The engineer’s story

Issue 2/1981 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Maailman kivisin paikka (‘The stoniest place in the world’, 1980). Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

Coffee was going to be served down by the river. The engineer took my elbow and led me across his paved courtyard and over his lawn; we settled ourselves down in cane chairs under the trees. Mirja came out of the house with a tray of coffee and coffee-cups, a loaf of sweet bread, already cut, some marble cake and some biscuits. The engineer said nothing. My eye wandered over the ample weeping birches by the river, the mist creeping up in the cool of the evening and shifting in the cross-pull of the breeze and the current, and I watched Mirja moving under the trees back to the house and then down again to the riverbank.

As we sipped our coffee we spoke about chance, and the part it plays in life, about my husband – for I was able to speak about him now: enough time had gone by. The engineer eased himself into a comfortable position, gave me a quick look and then launched off into an account of his own, about his trip abroad:

I spotted the news item as I was going through the morning paper on the plane. I sat more or less speechless all of the first leg, listening to Kirsti and her husband confabulating. I didn’t say anything during the stop-over in Copenhagen, either, where they wanted to get some schnapps and, of course, some chocolate ‘if Kirsti would really like some’. We came rushing back into the plane just as the last English, German and Danish announcements were coming over, and then we sat waiting for the take-off. That was delayed too because of a check-up (not announced), and then we were off again for Zurich, me without a word and they whispering together. Then it was the bus as far as the terminal, and after that a taxi to the hotel. Quite clearly Kirsti hadn’t heard a thing about it yet, and probably hadn’t had much contact with Erkki for quite some time, her new husband even less.

In the hotel entrance the receptionist filled our cards up and gave us our room-keys, pronouncing our names deliberately and quaintly-it was a single room for me and a double room for them on the floor above. We went up in the same lift; it was small, no mirrors in it – like standing in a cupboard. We agreed to meet up again in the entrance hall after an hour.

My room was short and narrow; the bedstead in the middle of the room like a butcher’s block. I took my clothes out of my suitcase and hung my suit and shirts in the wardrobe, undressed and took a long shower, letting the cold water swish onto the top of my head and flow down my back, chest, belly and legs.

I dried myself and stood with the towel round my waist and read the item once again. It was a small single-column filler at the bottom. The end had been cut off in setting up the type: a badly charred body found in a burnt-out shed, now identified, police investigating, no foul play suspected.

I’d last heard from Erkki about six months earlier. He’d rung me up and asked me to read a manuscript he’d written. I told him straight: I knew nothing about such things. But he said the manuscript had to do with things I did know about, and that was why he wanted me to read it through. I said OK, and Erkki said he’d send it to my office address, express and registered. Five minutes later he was on the phone again, asking me for some money. All right, I said, I’ll send you a bank transfer if you’ll give me your account number, but he said he’d overdrawn his account so badly the bank would be bound to withhold any incoming sums; so after thinking about it a moment we settled on another bank where he didn’t have an account and I could arrange a transfer. I rang my bank and told them to send the cash. They rang back, I remember, with a confirmatory call-they had that regulation. After that, not a word from Erkki, except that the manuscript arrived, eight pages of funny stories about student days, together with a soiled accompanying letter and an address. I read it through and sent it back the same day. I wrote that I didn’t know anything about publishing and couldn’t give him any advice; and that there didn’t seem to be anything damaging to me personally in the stories. Kirsti rang the same day and pumped me to find out if there was anything about her in the manuscript. I said no. It set Kirsti’s mind at rest – Erkki had rung her that morning and told her he was bringing out a book soon with Kirsti in it as the main character. During his begging telephone call Erkki had told me he’d moved out of town and got a job as a supply teacher in some rural secondary school; he was definitely going to keep away from Helsinki, where he’d really slipped up badly on his last trip, drunk all his cash and overdrawn his account to the point of no return. In spite of that he said he’d paid off all his old debts on the same trip. (There seemed to have been a lot of them.) He’d decided to get his money ­matters right: he’d work in this school, and he was going to try and get a job on a building site and muster up enough money to spend the autumn finishing off the few examinations he needed for his degree; after that he’d do research for his diploma, and get a job he was qualified for.

However, this had been the tale for five years – just a couple of exams to take and the research for his diploma. A couple of years earlier when I’d met him he’d slipped up badly then too; it’d been at a midsummer party this time; all his front teeth had been smashed and he’d fractured his hand. He stood there, hand in a sling, explaining what his toothless mouth would mean: he wouldn’t be able to play the trumpet now: you can’t get a proper embouchure with false teeth. So bang went the cash he used to get through playing. As soon as his hand was in shape enough to hold a test­ tube again, he’d be back in the lab, on the job with his diploma, and getting those two exams out of the way-didn’t give a damn now about which grades he got. Several years earlier, though, when I got my own degree, he’d given us a high old drunken speech about the importance of good grades and classy research on the diploma; they were the prerequisites for the right sort of first appointment.

I tore the news item out of the paper, put it in my wallet and got dressed. I looked out of the window at a short stretch of street and peered in through the window of the opposite house. The street was narrow and it was easy to see into the lighted rooms. Nothing special to look at, though – someone was laying a table, a man was reading a newspaper in the other room. I switched the television on and lay on my bed watching a football match till it was time to go down.

I sat down in the entrance hall with my coat on and had a long wait. Kirsti and her husband finally came down apologising and we went out. Although it was September the weather here was warm. It was dark early. We went down a steep street from the hotel towards the river and then took some narrow streets that followed the direction of the river to the lake. All the streets were closed to traffic and lined with eating places; there were a lot of pedestrians about and we studied the menus and prices in the restaurant windows or framed on the doors. Kirsti’s husband had a collection of restaurant addresses at the back of his diary: he’d picked them out of the travel page in a Helsinki women’s magazine and out of a book about where and what to eat in Europe.

We walked about for a long time, but we didn’t manage to find the restaurants, and we finally sat down at a pavement cafe table. Kirsti’s husband now set to hunting for addresses on a map, which he spread out on the table. The waiter came out for our orders. I asked for a whisky; Kirsti ordered a beer, and her husband a Vichy water. The waiter came straight back with the drinks and the bill. Kirsti’s husband ran his finger up and down the map and read off the street names for us. I paid the bill.

“This’ll get rid of your dandruff,” I said, raising my glass.

“Don’t forget we’re on the job in the morning,” Kirsti’s husband said.

“How could I forget,” I said.

“I’ve always made it my practice to do my drinking only when the job’s done, unless it’s with the customers,” he said.

“Whereas I’ve always thought that a Finnish salesman always ought to turn up slightly canned,” I said.

“It’s a bad mistake, that,” Kirsti’s husband said.

“He’s not serious,” Kirsti said.

“Then he ought to be,” her husband said. I emptied my glass. I’d have liked another, but I didn’t ask for one. Kirsti poured the rest of her beer into my glass, her husband found one of his addresses, swallowed down his Vichy water, and we got up and set off down the street towards the lake.

We turned off into the streets leading down to the river bank. There the pavements led into an arcade between the houses and we went over a bridge. The river was invisible in the darkness but we could hear the force of it against the piers of the bridge. We tried to get a glimpse of the water over the railings and then we could see floodlit churchtowers and the lights of restaurants and houses freckling the surface and squirming.

The old town stretched over onto the other side of the river. We took off up a street, Kirsti’s husband in front, reading the map, and Kirsti and myself bringing up the rear.

“Heard anything about Erkki?” I asked when her husband was far enough away.

“No, should I?”

“Just thought you might have heard a word or two.”

“Only thing I ever hear about him-he’s after money.”

We went on in silence. It was getting cooler, and the damp was condensing into a thin mist you could feel on your skin and see against the lights.

“Nothing’ll ever come of Erkki now. Lucky for me that I jumped off that particular waggon in time,” Kirsti said.

We came to a tiny square sloping like a barn roof. There was a tall church on one side and a tavern opposite. Kirsti’s husband wanted to go in.

“This is where Goethe used to eat, the guide book says,” Kirsti’s husband said.

We went in. We were met at the door by a small, round, grey lady, like a ball of wool. She counted us, was very affable, took our coats over her arm and led us further in, past the regulars ensconced in their stalls in the anteroom. She hung our jackets on a peg near the table and proposed a good variety of aperitifs; I asked for a whisky, however; Kirsti’s husband ordered a Vichy water, and Kirsti wanted a fresh orange juice. Our hostess was taken aback.

She soon returned with the drinks and the menu. We spent a long time over the menu, and then we took what she recommended. We also took the wine she suggested, a local one, and she brought it straight back for us to taste; it was a sweet red wine with enough carbon dioxide in it to make it slightly bubbly and fresh and lively on the palate.

We waited for our food. I sipped my whisky and looked out of the window at the quiet square and the floodlit church tower, or at Kirsti’s new husband. He was still reading the menu: he was translating the names of the dishes, looking up unfamiliar words in a tiny red dictionary, writing notes about them in his diary, and explaining each dish to Kirsti.

I was thinking about Erkki, and what a different sort he was, and how good everything had seemed to be once. I noticed Kirsti’s familiar swift little smile, which she was now smiling at this man.

The landlady brought a large salad out of the kitchen, and I finished off my whisky. Kirsti’s husband refused the wine when the landlady offered to pour some in his glass; he asked for some more Vichy water. It came, and we got on with our salad.

“Tomorrow’s our big day. If we get off the ground right at this point, we’ll be cruising into a big market. That’s why I wanted you along,” he said.

“So I understood,” I said.

“Naturally I can usually sew things up quite nicely on my own, but this time I thought it’d do no harm at all to have someone along who could give it straight from the horse’s mouth, engineer to engineer. It’s always more effective than straight sales talk. Yes, they always tend to trust the other engineer.

“We’ll see,” I said.

“But please don’t let yourself get too tanked up tonight. That they don’t understand.” I said I’d keep off it.

“He’s not like that,” Kirsti put in.

“Actually, I’m no boozer, though I did use to be Erkki’s best friend at one time,” I said.

“Well, that is not what I meant,” Kirsti’s husband said.

The landlady brought the plates for the main course and took the salad bowls away. A girl brought the food out from the kitchen on a long flat dish, everything neatly laid out, the vegetables at the sides, the venison sliced in the middle, asparagus in long rows, gravy in a boat and pommes allumettes waiting in a separate dish on a side table.

The landlady and her helper dished out the food on our plates without asking us and wished us bon appetit. I drank some wine and filled up my glass; Kirsti had scarcely touched hers, and her husband was still on the water waggon. I finished off the whole bottle of wine on my own. That, together with the food, filled me up so much I didn’t want a dessert, though the landlady sang its praises to me; I ordered a coffee and a brandy. Kirsti and her husband ordered the landlady’s dessert: a large slice of the house’s sandwich cake with a splash of sherry on it.

I paid my own share and Kirsti’s husband folded the bill into his wallet. It was about half past ten by the time we’d walked back over the bridge to the hotel. All that drink had left me feeling rather sluggish. Kirsti’s husband asked for an early call, and we went off to bed. In my room I stood in front of the window; the street was silent and empty; sheet lightning was flashing far away, brilliantly and silently. I took off my clothes and laid myself out on the butcher’s block.

It was six o’clock when I woke up; I got dressed and went down. The same receptionist was there, nodding behind his counter; he told me breakfast was at seven. I went out of the front door. It was cold in the early morning and I needed to march along briskly in my poplin coat, with no hat on. I turned off at the riverbank, walking along the embankment towards the lake. A few people were stirring, and the odd car. Municipal workers were scrubbing the walls of the riverside houses and the piers of the bridges: they were standing in plywood punts, wielding long brooms. The strong current was thrusting hard on the boats, and the work looked tricky. They were small dark men, two to a boat, one scrubbing and one holding the oars.

I went up the river past the church and the covered bridge: the vendors were already putting their stalls up and arranging their displays of merchandise. I bought a plastic punnet of enormous purple blackberries and swallowed them as I went by the churchyard and past the birdcages on the embankment. There was a huge variety of birds to look at: each had a painted portrait above the cage, complete with its German and Latin names and its behavioural characteristics. The river was empty, apart from some white swans. They were ducking for food off the bottom, their behinds waggling grotesquely and their great webbed feet groping the air.

I came to the upper bridge, where the river exits from the lake. On the lake side of the bridge two boats were fishing the head of the river: they each had three rods out, and as the men lifted the line to cast again, you saw the tiny wriggling bait and a weight and a float. In the water only the quill showed. Both the fishermen were old, and they handled their rods expertly, letting the current draw their lines down and then lifting them alternately back up the river as they drifted close to the bridge. I stood on the bridge watching a long time.

There was a light haze on the lake, slowly rising and dissolving into invisibility. The lake was glass. A motor boat steered out of the mist, with rods on stands on both sides, and lines out; it anchored higher up and the boatman began to cast. One of the rowing boats shouted something I couldn’t make out in dialect, and the motor boatman stood up and made some gesture with his hand. The old fisher in the rowing boat pulled in his lines and hunched himself on the middle thwart, supping coffee from a thermos and munching a sandwich he took out of a worn leather bag in the bow.

I moved off and walked over the bridge to the opposite bank, went along the embankment as far as the station and then cut back over the bridge to the hotel. Kirsti and her husband were already in the dining room. I left my coat over a chairback near the receptionist’s desk and went over to their table. I sat down and the waiter came and took my order.

“Nasty hangover?” Kirsti’s husband enquired.

“Not particularly,” I said.

“Funny if you haven’t. Couple of whiskies, bottle of wine, cognac to follow – nice formula for a hangover.”

“Drank another half-bottle of whisky on top of that in my room; solitary drinking – just to cheer myself up,” I said.

“You didn’t?”

“Thought I’d better drink like the men do, if once I’d managed to get abroad,” I said. “Makes the hair grow on your chest,” I added.

“He’s pulling your leg,” Kirsti said.

“That’s OK by me, just so long as he does his job.”

“Try my best,” I said.

“Course he’ll do his job all right.”

The waiter brought my coffee and I buttered my bread. Kirsti and her husband settled the day’s programme for after we came back from the factory. I was feeling slightly under the weather after the previous night’s booze, and there was a taste in my mouth that needed a blanket of coffee over it.

“I took a little walk along the embankment down to the lake,” I said.

“Our appointment at the factory’s at ten,” Kirsti’s husband said.

“Been thinking about Erkki.”

“Nothing better to do with your time than that?” Kirsti said.

“Well, we did spend a lot of time together, you know.”

“Look, I don’t want to accuse you of anything, but I must say too that you did your bit in helping him to go boozing and forgetting about his studies. He never was able to hold it, like you could, and that’s what’s been his undoing ” Kirsti said.

“So that’s your opinion, is it?” I said.

“Yes it is, and I used to tell you that then, too.”

“It’s a mistake to think you can fool about with booze. Only hope it doesn’t go with you the way it’s gone with Erkki,” Kirsti’s husband said.

“How did it go then?”

“You know well enough.”

“Right up shit creek, that’s how it went,” I said.

“I didn’t say that,” Kirsti’s husband said.

“Well, say it then,” I said.

“Why should I?” he said.

“Shit creek?” I said. “What shit creek? Sitting at home studying, getting ready for an exam, and then blow your top merely because your wife comes home and tells you she’s off with another bloke. Fancy throwing the gloves in for a side-show like that.”

“It’d be nice if we could talk about something else now,” Kirsti said.

“That fellow’s not our concern any more,” Kirsti’s husband said.

“Not half,” I said.

We finished off our breakfasts and went up to our rooms. I opened my briefcase and glanced through the German-language documents Kirsti’s husband had given me in Finland to brief me for the customers. I began to study them and tried to memorise the main items, which had been numbered, as well as the foreign technical terms I didn’t know but guessed the meaning of.

I went down at half-nine. Kirsti’s husband came down wearing a suit and a grey tie. He got the receptionist to order a taxi. I went out of the front door, and Kirsti’s husband soon joined me. We waited for the taxi without saying anything.

It came and we drove off over the bridge that overlooked the lake. Soon we were approaching another river. It was shallow, with a swift bright current; we turned off along the riverbank and headed for some hills until we drew up at the factory.

The factory was sited by the river: it was a group of low buildings only recognisable as a paper factory by the sign on the gatehouse. Kirsti’s husband paid the driver and we climbed out. The gatekeeper rang through for us when we said who we were. He was following the goings-on in the factory on four television screens. Men were traipsing across the forecourt in blue overalls, the sun was shining and it was as warm as a summer’s day.

The gatekeeper gave us visitors’ passes and told us to hang on to them carefully or we wouldn’t be able to get out. We hung around near the gate until someone came out of the factory to escort us: he shook hands with us, speaking with a pipe in his mouth – a tall man in a grey tweed suit. Kirsti’s husband walked alongside him and I brought up the rear as we reached the end of a long light-grey plastered building and went in. The tall fellow, who was an engineer, he told us, led us through the central office into a large conference room, furnished and panelled in a dark exotic wood smelling of cigars.

The engineer asked us to sit down. A door opened and an elderly florid-faced man came in and shook hands with us, giving us both a visiting card. The card gave both his name and position in the factory: proprietor and managing director, I mentally translated. A horse-faced woman followed him in and asked us if we’d like coffee or anything else. She jotted down what we wanted on a little pad.

The managing director asked us what we thought about ‘Finlandisation’, and we tried to explain something about our relations with our neighbours. The tall engineer told us what The Reader’s Digest had said about Soviet conditions. The equine-faced lady brought a tray of coffee in and began pouring.

Kirsti’s husband set off talking about his company, outlining the qualities of their products and the results they’d been experiencing in Finland. The tall engineer asked some technical questions about the effect of chemicals on the quality of the paper; Kirsti’s husband explained, and I confirmed what he was saying. The tall engineer jotted it all down on a squared scribbling pad: he wrote left-handed, his tiny handwriting leaning to the left. They began to go over the prices. I got on with my coffee and the managing director smoked his cigar.

We went to have a look at the factory. It was a small-scale factory and all its machinery was antiquated and small. The river had been dammed just by the factory, and they generated all the power they needed themselves. The factory was soon seen over, and we shook hands with the elderly proprietor. The tall engineer led us back to the gate and left us there to await our taxi. The gatekeeper took back our visitors’ passes, and we hung about quite a long time waiting for the car. When it finally arrived we headed back for the town.

“Well, was this worth all the effort, then?” I said.

“Oh it was enough to start things rolling,” Kirsti’s husband said.

“Is that so.”

“It’s all we could expect at this stage.”

Kirsti wasn’t in the hotel, and so we went to the tavern across the road for a beer. We sat at a table by the window so that we could keep an eye on the hotel entrance. We were the only customers, and the landlady emerged from the bar to take our orders, then came back with a tin tray and two half-pint tankards of beer with the froth overflowing and streaking the sides. She put some cellulose coasters under the tankards, placed the bill on the table and retreated behind the bar.

“Now we can go ahead and have a drink,” Kirsti’s husband said, raised his tankard, and I did likewise. He clinked our tankards together and we tasted our first cool mouthful. At that moment we caught sight of Kirsti entering the hotel with two large plastic bags. Her husband leaped to his feet and ran outside. I watched him coursing across the street, buttoning his coat, and the landlady came peeping round the counter to see if we were both leaving. I smiled at her, raised my tankard and nodded and winked. She went back behind the bar without changing her expression.

I sat alone for half an hour or so. I began to read a newspaper fixed to the wall between the wooden mouldings and passed on to the advertising slogans on the cellulose coasters and the brewers’ and wine merchants’ placards covering the walls.

Finally I saw them coming out of the hotel entrance. He was explaining something to her; he pointed to the tavern, put his arm round her shoulders, and they crossed the street like that. Kirsti was giggling at something she found very funny, but when they came in her face was serious again.

“The ale’ll be getting flat,” I said.

“Ah, you’ve managed to get the beer session going, I see,” Kirsti said. The landlady came over and stood by the table. Kirsti ordered a beer for herself. Her husband tried his flat beer, and I ordered what was my third.

“Started to get his knickers in a twist just because I was a bit late,” Kirsti said.

“It wasn’t so much that,” her husband said.

“Gets all steamed up about a young fellow wanting to show me a bit of the town.”

“Absolute nutter she is: trots off with a perfect stranger.”

“He was terribly nice.”

“Of course he was.”

“What’s bad about that?” Kirsti said.

“It’s how you take it,” I said.

“Lucky we’re not having to drag the river,” Kirsti’s husband said.

“In broad daylight,” Kirsti said.

“You read about that too.”

“Yes, there’s no limit to what can happen,” I said.

“He offered me a drive in his car and showed me a few of the sights.”

“Nutter she is,” Kirsti’s husband said.

“The poor thing’s jealous,” Kirsti said.

“Once found out, ever in doubt,” I said.

“We can manage without you in on this,” Kirsti’s husband said.

“Yes, there’s no limit to what can happen, especially in a car,” I said.

“In broad daylight,” Kirsti said.

“Even in broad daylight,” I said.

“Have you had experience of it?” Kirsti’s husband said.

“No, but I’ve heard tell,” I said.

“Oh?” he said disbelievingly, and so I told him I’d heard of a fellow who’d pinched my best friend’s wife by driving her to work every day for two years and then marrying her. It didn’t amuse either of them. The landlady came over with the beer and we stared out into the street in silence; some people were just arriving at the hotel in a taxi, there was the distant sound of a tram, and people were going by without overcoats.

“That’s not the way we see it,” Kirsti finally said.

“I don’t suppose it is,” I said.

“That may be how it looks to you, but the fact of the matter is, if Eki had managed his affairs properly we shouldn’t be sitting here like this now,” Kirsti’s husband said.

“How it looks to me is how it looks to me.”

Kirsti begged us not to get into a treacle about all that. Couldn’t we just be in a good mood and happy now that we’d got this trip abroad together?

“Well at least you could admit it was idiotic to get into that stranger’s car,” her husband said.

“I admit it, I admit it,” Kirsti said.

“Promise you won’t do it again?”

“I suppose so.”

“And let’s not speak about Erkki any more. Kirsti and I’ve been through all that, said all we have to say. We’ve stopped talking about him-so we don’t remember him. He’s made his bed and he has to lie on it.”

“Let’s hope the Lord will bless you in the same way,” I said.

He flew into a rage at that: he said he’d do me with his travel report back in Finland: he’d write up how I’d drunk myself into an irretrievable stupor the night before the business meeting, so that I’d sat as dumb as a mute in a shithouse the whole session, a complete waste of the factory’s money.

“It’ll be the end of you, I don’t doubt,” he said.

“Just like that,” I said.

“I’ve got a few connections, you know.”

“Connections of some sort you have,” I said.

“So you don’t believe me?” he said.

“Why not?”

“Comes here at our expense, does precisely sweet fuckall, and then gives us half a yard of his tongue.”

I pulled the bill from under the cellulose coaster, ascertained the price of three beers, dug some coins out of my jacket pocket, put the appropriate sum on the table and got up to go.

“What’s the point of starting a quarrel here,” Kirsti said.

“Oh, what the hell,” her husband said.

“I’m off. Best of luck, if you’ve not got enough already,” I said.

“We’re supposed to be going to lunch,” Kirsti said.

“Don’t fancy it just now, thanks.”

I manoeuvred round the other side of the table and went out. Kirsti’s husband didn’t say a word. From the street I could see Kirsti going on about something to him, and he flung up his hand.

I walked past the hotel and down the street.

I came to the pedestrian precincts and turned towards the station, over the bridge and up the embankment. I was walking as rapidly as I could. After the beers I had a slight buzz on, but the walking was sobering me up rapidly.

I stood on the bridge near the church for a long time and looked at the river. The water in the river was greenish and clear and I could see fish against the bottom: there were five or six trout. They hung poised against the current waiting for food.

I set off again up a slope and came to a tiny square, with a fountain and restaurants in every building. I studied their menus and then went into one. The manager came to the door to receive me and led me to a table. He brought me a leather menu and a wine-list bound in even thicker leather. I ordered the set lunch and a Vichy water. The manager recommended wine suitable for the lunch, Swiss, German and French, but I didn’t feel like drinking any just now. He went to the kitchen with my order. Soon a waiter brought me some salad on a plate together with dressings in small earthenware dishes and the Vichy. I ate and looked at the stuffed goats’ heads and hunting gear on the walls and at the open kitchen at the end of the room, where meat was being grilled on a naked flame, so that as you ate you could smell the good smell of burning wood and as you ate you recognised the taste of the smoke, and although I’d have liked some wine with the meat, I didn’t drink any. The manager came to ask if everything was as it should be, and I said it was. I got some coffee and the waiter offered to bring a glass of pear liqueur with the coffee, but I didn’t want any. It tickled the waiter, and I saw him gossiping about it with the manager at the back of the room.

“Sportif?” the manager asked me, bringing the bill. I wasn’t up to quipping back and the manager took the money. I folded the bill into my wallet and went out.

Higher up the hill, near the top, there was an old church, and I went inside. Seeing the church, I’d thought of saying a prayer for Erkki, but once inside I only paused for a little by the door and then went back out: the church was a forbidding Calvinist meeting-house and had no atmosphere for me. I stood in front of the church and looked down the slope into the river valley and across over to the other side of the river to where the hills began to rise again and up off merging into the haze.

I set off for the hotel, picking my way through the back streets. I noticed that the key of Kirsti and her husband’s room was still on the hook behind the receptionist; so they were out. I got my own key and took the lift up. My plane was leaving in the morning.

I sat at the writing table and jotted down in a notebook some of the things I remembered about Erkki: one sentence for each item; and when I’d written it all down I tore out the sheets and put them in my briefcase.

At eight in the evening the telephone rang for a long time, but I didn’t pick it up. Soon some steps came to the door and someone knocked, but I didn’t open it, and by ten I was already asleep.

In the morning I packed my things and went down to the dining-room. I was already finishing my breakfast when Kirsti came in with her husband. They saw me and came over to my table.

“We tried to ring you in the evening and we even came knocking. We wanted to have an evening together,” Kirsti said.

“I must have been asleep,” I said.

“It was round about eight.”

“I dozed off and it was morning when I woke,” I said.

“What next – finally manages to really get abroad and then dozes off in his hotel room at eight o’clock,” Kirsti’s husband said.

“Yep – that’s how it is sometimes,” I said.

“About yesterday – let’s forget all that,” he said.

“What the hell,” I said.

“We decided we’re going to stay here for the weekend, have a little vacation. We’ve been together so little recently – I’ve been working late hours. We’ve rung home already. Granny’s going to look after the kids. Why don’t you stay too?” Kirsti’s husband said.

“No – I really have to go.”

“Do stay,” Kirsti joined in.

“Let’s take a trip up the mountain, either today or tomorrow.”

“No, I’m definitely going back,” I said.

“It’d be bound to be a super weekend,” Kirsti said.

“I’m sure it would.”

“You two’d get to be good friends.”

“Well, we’re not exactly enemies now, are we?” I said.

“Quite,” her husband said. “Absolutely right.”

They said they were going to stroll about the town together for a day or two and go up the mountain like a pair of young newlyweds.

I said it sounded a good idea. They said they thought the three of us could have some fun together. I wished them goodbye, retaining their hands, and hoped they’d have a good holiday.

“That report, by the way – of course you don’t need to give it a thought. I blew my top unnecessarily. You did a good job,” Kirsti’s husband said. I thanked him for that too and went over to the lift. I checked my room to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything and rang the receptionist, asking him to get my bill ready and ring for a taxi. I took a hotel envelope out of the desk drawer. I took the newspaper cutting about Erkki’s death out of my wallet and put it in the envelope; then I sealed it and wrote their names and room number on it.

Downstairs I handed the envelope to the receptionist, checked that he put it in the right pigeonhole and paid my bill.

The taxi drove up and the receptionist carried my bag to the taxi. I gave him a few coins from my jacket pocket and he thanked me with a bow and hoped to see me back again soon. I said I might well come sometime.

I get into the back. The driver drove up the street and then headed for the station. He turned off well before the river into another street going obliquely to the slope, overtook a tram and joined a queue of traffic. Further down there’d been a slight mist filtering the sunlight through, but up here at the top of the hill the air was bright and clear. I couldn’t help thinking I’d left something behind me that I was getting further and further away from.

We’d already finished off our coffee and the engineer insisted on going to the house to get some brandy and liqueurs. Mirja said no, but he got up and walked rapidly over the lawn between the apple trees. We got up as well and strolled down to the river. Here, above the weir, the water flowed black and slow on its way to the sea. Mirja told me she’d been going to get a divorce only a short time ago because of another man, but she’d changed her mind. She said the engineer hadn’t really got over it yet. Kirsti and Erkki she’d known since their student days; she’d never met Kirsti’s new husband. Her lover she’d met quite by chance, Mirja said; the affair had been going on for two years. Mirja didn’t believe Erkki and Kirsti’s marriage would have broken lip if Kirsti and her present husband hadn’t chanced to be in the same firm. I didn’t agree. I’d just had to go through something so similar near at hand in my own marriage, that I couldn’t bring myself to believe any more in chance in this life.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

‘The Engineer’s Story’ by Antti Tuuri is one of the stories included in Territorial Song. New Writing in Finland, an anthology of poetry and prose selected and translated by Herbert Lomas and published in June 1981 by London Magazine Editions.


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