Temporarily out of order

10 May 2012 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Hullu (‘The lunatic’, Teos, 2012). Introduction by Soila Lehtonen

I found myself standing in front of the noticeboard. The rules were on a sheet of paper:

Ward 15 5-C

Breakfast 8:00 AM
Lunch 11:45 AM
Dinner 4:30 PM
Evening Snack 7:30 PM
After lunch
We recommend leaving money, valuables, and bankbooks for storage in the ward valuables locker. We take no responsibility for items not left in the locker! Money may be retrieved 1–3 times per day. Use of mobile phones on the ward by arrangement.
M–F 2–7 PM
Sa–Su 12–7 PM
Use of one’s own clothing by individual arrangement. Clothing care individual. Washer and dryer available for use in the evenings after 6 PM.
Arranged individually according to health condition. Outdoor pass does not include the right to leave the area.
Vacations arranged during morning report, according to health condition.
Smoking is only allowed on the smoking balcony! Smoking prohibited from 11 PM to 6 AM.
Pastor Karvonen available by appointment.

These were impossibly difficult rules. I read them through three times and simply did not understand. ‘Clothing care individual.’ ‘Outdoor pass does not include the right to leave the area.’

What did these sentences mean? With whom did you schedule the pastor and how? And why?

A young woman had popped up next to me in front of the noticeboard. She was a slightly smudged creature with a pale face and black circles under her eyes. The overall impression was murky but not frightening. She wore a combination of a pyjamas and her own stuff.

– I am 163 and 1/2 centimetres tall.

– Ah. I was 190, but now I’ve probably shrunk a bit; I’d wager I’m 189 at most.

We were both delighted at this matter-of-fact and, at least on the surface, honest discussion and went our separate ways. 163 and 1/2 centimetres started walking towards the recreation and dining area that widened out at the end of the hall, where it appeared there were others loitering as well, but I did not have the nerve to go there yet. I returned to the smoking balcony, breathing in the frigid air and inspecting the view.

The Pasila radio tower loomed behind the bars through the crowns of the pine trees. On the ground was a little snow. Some traffic was also visible, and human figures. A squirrel jumped easily from branch to branch. It was a good sign. My brain was ticking through these sights and, crunching furiously, working them into a new theory when the door opened and a man with bad teeth joined me. He had a ‘Karelia Back’ cap on his head. He gave me a friendly smile.

I knew speedheads well enough to connect the toothless smile to an eager, diligent, liberal and sincere pursuit of amphetamines. These people here are junkies! 163 and ½ centimetres was also clearly a gear user. And my roommate, the black-haired Indian, Jysky, is here taking a break from his hashish psychosis!

This was an utterly shocking, cataclysmic discovery. These are people, fellow travellers, human wrecks, just like me. What’s our problem then? We’re alive. Which made me think of death and Mother. Is she still alive? I should get in touch quick and make sure, but first I need to test out these new ideas by getting acquainted with baseball cap guy.

– Are you a person?

– I am garbage.

– Do you want the Russians to give Karelia back to Finland?

– Under no circumstances.

– Why do you have a cap like that then?

– I bear the sins and stupidity of the human race. Someone has to bear them. Otherwise they accumulate into too large a pile and the world slides into the Vantaa River.

– Are you Jesus?

– Amos. The prophet Amos.

– Prophet? Can you predict the future?

– Yes.

– How will things go for us?

– Things will go well.

– This was pleasant news for once. You are a capable prophet. Cigarette?

– No thank you. I do not come to this balcony to smoke but to breathe away the evil smell of the ash tray. In that way I cleanse the world.

– So from your perspective is it evil that I smoke my fags and create these reeking stubs in this cup?

– Of course not. Quite the contrary. Go right on smoking. Surely I shall breathe the evil vapours away.

I stubbed the cigarette out and the prophet Amos stayed there on the balcony to sniff the ashes.


Someone rang the dinner bell in the hall. Called by it, I walked to the noticeboard, where 163 and 1/2 centimetres was inspecting the writing on the wall. I placed myself beside her and reviewed the rules.

– What time is it? Is it lunch or dinner now?

163 and 1/2 centimetres thought for a second before answering.

– I don’t know. And I don’t remember. I think what we last ate was evening snack, but in that case now should be breakfast and in between should have been night. But what difference does it make?

That was well said. None! It only takes on any meaning from the coffee perspective: we receive that after lunch, and, as I understand things, it is included in breakfast, despite not being mentioned specifically in the rules.

– How tall are you? I am 163 and 1/2 centimetres.

– We’ve already dealt with that issue. I am the former 190 and current 189.

We moved in reverse height order to the tail of the food queue. I was happy that there was a space of a couple of pyjamas between us and Sharp Eyes.

The meal did not go anything like well. 163 and 1/2 centimetres received her plate before me and then ran right to the second-to-last free spot, at that nice table where I would have liked to go. The only remaining place was between the Sharp Eye’s and the prophet Amos, and that was precisely the place, the most frightening and dangerous point in the world, which I would have liked to avoid.

That place was designed just for me. That was where I would crucified and then the scourging would begin. The change of buildings and the squirrel in the yard were just a tactical feint – nothing had changed. The only thing I could trust was that I couldn’t trust anything at all.

This is staged theatre, and all of these people have been brought in here for me, to do me in, to squeeze what’s most important out of me. They won’t let up until I’ve admitted everything. What everything? Presumably that since I was one and a half years old I’ve been false to the core and a coward. As far as I remember, I learned to talk so I could lie to my parents more effectively. I have never had the nerve to tell anyone what I actually think. I have flattered and embellished and turned the best face forward. I haven’t believed in people. I haven’t believed in friends. I have lied the very worst to those who have loved me. Lunatics!

For fifty years I have pretended to build my life on nothing, supposedly doing, supposedly feeling, supposedly breaking down, supposedly reasoning, supposedly rejoicing, supposedly sobbing and supposedly living. And apparently I supposedly died as well, since I can’t seem to get a handle on whether I am alive anymore or where. I am standing here with a plate of potatoes in my hands, and everyone is staring, already amused, and I have to go there, even though I don’t want to go there, and the whole ballet has been orchestrated and blocked in advance, but I am the only one of the ballerinas not given a tutu and toe shoes, and who has never been to any rehearsals.

If this is an illusion, then in that case illusions are the most real thing so far in my life. They burn, and cut and kill. They take you by the neck and submerse your head in a tub of water. They shake off useless assumptions. I will be threshed in this looney bin until I admit that I am nothing, and then my existence will be deleted from the universe, from all possible universes.

Suddenly it was clear, a precise definition of myself: I am a criminal who has never dared commit a crime. Can there be anything less!

– Now go to your place and eat. Your food is getting cold, says a representative of the kitchen staff.

Yeah, yeah.

– Well, now, hello. How are you settling in?

– Um, settling in? I don’t know. I doubt I really want to settle in here.

Big and White asked me to talk in the office. Why not? So we went. She opened the door with a key. The spaces for these control-side characters were all outfitted with locks, while we main characters bunked in unlocked, two-person residences. This was probably a perfectly sensible arrangement.

– It appears you were studying the Bible.

Damned Bible. That always made you a mote in everyone’s eye. I decided to lead this spy astray a bit.

– I would rather have read the Tao Te Ching, but you didn’t have it. It’s the only religious book with something interesting in it, because it isn’t religious at all. It has aphorisms that have been worn so smooth by the centuries and by so many millions of people that you can get hold of them. And that is precisely the quality I can get hold of.

– What do you mean?

– Well, exactly what I said; I don’t know how to explain it any better.

That conversation dried up there, as it should have. Big and White flicked her computer on, scrolled down to me and started explaining my situation. I was all a big absent-minded ear. It was making me yawn and my thoughts were swarming somewhere else entirely.

The tale was harsh enough.

I had walked into the yellow building ten days before and said I was dead. From there, after some small confusion, I had been committed to the white building, where on the third night I had attacked the innocent night individual. This had been followed by an automatic transfer, as per policy, to a private suite, where I had relaxed for a couple of days. And from there by unanimous decision of the jury, had come the move here to the grey building.

The grey building was the final destination, said the white person.

From here there was nowhere else to go; this is the furthest corner of society. Beyond these borders there is nothing, unless you count the graveyard. As the phrase goes, you are here ‘for the time being’. Your departure is not in your own hands, but rather decided upon the authoritative directorate of these games.

And that’s that, said the white woman, making the screen go black with her sinfully red fingernail.

I thanked White for the pertinence of the information in her briefing and suggested that we part.

I hurried to the dining room. A few were grouped around the TV, but I found a secluded corner table. I feverishly compared my own memories with the white woman’s otherwise logical and believable report.

Nothing really lined up; about a week had disappeared somewhere.

Time has run away with me, and I have lost a large part of my life somewhere. For safety’s sake I did small memory tests in my mind. I remembered the presidents of Finland. I remembered the 26 plays of Shakespeare. I remembered the quadratic formula. I remembered that the speed of light is 300,000 kilometres per second.

That was enough to continue with. I didn’t have the energy to moan or complain. I decided that I was partially alive and partially dead. And because I had to go on somehow, it was best to invest in the living side, in what sense was left, not to waste limited energy sighing over forgotten things and lost time. Perhaps I’ve developed into some sort of time traveller, bouncing in my own style from one hummock of time to another.

The nights always fell quickly. Here in the grey building the chemists also appeared with their carts in the hall at the end of the evening to distribute the Eucharist, to each her own numbing agents as deemed appropriate, to be swallowed down with water. They snuffed our candles effectively, because the system lay dormant at night in the silence and immobility dictated by the regulations.

Or else I was so deep below the surface of unconsciousness that I did not hear the others’ raging. However, in the mornings there were never any detectable marks or rumours of nocturnal bacchanals, so the knockouts apparently worked for everyone.

I slipped into unconsciousness smoothly, but I came out night after night suddenly, violently. I emerged from the depths of sleep like a baby from the womb, defenceless, uncomprehending of anything. My eyes fluttered open, my pulse pounded at one hundred and thirty beats and I was in the grip of complete and utter terror.

There was no logical or even illogical basis for this terror. It was one hundred per cent pure, genuine terror – odourless, colourless and tasteless, free of causes and consequences.

I did not fear death, monsters or violence against myself. Everything had already gone to hell as much as it could – there was nothing left to fear. However, my new acquaintance, pure terror, listened to none of these or any other logical arguments, simply shaking me awake each morning in the grey building at four or five o’clock in the morning with such force that I feared my seams would burst and my head split open.

Now I knew what it means to be paralysed with fear. I lay like this for five minutes after waking up. The sweat ran, my muscles did not work and there was no thought in my mind, since the terror was there. Then gradually I would be able to do something. I moved very quietly, so Jysky wouldn’t wake up. Music helped sometimes. Martta had already brought me a player and a stack or records. But I only dared listen to certain artists, especially in the morning. Mississippi John Hurt comforted me many times. He seemed to know exactly how I was doing and what the best medicine would be. The pianist Ahma Jamal’s bright passages also had a terror-dulling effect.

I had again, after a hiatus of one month, begun to see honest to goodness dreams again. I did always die in them, but puckishly, amusingly, at the end of a good story. I recorded a couple.

I am shipwrecked and swimming with another man to a deserted island. We succeed in saving rations and supplies. On the island there appears to be fruit and water and good facilities otherwise as well. We are not immediately attacked by dinosaurs. And we have weapons and ammunition. But it is deserted. There is no one else and no hope of escape. However, we approach the situation calmly. Around our first evening campfire, I ask my companion what kind of man he is.

‘I want to be completely honest. I’m a psychopath and a murderer.’

I am Doctor Watson investigating a ticklishly tangled murder of a physician. Behind the case we find another incident, and in the end we realise that doctors have been being murdered for years now. Someone has been bumping them off. We also realise that I too am in danger. I leave my wife and move to Baker Street under Holmes’ protection.

Doctors keep dropping. We find a clue. Following this we climb the stairs, kick in the door and surprise the suspect, who is one of my colleagues.

You! Are you the insane doctor murderer?

No, it is not him, I hear a voice behind me say, and Holmes empties his pistol into me and the other doctor.


I stood in the stairwell wearing civilian clothes and a rucksack on my back. I had tried to leave unnoticed, but had not succeeded. 163 and 1/2, who was always hanging around in the corridor, was there again.

– You’re leaving now?

– Now.

– Well, bye then.

– Bye. Say hello to Amos and Puupponen.

Then I wondered whether I should hug this little creature, but she decided the matter for me by running away. The guard let me out into the stairwell.

I went down in the elevator to the ground level and smelled the outside air. It was a bright, crisp February morning. I walked past the yellow building and across the street to the stadium park. Just for fun I did a lap around the stadium’s sawdust track. My blood began to circulate. I felt almost alive.

I dropped down to the banks of Töölö Bay and then climbed up to the Birdsong bridge. I leaned on the railing and watched the trains. I considered where one could go on them and where I would like to go myself. Like over the winter holidays.

I walked past the City Theatre and the Kallio Church to Sörnäinen. I stopped in at the corner shop and bought fags. I continued towards home.

Home looks like home. The phone rings. Martta.

Hey, I got out. Let’s meet on the shore, like maybe on Katajanokka. It would be fun to see a little open water after so long. And then we can go for coffee.

We agreed. Martta is happy to skive off school. Daddy’s girl.

I headed out into the city. The Red Planet second-hand book shop at Harjutori Square called to me. The salesman at the Planet, an old acquaintance, asked how I was. I answered that I was probably doing quite well. For five euros I bought the opus The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from 1892. Hard stuff that.

I stopped off at a kiosk and bought the Helsingin Sanomat, Hufvudstadsbladet, People’s News Weekly, Provincial Future, Green Thread and Ny Tid. I thought I would find out over the course of the day what was going on.

Martta and I walked around the shores of Katajanokka. She went her own way, and I went along the Kruununhaka strand towards Kallio. Some construction waste had collected under the shoreline road bridge, an indeterminate amount of dry lumber. Out of this I built a small fire, shaving a few chips off with a knife and lighting them. There was even a bench. I sat by the fire and dug Sherlock Holmes out of my rucksack. I was perfectly warm with the fire and the woollen long johns I bought way back when at the Kajaani market under my jeans. I chose the ‘The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet’. It began irresistibly. Watson peered out the window and said,

Hey Holmes! Here comes some madman. It sure is sad that his relatives let him trot around alone.

The story had draw. When I got to the end, the fire had almost died. I decided to sacrifice one of my newspapers to revive it. I chose from the more useless end of the spectrum, so the Helsingin Sanomat. With that I got some life into the blaze, and something was left over as well, the Help Wanted section. The following advertisement caught my attention.

‘Position for housekeeper and caretaker in a serious but happy family. We would like to tell you now that we are spiritualists, occultists, Buddhists and Christians, and we want that our children are taught the importance of truth. Mother is a medium and the father is a healer. Most of those who read this notice will think we are not entirely well. We want someone to run our house and do our maintenance who feels we have a refreshingly intelligent feeling about us. Send your application hand written – we are also graphologists.’

I put out the fire and made a trip to the Hakaniemi post office to buy an envelope and stamp. I had my own paper and pen in my rucksack. I had to find something to do with myself again anyway.

Translated by Owen Witesman


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