuomas are walking along the cobblestones of Pikk Street. Tuomas laughs and thinks: It’s been a while since I’ve heard such bright, clear Polish. A crush of people approaches. God’s zoo is motley. Aino is babbling on. She was so looking forward to this trip. At the arch Pikk becomes Pikk Jalg. Once Tuomas called this small street the Alley of Affliction because it’s such a pain to carry firewood uphill from the Kolmijalg market up to Rutu. The Alexander Nevsky’s bells, and then the Dome Church. Three old men wave from the other side of the alley; they arrived here on an earlier ferry and have already been for coffee in Kadriorg. A mangy dog walks by. A woman is selling watercolours in the alley. She has hung them on the wall: flowers, an elephant, stone houses, Sandstene, Clodt and Luhr, Fat Margaret tower. Aino and Tuomas pass a shuttered pub, turn to onto Piiskopi and from there to Rutu. Do you remember this Isabelline yellow house? Do you remember this alley, whose name means hurry? It is as pious as a secret; the noise fades when you come to it….

It’s late, night arrives. Aino is sleeping in the small room. The heater is running on full. The ants on the floor are besotted. Tuomas turns the heater down, closes the door and returns downstairs. He dresses, ties his shoes, cuts a Tuscan cigar in half, takes matches, a jacket, a woollen cap and gloves….

Tuomas steps out into the courtyard and walks out the gate. Snow falls gently. A mangy dog saunters up and says ‘Elu on ilus’ [‘Life is beautiful’]. Both churches’ bells ring once. Tuomas sees a white charter limousine pass the Alexander Nevsky and continue on to Piiskopi. Long-limbed Russian women pass him and turn in the same direction. Kiriku Square is full of limousines, SUVs, party-goers and glistening parties into which they are all forcing their way with our without invitations. The Russian women who have arrived at the Dome Church berate a fat man eating roasted almonds and then leave him alone. The man sees Tuomas, lights a cigarette and then stares at him thoughtfully. Tuomas stares back. Suddenly the man says in Russian:

‘Good evening.’

‘Good evening.’

‘So you’re not a Russian, then.’

‘I’m from Finland.’

‘You look Finnish.’

‘But you don’t look Russian.’

‘Well, no, I’m not Russian. Have a good evening, Tuomas.’

‘You too, Timo.’

Tuomas continues on to the overlook. He is delighted by that coincidence, an old fellow student who will certainly come to join him soon. Tuomas looks out over the wall. Even though the people are sleeping, the cars are awake. Even though there is a new room beyond the door of life, there is an even newer door at the back of the room, and behind it a new room and its unknown wares. Timo arrives and shakes his hand warmly. The grip is like Tuomas remembers. They smoke, exchange phone numbers and stay to chat for a while. The evening is not as cold as one would imagine. ‘Sometimes you just have to resist the enticements of humanity,’ Timo had said at the end and then bid goodbye to Tuomas.

Tuomas arrives back at Rutu, opens the gate and enters the courtyard. He spins on his heels for a moment more before walking inside. The lighted windows next to the darkened windows invite him, welcome him. He gets a glass from the kitchen, and a wine bottle, and sits down on the sofa. He pours wine into the glass, puts the glass on the table, adds wood to the fire and returns to his chair. There is no word for the scene that is now outside the window of forty panes, for the roofs buried in snow, for the downspouts, the eaves, the walls covered in pomade and powder, there are no names for the people who live in these apartments made of stone squeezing pillows between their legs….

Translated by Owen Witesman, Setti Mulari

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