The forest folk’s trip to Helsinki

26 March 2015 | Children's books, Fiction

Raul Roine: Metsänväki käy HelsingissäThe country comes to town in this coyly modern fairy story of 1937 by the classic children’s writer Raul Roine (1907-1960). Reynard the Fox, the village taxi-driver, celebrates restoring his beat-up old Ford by taking his woodland friends – squirrels, chaffinches, bobtails… – on a day out to Helsinki. Trouble starts when a policeman tells them off for eating the plants in the Esplanade park, but the fun really begins when the hares find themselves participating in the marathon which is being run through the city streets that day…

The translation of this delectable tale is by Books from Finland’s long-time collaborator Herbert Lomas (1924-2011), who was often at his best when working on the whimsy of children’s literature.

Spring had come to the forest homeland. The wood anemones were raising their heads shyly from under the moss, large tears of joy were flowing down the spruce trees’ beards of lichen, and sky-ploughs of cranes were coming from the south. They bugled mightily on their trumpets and then landed in the Great Marsh to sample the cranberries.

The springtime elves danced every day on the sunny slopes and swept the last remnants of snow into the melting brooks. Birch leaves were opening their little ears, the grass began to grow green, and already the swallows were coming; but the great tits that had been wintering in the corners of the house escaped to the shadowy pine forests.

But I was supposed to be describing the forest folk and their trip to Helsinki…

During those days Reynard the Fox was hard at work. He was wearing greasy overalls, his pockets were stuffed with nuts, bolts and spanners, and his paws and whiskers were thick with engine grease. He was fixing up his old Ford, which had been tucked away under a fir tree for the winter. For last summer, at auction, Reynard had bought a Ford, with which he’d then been running a taxi-service up and down the forest paths.

Now, in the evening, after working away at his car all day, in, out, underneath and on top of it, he’d finally got it going. He switched on the engine, sat at the wheel, tooted his horn with the pride of a proper motorist and lauded the car:
‘Just like new it is, now…’

Well, there was a little truth in what he was saying: he’d painted his car till it was spick, span and shiny, and he’d patched up the tyres. But from its model you could see it was at least five years old, and everyone knows that cars that age are already over the top.

On the edge of a sunny forest-clearing there was also quite a bit going on. Mr and M rs Chaffinch had just become domiciled after their travels abroad and had been building a nest in the fork of a bird-cherry tree. When the nest was ready and Mrs Chaffinch had laid her eggs and settled down to hatch them out, the hares, Crosslip and Bobtail, turned up, wanting news of the great world. So did Samuel Squirrel, waving his bushy tail. And Mr Chaffinch, who now had lots of time on his claws, began to talk about the foreign lands he’d seen on his travels. He told them about the sea with the ships sailing across it, and the great cities where people swarmed like ants.

The pals sat with pricked ears, their eyes shining as they listened to Chaffinch’s chatter, and little by little they were overcome by a strange restlessness – travel fever.

‘I’d very much like to see a city,’ Crosslip said.

‘Me too,’ sighed Bobtail.

‘Listen, Chaffinch’ Samuel said. ‘We can’t go on long trips, because we haven’t got wings, but don’t you know of any city somewhere he ÷reabouts that we too could go and see?’

‘It’s not all that far from here to the country’s capital, Helsinki,’ Chaffinch pointed out. ‘If Reynard the Fox would give you a lift in his Ford, you’d be there in half a day. It’s certainly worth the trip, for it’s one of the loveliest cities I’ve ever seen. And then you ought to get him to drive you down to the harbour and have a look at the sea and the fountain in the marketplace, and then off to the Esplanade to look at the statue of Runeberg.’

The pals went dashing off to Reynard and told him their plan for travel.

‘Mjuh,’ said the fox, smoothing his whiskers thoughtfully. ‘Very long way it is, petrol’s expensive, and could be my licence’s not quite legal.’

The fox was uneasy about leaving the forest paths for the main road, since a few visits to hen runs were weighing on his conscience, and he was afraid they might get him into bother. But when the others had half pestered him to death and said they’d pay him handsom eely, the love of money brought him round, and he promised to take them. They decided they’d go the next day, and then they all went their own ways.

At dawn the next day the sun was shining particularly beautifully. The two bunnies had put together a big bundle of supplies for the journey, but Samuel had breakfasted so well he thought he’d be all right the whole way. The hares sat at the back, but Samuel hopped onto the tip of the radiator, as there’d be the best view from there. Reynard started the engine, tooted his horn, and they were off.

In a flash they were out of the forest paths and onto the highway and then they began to press on to Helsinki. The villages dropped behind them, the houses went by like the wind, and a lot of hens were in danger of being run over.

Not many hours went by before the travellers were whizzing in through the old customs gatehouse of Töölö. First they did a quick tour of the town, and then Reynard drove the car to the market place.

It happened to be Sunday and the market place was empty, but anyway there were lots of new and wonderful sights for the forest folk to see. For the first time they were looking at the sea glittering in the sunlight, the ships in the harbour, and white terns and seagulls sporting about over the water.

Then Reynard drove to the Esplanade and stopped near the statue of Runeberg. The travellers got out to stretch their legs and have a closer look at the statue.

‘Look at those lovely flowers growing over there!’ Crosslip said, pointing admiringly at the flower beds round the statue.

‘I bet they smell lovely,’ Bobtail cried, going closer.

‘And taste jolly good too,’ Crosslip said, unable to stop himself picking a tulip.

‘Hey, you chaps’ Samuel warned.’You mustn’t touch the flowers!’ But the hares were already into the beds, smacking their lips over the tulips.

But immediately something terrible happened. A huge policeman came running up, waving his arms and shouting:

‘What do you think you’re doing, you devils, spoiling the flowers! I’ll show you! Off to the clink, the two of you!’

The forest folk got a bad scare and all took to their paws. Samuel hopped onto Runeberg’s shoulder and then off to a lime tree. Reynard hid under his car. But the hares began leaping along the Esplanade.

It so happened that just now was the time for the annual spring races. The Helsinki Marathon was on. A long line of runners were bashing down the street, and the hares happened to find themselves just in the lead. They thought a whole gang were after them in major force. They speeded up till their ears lay flat on their fur. Now and again they took a look back but went bounding on, because there they were, the pursuers, still obstinately at their heels.

But finally, when their hearts were just about to burst, the hares arrived at Töölö. That was where the race ended, and the hares st ared wide-eyed when the crowd near the finishing post welcomed them with joy.

‘Bunnies, bunnies, bunnies! Hip hip hurray,’ cheered the crowd.

Crosslip and Bobtail realised they’d done a deed of prowess: they’d won the Helsinki Marathon.

The Judge who gave the prizes was just beginning his speech when Samuel Squirrel arrived. Samuel had in fact leaped along the Esplanade from lime tree to lime tree, and then climbed onto a roof and leaped from roof to roof. In this way he’d arrived at the finishing post almost at the same time as the hares.

Crosslip and Bobtail were rewarded with a big box of biscuits and rusks, and Samuel was awarded a bag of nut chocolates.

Finally Reynard, having recovered from his panic, turned up. The travellers climbed into the car amid loud applause and set off out of all this hubbub, back to their dear forest homeland.

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