Journey to the first palm tree

16 October 2014 | Fiction, Prose

Teemu is a fat, desperate middle-aged man who’s had it with life – he drives his old Lada to Spain, where he intends to commit suicide by letting himself be trampled to death by bulls in the Pamplona bullrun. (However, there is a chance of this tragedy being cancelled, thanks to a tenacious hitch-hiker, female.) An extract from the novel Särkyvää (‘Fragile’, Tammi, 2014)

When I was seventeen, I yearned to leave behind the small town where I grew up. I heard the owl hooting in the forest: go to Europe.

I heard the dirt-track gravel crunching beneath my shoes: run, lad, run.

The birch in the yard rustled and whispered: if you spend one more summer hanging around the garden of your childhood, you’ll stay here forever.

A frog in the ditch gave a stern croak: look at your father; if you don’t escape you’ll end up an old codger just like him.

Even the smoke twirling up from the sauna chimney spoke to me in billows: I’ll show you the right direction, head south, and don’t stop until you see the first camel.

I spent the month of June digging graves to scrape together enough money for an Interrail ticket. Grave digging was a painfully slow pursuit. The only person allowed to use the Bobcat was the full-time employee, Anttonen. He drove the thing up and down the lanes, its forklift in the air, while a guy called Jussi and I shovelled earth, sweat running down our spine. The earth was still frozen at the beginning of June, and Jussi and I spent hours battering the ground with iron spades to hew out even the smallest of pits. To round off the afternoon, Anttonen would pull up beside the pit in his Bobcat and shake his head. No, boys, no, he said. Kids these days can’t do a thing. Then he and the Bobcat would finish off the pit in five minutes. It was our job to clear up all the sand and mud and clay that Anttonen had scattered around him, gather it into a pile and hide any exposed bones so as not to scare the relatives. All this as unpaid overtime. Anttonen careered out of the gates in his Bobcat.

On one occasion, in a pile of mud left by Anttonen’s Bobcat I found the skull of a woman with only a few blond hairs left in its scalp. The skull spoke to me: why haven’t you left already, lad? If you don’t leave soon, you’ll rot in this place just like me. First the flesh, then the hair.

I quit the very next day. I had less money than I’d hoped for. I managed to buy my Interrail ticket and had a bit left over. I packed a few hunks of salami and a head of cabbage. My travelling companion ended up being a punk girl from my home town whom I barely knew and who said she wanted get the hell out of Europe and head for Africa. The girl’s name was Donald. First we ate the head of cabbage; that kept us full for four days. It made us fart a lot, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to fart in a six-person carriage because we didn’t really know one another, so instead we took turns going out into the corridor. We got as far as Avignon. Women didn’t dance along Avignon Bridge, as I’d been taught to sing at school. On the bridge we ate the remains of the cabbage and started on the salami. It made us thirsty, we had to drink from a nearby fountain. In the south, water is pumped into fountains straight from pure mountain springs, and people drink the water.

They didn’t drink from this fountain though. I ended up with terrible stomach cramps, it felt as though the muscles were wrenching themselves free from my ribcage, and I was forced to lie in a bug-infested hostel bed for three days. Donald drank from the same fountain every day but didn’t get ill. Bloody duck. Eventually they moved me from the ten-person room into a single room, because my groans were apparently scaring off all the guests. Our host tried to explain that his hundred-year-old grandmother was dying. He asked me for an extra payment; I said I couldn’t give him anything because someone had pinched my wallet while I’d been lying there ill. He kicked me out; you could hear the curses two blocks away.

Of course nobody had taken my wallet. All my money was in a stomach pouch, which I had kept in my underpants. The pouch had changed colour with the progression of my stomach bug, as had the money inside it. Down at the riverside I soaked the banknotes until they were clean, above me the curve of Avignon Bridge, where there were still no women dancing. They must have moved to the local discos.

Eventually the banknotes turned from brown to green. I dried them on the embankment of the River Avignon, and placed small pebbles on top of them so that they wouldn’t be blown away. I watched the people fishing. Two dark-skinned men came up to me, their faces like the surface of a shrivelled raisin. They had noticed my money and had come to rob me. I hastily gathered up the notes and decided to jump into the river. The waves gushed at me: swim, lad, swim, we’ll carry you to the first palm tree. I never managed to wade out into the current; the men were already right next to me.

I decided to kick the one closest to me in the nuts before he could ask me anything. My thighs were so stiff from all the crouching that I couldn’t raise my leg more than five centimetres. The men asked me to look after their things while they went swimming. They piled up their clothes and wallets and glasses and jute shoulder bags and a pocket camera right there in front of me and went splashing into the water. I could easily have made off with their possessions and they wouldn’t have had time to run after me.

I waited for them to climb back up the embankment. I didn’t have the energy to run. The men thanked me and offered me some food from their bag. One of them took a photograph of me with the pocket camera. He asked for an address so he could send me the picture. I’d been warned against giving my address to strangers. As a precaution I gave them my grandmother’s address. If they turned up in Finland with the intention of robbing me, let them rob Grandma’s place, let them take all the hideous ornamental glass vases and the cuckoo clock that startled guests twenty-four times a day.

Later that autumn Grandma received a letter containing a photograph of me standing on the river embankment. Grandma said that I looked like a prisoner released from the Bergen–Belsen concentration camp. After my stomach bug I was nothing but skin and bones, and as I’d lain there ill the hostel owner had cropped my hair short because he’d thought I might have lice. Donald thought my shorn hair made me look like Johnny Rotten; it seemed a stomach bug suited me.

On the back of the photograph was a text. I had been certain that the men were after my money, that they would threaten to come to Finland all the way from Avignon and kill me if I didn’t give them anything. I gave the text to Tuija, a girl at school who studied French, and asked her to translate it. She told me it read: Heartfelt greetings to the boy from the North. Ahmed & Abdul.

When I look at that photograph I still hear the waves whispering: swim, lad, swim, we’ll carry you to the first palm tree. We’ll take you to Paradise.

Translated by David Hackston

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