Issue 3/1982 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Kaksin (‘Two together’). Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

A landlady is a landlady, and cannot be expected – particularly if she is a widow and by now a rather battered one – to possess an inexhaustible supply of human kindness. Thus when Irja’s landlady went to the little room behind the kitchen at nine o’clock on a warm September morning, and found her tenant still asleep under a mound of bedclothes, she uttered a groan of exasperation.

“What you do here this hour of day?” she asked, in a despairing tone. “You don’t going to work?”

Irja heaved and clawed at the blankets until at last her head emerged from under them.

“No,” she replied, after the landlady had repeated the question.

“You gone and left your job again?”


There they were, face to face: the grey-headed widow, with all the pathos of society behind her, and plump little Irja, still smelling slightly of sleep and with nothing behind her at all, unless we count a faint cheeping sound that might have been taken for the voice of conscience, if her eyes had contained any indication that she was actually listening to its admonitions: but no, they contained nothing but a sleepy vacuum.

“I not liking tenant who not going to work regular. You ill or something?”


Irja made a discernible effort to ponder the question, but the landlady answered it herself, as she had every right to do.

“You not ill, you just not wanting go to work. You working one month, out of work two week, you paying me one thousand, two thousand, you never paying me full rent. What you mean to do, what you thinking? You going to dogs very quick, if you don’t paying the rent and keeping always same lodgings and living regular life.”

“I’ll pay, don’t worry,” Irja snivelled.

“You now owing me back rent one and half month. When you pay me, if you don’t going to work? You just get now up, go get yourself new job. You get now up, right away. I throw you out if you don’t getting work–“
“I’ll get another job, yeah, don’t worry.”

The cupboard, closet or cubicle behind the kitchen, described as a “maid’s room”, was about two metres by three, with a tiny window fitted in by way of justification. When the landlady had gone, Irja hoisted herself into a sitting position, stretched out her legs, and contemplated her feet, which had now emerged from under the bedclothes.

Quite ordinary feet, with the toes rather squashed together – a bunion or two – patches of purple on the ankles – occasional black hairs, surface otherwise smooth and shiny. Legs too. Feet and legs. Have to have them, everybody has them.

Somewhat soothed by these observations, Irja shifted her gaze and noticed her handbag, which was on the floor. Stretching out a hand, she was just able to reach it. She held it up at arm’s length, and surveyed it sourly and critically before hauling it into her lap. After further pondering, she pulled on her stockings and began to rummage in the bag. She pulled out her purse, which contained two weeks’ wages, felt it with her fingers, turned it this way and that, opened it, and counted the notes several times. Then she took out a powder compact, but after an unsuccessful attempt to open it she put this hurriedly back. Next came a key: this too she dropped straight back into the bag. Then her fingers encountered a slip of paper: a receipt from a firm of cleaners, at least a year old. She fiddled with this for quite a time, unfolded it, read the writing on both sides, and put it back. Next, a library card, worn to limpness, last used seven years ago: she tore this up and put the pieces back in the bag. A rather crumpled envelope, inscribed Reffrences. Frowning, she stared at the word, which she had written herself, and made a wry face. She was on the point of opening the envelope, but changed her mind and scornfully returned it to the bag.

The landlady now returned, pushed the door open a little way, and put her head round the side. Irja put clown the handbag and fixed her gaze, not on the head, but on the door. She had no wish to meet that beady eye.

“I make you some coffee. You get now up and dress.”

The landlady had decided to see what kindness could do. Fate had inflicted upon her a lonely old age: her husband had died, her daughter had died, and the lodgers who took accommodation in her large flat – her only refuge and source of income – were quite impossible people, who drove her to despair. Each one was worse than the last. The maid’s room caused the most bother of all: the tenants never took to it, and always said it was too clear. Well, she could hardly let them have it for nothing. This lazy layabout had been there for half a year, she seemed a good-for-nothing creature. Perhaps she ought to have got rid of her straight away. But she had come to feel a certain pity and even fondness for the grubby little thing: maybe she should try again to do something to help her. Irja did at least have a profession: she was a cook.

Irja dressed speedily, watching the door in case the head should reappear. Pulling her nightdress over her own head – a fraught moment – she quickly put on her vest. Situation saved, nakedness now covered. Holding a tattered girdle around her haunches, she stood, with her stockings round her ankles and her anxious eyes still keeping watch on the door, while she did up the fastening. The edge of the girdle was frayed, the fasteners kept coming undone again. Having got them all done up at last, she grabbed her knickers and pulled them on with two fierce jerks. She felt a thin sweat cover her face.

By the time the door was pushed ajar once again, she was already buttoning up her dress, or housecoat, or whatever it was supposed to be called.

The landlady was setting out the cups on the kitchen table and repeating “All will be coming right, you not worry”. On one of the saucers she also placed a pastry, left over from yesterday, which had begun to get a bit stale. There would be difficulties, she added, but if Irja would only make the effort, all would go well. “Chief thing, not to losing the hope”.

Irja listened to the landlady’s talk and began to think. She thought as hard as she could and got as far as: that old woman … she talks like a Swede … but she doesn’t know any Swedish. Having got Irja to sit down to her coffee, the landlady produced, as if from nowhere, a bulky newspaper, and spread it out in front of Irja, open at the right page. With her finger she indicated the section headed “Situations Vacant”.

Irja’s eyes ranged up and clown the closely printed columns, picking out here and there a word or two in larger type that stood out more clearly: … women … woman assistant … home help … dishwasher … wine counter.

Nothing aroused her interest. Those words in heavy type began to make her feel drowsy. Somewhere … some time … this had all happened before … exactly the same … same newspaper … same page.


The philosophers really are a bit unreasonable in their demands. They expect a person to be able to analyse and assess the multifarious sensations he receives from the world and from within himself; to classify his observations, to make decisions, to form concepts, to acquire information, to draw conclusions. He should, they maintain, make a firm and clear distinction between himself and his environment, but also be deeply aware of their essential one-ness. He should assess phenomena in relation to the Highest Values, but should never forget the impossibility of value-judgments. He should make choices, and come to decisions, and act. Action is moral, vegetable passivity is immoral.

A person should influence his own surroundings. His choices and his influence, taken together – and let us not forget that he himself is his own environment, goodness knows how – interweave themselves with his perceptions to make up the fabric which we call life.

But what if a person is incapable of choosing, making decisions, etc? Is incapable of acting, is merely a passive object? Well, then he is not a person, he is not normal, he is not social, he is in every respect a wash-out. He is rejected, he is thrown away.

Rubbish, says the adequate person, the person who is a person: rubbish, he says, no such persons exist. And anyway, if I once began to consider the situation of persons like that, I would have no time to earn my living, to weave my own fabric. For people like that there are special institutions of various kinds: I have paid my taxes. Besides, adds the refined person, one who understands art and has been trained to think, it is not worth while to waste one’s efforts on people of that kind. They are in any case done for: better to pay attention to those who are capable of living. And yet another voice pipes up: they have had their chance, why have they not taken it? Man cannot be as weak and incompetent as all that, each must accept his own ethical responsibility.

Quite. But it does seem a little unfair.


Irja saw Arska for the first time when she was sitting in a café. She had just finished a portion of “Pancakes avec jam” when she happened to glance across at the table by the door. Sitting there, and staring at her, was Arska: Arska himself, pale and bearded, with round button eyes.

At first Irja was annoyed. Who does that fellow think he’s goggling at, she asked herself, and gave Arska an angry look.

But Arska dropped his eyes and fell to studying the floor of the cafe, which was rather dirty.

Irja, for her part, returned to the contemplation of two tattered scraps of newspaper, which had been thrust into her hand with the injunction “You go now, find address, ask job.”

Go. Find. Ask. Beg. Her thoughts jerked laboriously from notch to notch, like a rusty cogwheel. When you haven’t any money you have to work. Yeah. Beg for work. She turned the scraps over and read what was printed on the back, but decided after a while that this did not concern her, since she was neither a welder not a typesetter. She was a cook. “Profession: cook”, it said on her papers. She had papers. Pah! She looked to see whether the man was still staring at her. He was. She buttoned up her coat, took a firm grip on her handbag, and pressed her knees closer together. Factory Street. Factory Street. Factory Street.

When her eyes met Arska’s for the third time she hastily resumed her study of the newspaper cuttings, muttering crossly “There’s no need to stare.”

Arska’s voice, shy and gentle, floated over to her. “I wasn’t … I’m sorry … I didn’t mean to ….”

There was a silence. All the tables in the empty cafe seemed to prick up their ears. The girl at the counter stifled a violent yawn.

“I was just thinking.” Arska’s voice was almost a whisper.

Another silence, then Irja mumbled: “No need to think either.”

“No, no. But all the same ….”

This sounded so crazy that Irja giggled. What a silly man. She took a cautious look, and … there, if he wasn’t still looking at her, and his mouth was sort of smiling, pursed up into a little round button, like his eyes. Irja had to cover her mouth with the back of her hand, in case she laughed.

Factory Street. Factory Street. No, she would go to the other place after all, the workmen’s diner in Crownfields, and apply for the job there. Irja knew Crownfields, she had once been in service there, before she went on the cookery course. Yes, she would go to Crownfields. Brownfields. Clownshields.

She got up, brushed the crumbs from her skirt and looked around her, in every direction save that of the stranger. He got up too. Irja went to the door, the man followed. She opened the door, he followed her out. She stopped on the pavement outside. The man stopped too, and stood behind her.

It was a marvellous morning, warm for April.

A balmy breeze stirred the litter in the street, a grey-blue sky could be glimpsed above the eaves of the buildings. The girls had painted themselves up to look nice, and the boys were wearing their new light-coloured shoes. In Irja, a wan feeling of contentment began to establish itself. Well, this was it, then. Town, Irja, street, April, a job to apply for. If only she had something nicer to wear.

The man came and stood beside her. Without looking at her, he said, simply, “Like to come for a drive?”

“Eh?” Irja laughed aloud. She hadn’t laughed like that since – since that other time, larking about with Helvi.

“Come for a drive, like.”

“Drive? Whatever in?”

“My little bus here.”

Arska’s thumb executed a grandiloquent gesture. Following its direction Irja saw, just across the road, a large van: slightly dirty, slightly dented, but undeniably impressive. Ever so grand, really. The loading space was covered in by a canvas tarpaulin, bearing on its side, in faded letters, the inscription TRANSPORT SERVICE. She looked again at Arska. He was wearing a neat reddish leather jacket and a new peaked cap. And even a tie. Irja’s heart began to beat in a special way, which she recognized at once. Better get to hell out of this, and quickly, she thought.

Arska seemed a bit frightened too, somehow. He looked at Irja and then at the van, opened the door of the driver’s cab and muttered: “Not very luxurious, I’m afraid.”

Irja ought to have shouted, torn herself away from where she stood, and run for dear life. But instead she stayed where she was and looked at Arska and the open door and the rich brown shiny leather seat. And then she raised one foot to the high step, reached for the doorframe and hauled herself up, trying hard not to explode with laughter. Didn’t try to give me a push from behind, she noted as she settled into her seat. The cool slippery leather comforted her, there was a hollow in the seat, as though many others before her had sat there, next to the driver.

“I ought to go to Crownfields, actually, to see about getting a job”, she said to Arska in a voice husky with excitement, and Arska, climbing into his own seat, nodded as if he knew all about her affairs, and the job, and everything, everything. The van moved off.


The proprietor of the diner was regaling Irja with a monologue consisting, as usual, mainly of the words damn, bloody and bastard. His wife had just lit a cigarette, her face assuming the haughty I-told-you-so expression that always came over it, with no apparent justification, at about four o’clock in the afternoon. Suddenly the dishwasher executed a meaningful gesture with her shoulder and pointed behind her with the toe of her right foot: whereupon the girl doing the drying up, who had been singing at her work, fell silent. Someone had entered the kitchen and was standing in the doorway, a hard grey shape. Irja did not need to look twice: it was that insufferable sourpuss, her sister Rauha.

“Well, what is it?” The proprietor took a couple of strides towards the visitor and just managed to avoid a head-on collision. His eyes bulged with suspicion.

“I’d just like a word with my sister there, can’t ever get hold of her, she’s always changing her job. I’ve been three times to her lodgings and she’s always out, well that’s the way she is but I need my money back, why should people like her hang on to other people’s money for ever and ever when they need it back I should like to know, that’s her over there.”

And Rauha’s finger pointed unmistakably at Irja. Not that she raised her hand or stretched it out in Irja’s direction: she merely gave a little upward jerk with her elbow, leaving the wrist limp and extending the forefinger. The effect was much ruder.

The proprietor was still standing motionless in the middle of the room, his wife continued to leer contemptuously, the dishwasher had turned her back to the sink, and the girl helper went on drying the same plate with the same wet cloth and staring at Irja over the top of it. But Irja showed no reaction: did not pause in her work, did not look at her sister. Her task was to fry a portion of steak and onions, and she got on with it.

“I see.” The proprietor felt he ought to continue the conversation, since nobody else seemed to be doing so. “So you’re a sister of this cook of ours, eh?”

“Yes I am and it’s no joy having a sister like that, let me tell you, the only sister I’ve got left and look at the sort of life she’s leading, gone right off the rails she has and I don’t mind telling you I’ve always tried to lead a decent kind of life and pay my taxes and my rent on the dot and all the time I’ve kept the same job with the same firm. Except I had a job with another firm when I was quite young. And never once never once have I left the rent unpaid, always paid the rent on the day it was due, likewise the electricity and all those things, always on the day it was due and not a day late. And I’ve never borrowed a penny from a single living soul and I’ve never wasted my money, always make it last out till the next payday, and on the miserable wages I get that’s no easy matter I don’t mind telling you. But her, you’d never believe anyone could sink so low.”

“What exactly are you on about?” said the proprietor’s wife, suddenly getting angry.

“I have a right to speak, I’m a respectable woman and I want my money back.”

“You mean our cook here owes you some money?”

“Three thousand she still owes me. Yes, three thousand, it’s not worth much these days but when you’re poor every penny counts. Irja, pay it back I say.”

The proprietor was beginning to get the picture.

“People have the right to demand their money back, I suppose.”

“Of course I have the right.”

“Well, you can stuff it right up your arse for all I care.”

This last suggestion came from the proprietor’s wife. The proprietor chose not to hear it. His face took on an expression of benevolent bitterness. He was warming to the subject. “Trouble is, people won’t pay. Some people seem to think there’s no need to pay their debts or anything else. Just take other folks’ money and hang on to it. Seen it myself, they come in here and eat and drink and then they won’t pay the bill. That’s how some people behave, see.”

“That’s right. Look at my sister: her, over there. Took my money and now I have to chase round all over the place begging for it on my bended knees. She got herself into trouble you see and had to borrow. And ever since then she’s been sinking lower and lower like a cow in a bog.”

“Ah!” The proprietor beamed. “Like they always do. Can’t find a decent respectable person anywhere these days. They go sleeping around and whoring and fornicating and then they get themselves into trouble and expect the state to help them. It’s the taxpayer who has to pay for all their whoring and fornicating.”

The proprietor looked from one woman to the other, with a gleeful expression on his face: they could stew in Hell for all the taxpayer cared, he seemed to be thinking.

“Well, you might at least answer, are you going to pay me, or aren’t you?”

Irja ignored her. She turned the steak over: the onions smelt delicious. Wriggling her right foot out of its shoe she scratched her left calf with her big toe, which protruded conveniently through a hole in her stocking.

The proprietor moved over to where Irja was and pointed a finger at her back. “This here cook of ours, you’d think she was a respectable girl, but there you are you see she’s as bad as the rest of them.”

“You keep your big mouth shut, there’s no call for you to butt in,” said his wife. “And get that woman out of here, she’s holding everything up. We can’t keep the customers waiting. Come on, cook, that steak must be ready by now. Give it here and I’ll dish it up.”

A waitress poked her head through the hatch and said something in an angry whisper. Seeing Irja’s sister, however, she too, or at least her head, remained to stare and listen.

Irja dropped the pan noisily on the table. “Now look what you’re doing, between you, you’re taking our cook’s mind off her job,” said the proprietor’s wife, seizing the pan and a spoon and proceeding to transfer the food on to an appropriate dish. However drunk she was, she always managed to arrange the portion neatly and make it look appetizing, as Irja had often noticed. Her movements were cautious and slow, and there was a wary, almost furtive look in her eye as she watched the dollop of mashed potato all the way from the saucepan until, with a malevolent grin of triumph, she slapped it on to the dish in exactly the place intended. Got it! Ha!

The proprietor was now standing right in front of Irja’s sister and telling her the tale of his misfortunes. Incompetent fools were bringing him to rack and ruin, and what was more he had to pay them good money to do it.

Irja’s sister had her tale of woe too: she hadn’t always been like this, her sister hadn’t, but when she went and got herself pregnant, and would you believe it she wouldn’t tell a soul who the man was, not even the infant welfare people she wouldn’t tell who the father was, even when they threatened to put her down as a vagrant, she just sat and goggled and wouldn’t say a word. “Just like she’s doing now, always been a goggler my sister has. If she’d only said, then I mean we might have been able to do something, me and our aunt and our dead sister’s husband, but no, I mean it’s a shocking way to behave.”

“What happened to the baby?” the dishwasher asked.

“It died, I mean it really properly died, of a proper disease and everything, in a hospital, it had a Congenital Defect.”

“Ow, yes?”

“Yes it passed away, the poor little creature, it was mercy really though, I mean if it had lived, with a mother like that and no-one knowing who the father was, whoever would have looked after it? And you know she didn’t even cry when it died. Me and Auntie we cried ever so much and it wasn’t our baby but we cried all the same, and then I said well you needn’t come asking for help if you sort of get away with it a second time, and Auntie said so too she said if you were a different sort of girl then perhaps we might, but how had she got like that my Auntie wondered, when Eeva was such a nice pleasant girl and Aku was all right too except when he got drunk, my Auntie said. And talking of that, has she taken to drinking at all, have you noticed?”

“I wouldn’t know about that.” The proprietor laughed. “Wouldn’t think so. She’s got a young man though. Little feller, drives a van. I told her though, don’t you go trusting a chap like that, there’s the name on the side for one thing, well, there’s no such firm in the telephone book, there’s no knowing what sort of a chap he might be … but it’s no good warning them, they never believe you till it’s too late.”

“So that’s how it is, again. Still, at least he’s been seen, so we’ll know this time.”

“What good will that be? The moment anything happens they’ve got a way of disappearing off the face of the earth, fellers like that. Not even a regular job, by the look of it.”

“That’s right. Oh well, suppose I’d better be going, no good hanging around now. I’ll come again when she gets her wages. When’s her payday?”

“Fifteenth of the month, you’re welcome to call in if you want to, but you won’t get it all back in one go, not a sum like that.”

“Last time she was in work I managed to wring five hundred out of her. But she wasn’t there long, I except they sacked her when they found out, it was one of those Christian nursing-home places, they can’t stand that kind of thing. I don’t like having to do this, mind you, my own sister and all, but there it is, when you’re poor you can’t afford to be too … after all in this world we’ve all got to get by somehow, and if you don’t stand up for your … if she was different it might be different, I mean … honestly, she hasn’t even got any friends, never meets anyone …”


Irja had begun to stir the soup in the big saucepan, and this remark, her only contribution to the entire conversation, was drowned by a loud clang as she put down the lid.

“I’m off now.”

Irja looked at the closed door. It was hard to believe that Rauha had been standing there only a moment before.

The proprietor wiped his forehead.

“Well well. So that’s our little cook’s sister. Bit of a Tartar, I must say. Well … it’s understandable, I suppose. Now listen to me, young woman, next time you get your wages, you must … well, you should try to pay her back some of the money at least, calm her down a bit …”

Another clang from the saucepan lid. The proprietor looked at Irja, and waited. Irja said nothing.

“Well … that’s understandable too.”

The proprietor had decided to tread warily. Otherwise he might soon have to start advertising for a new cook. Irja looked at the dish-washing girl, who was staring at her in shocked fascination. Meeting Irja’s eye, she hastily switched her attention back to the washing up. Irja glared at her back for a while, then looked at the helper, who immediately lowered her eyes, resumed work on the plate she was supposed to be drying, and started to sing under her breath. The song hung between them like a curtain of steam, and the voice gradually increased in volume: tell me, tell me, gentle maiden.

But the proprietor’s wife came and stood right beside Irja. She reeked of spirits.

“You do jus’ wharrever you like, dear,” she enunciated, not without difficulty. “In this world … all got to get by … she’s ashalutely right, and don’t you take any notice of any cackling old bitch who comes in here nagging and nattering, jus’ you do what you decide to do, ‘s all right with us.”

Exuding kindness, she lurched against Irja, almost knocking her over.

The proprietor swore. The euphoric mood induced by Rauha’s visit was wearing off. He thought again of the bad state of his business, he thought of his wife and her habit of helping herself to all the money out of the till, he thought of his stomach, which blew itself up like a balloon and gave him merry hell whenever he tried to eat a decent meal. Flaring up suddenly, he shouted: “Now get moving, all you women, what about those meatballs, they were ordered ages ago. I must get out in front and see to the customers, it’ll be filling up soon. And Elssa, see that you don’t have any more to drink. You haven’t got a bottle hidden away again?”

It was a needless question. Obviously there had to be a bottle somewhere: one couldn’t get into a state like that on heat and food-odours alone.

Elssa smirked happily: the bottle was well hidden, only the cook knew where it was. And the cook wouldn’t tell.


In the course of that incredibly warm spring Irja had twice moved to a new job. After two months in one place and one month in another she had again given notice, and now it was summer.

Arska displayed a delightfully casual attitude to such reputedly vital necessities of life as jobs and lodgings. “Don’t panic!” was one of his favourite pieces of advice, and another one he was very fond of was “Leave worrying to the horse, he has a bigger head”. After saying his he would smile rather roguishly and take his eyes off the road for a moment to glance sideways, roughly in Irja’s direction.

“Always a job going somewhere,” he would explain. “Always somewhere you can live.”

And the van sped on.

Arska often came to pick up Irja when she left her place of work, as the dining-room proprietor had noticed. He would wait outside, fling open the door to the driver’s cab when he saw Irja coming, and watch her climb in. Then they would drive around. Sometimes Arska would say he had some calls to make: he would go into a house, deliver a parcel, bring something out and put it in the back of the van, all with the air of doing something rather secret and mysterious. He said nothing about these transactions, but when Irja showed curiosity he seemed gratified, though the pleased look he gave her seemed sometimes to be tinged with fear.

Irja was always amused by Arska’s way of talking: quiet and jerky. But the more she came to know him the more serious she became.

Arska was quite a fellow. He had a van. It belonged to him: he used it for transporting goods and also drove it around for fun. Sometimes it needed repair, sometimes Arska himself poked around inside it. He always looked at it with great pride. The driver’s cab was high, the back part disproportionately short, so that the whole thing had a slightly top-heavy appearance, in fact it looked a bit ridiculous really, but impressive all the same: menacing, almost. It was nice in the back, though, under the canopy: there were benches along each side, and tied to one of the benches was an old green painted trunk with a flat lid, which could be used as a table. Underneath the other bench there were some worn-out suitcases: lrja did not much like the look of these. They could well have been empty, of course. The trunk was locked, it was just like a table. What it contained Irja did not know. Burglar’s tools, perhaps? The idea of Arska as a burglar, or indeed as any kind of criminal, amused Irja very much: he was such a shy person, and as harmless as a hare.

Arska didn’t live anywhere. Or at any rate he didn’t say he lived anywhere. He had an address but that was just some kind of arrangement he had: he was supposed to live there, but in fact he only called there occasionally. A good way to throw snoopers off the scent. He slept wherever he liked: in inns or doss-houses, even under a boat if need arose. He had spent a whole summer living in a war-time bunker. But Arska always had money. He made no attempt to conceal the fact: sometimes he would pull out his wallet with a kind of flourish and make a show of counting the notes, gloating over them, quick-eyed and smiling- and then, suddenly, he would thrust it back into his pocket as if afraid of losing it.

At the wheel of his van he was another person. He drove very fast, hell for leather all the time, caring for nothing and nobody, his mouth twisting into a kind of sneer as terrified pedestrians leapt out of his path and outraged citizens on the pavements glared furiously after him. “That’ll show them,” he would mutter. But if the police flagged him down he would stop at once, van and man both transformed instantly into personifications of innocence and humility. Arska even thanked them when they once handed him a summons. But as soon as the police were out of sight he accelerated and glanced at Irja: “What about that, eh? That’s the fuzz for you.”

To Irja it seemed that Arska led a very agreeable sort of life. Free. It excited her. Why couldn’t she be like that too?

Sometimes they took long joy-rides, right out into the country. On the main roads the van raced along at a speed which even Arska dared not attempt in the crowded city streets. Past them flew the landscape on either side, the sturdy houses, the self-conscious gardens, the flagstaffs and lakeside saunas, the fields, the smell of earth, the meadows with horses standing in them: flew, and were left behind. What did they matter? Smug people in smug houses, clutching their bank books: leave them all behind, and good riddance! Irja and Arska drove on. Irja screwed up her eyes in ecstasy, she bounced up and down without restraint, and every time they topped a rise in the road and the sky swooped down to meet them she giggled soundlessly. Phew, aren’t we moving! The earth sped them along, the sky beckoned. Irja’s mouth was wet and red, her hands clutched at whatever support they could find.

Sometimes Arska would go on a longer trip and be away for several days, and then Irja did not know what to do with herself after she had finished work. She walked through the streets, her worn-out shoes squelching when it rained. She looked in the shop windows. A tailor’s dummy, resplendent in a smart suit, reminded her of Arska, and she laughed. In a dark doorway stood a man without an overcoat, with a schnapps bottle in his jacket pocket, he spat in her direction, he looked like Arska too. Only Arska didn’t drink. Irja wandered past a big brick church, the people were just coming out after a wedding: the bride and bridegroom made a handsome couple, she in her white dress and veil, carrying a bouquet, and he so conscious of his dignity. Behind them walked a little man dressed in black, the very image of Arska, Irja thought.

Silly, really.

When Arska returned, there he was again as usual, waiting for Irja as she left work, his pale bearded face peering out at her from the high driving seat, one hand raised in greeting. Arska was so dependable. They never arranged to meet, but Arska always came, however long he had been away. Arska was reliable. Arska was Irja’s prop and stay.

Whenever Arska was in a talking mood Irja pricked up her little pink ears and listened so attentively that her plump little body became tense and stiff and her eyes opened wide and gazed wistfully and longingly at Arska. Once they were drinking coffee in the back of the van. They had driven into the country and had parked up a side lane for a coffee break. Arska looked out of the back of the van and began talking:

“I’m a dangerous fellow, you know. If you knew how dangerous, you wouldn’t be here. I’ve done things … things that would frighten you. And might do again.”

What could he mean? Irja put her own interpretation on his words: they aroused expectations of the most blissful kind.

“I like you, Irja,” Arska went on, more gently.

“You’re different, see, not just the usual sort of bitch.”

“No, certainly I’m not,” said Irja almost in a whisper, holding herself so stiffly that her little head, with its pudgy cheeks, was almost bent backward. Her eyes clouded with ecstasy. “I’m the sort of fellow who … I’m not an ordinary fellow you know … this fellow here, this Arska …”

He beat his breast with his fist and gazed rigidly ahead, into empty space. “This fellow here, he’s just Arska, that’s all. I could own a fleet of taxis if I wanted to, be a rich man … furniture … television … but I want to be free! That’s what it is, you know, freedom. You and me just sitting here, looking out of the back of the van … and the stars shining.”

“And the coffee boiling,” said Irja in the same impassioned tones.

“I don’t care about people, they’re a lot of wolves, people are. You’ve got to go all out to keep your own end up in this world … But you’re different, Irja … yes … different. Actually, I … yes, I … but in this world you’ve got to watch out, you see, if you don’t watch out you get caught … and you don’t know how to get free again. They’re lying in wait for you everywhere …”

When the coffee boiled over, Arska cut short his stream of talk and merely fell to lamenting the waste of good coffee, what did it want to go and boil over like that for? The little flame over which the coffee had been heated went on burning, uselessly. Irja watched the flame and thought how small it was. When it was alight, the back of the van was cosy, it felt like home. Arska had two doughnuts in a paper bag. He looked at them thoughtfully for a while and then offered one to Irja. The first time she refused: no, no, Arska should have them both, after all they were his doughnuts. Arska was pleased at her refusal, but proffered the bag again, and in the end Irja took one. They sat face to face munching their doughnuts, watching each other eat, both acquiring a little coating of sugar crumbs around their mouths, both raising sticky fingers to their lips and licking them.

At night in her bed, that grey-haired landlady’s bed, remember, which almost filled the whole of her little room, Irja thought about Arska and how nice it would be to travel about with Arska all the time and how safe and reliable Arska was, because he had money too and he was so careful, and supposing Arska were to sort of take her under his wing and protect her … feed her sometimes and buy her some clothes, so that she wouldn’t have to … wouldn’t have to … wouldn’t have to … .

For Jesus’ sake, Amen. The voice of her former primary-school teacher rang harshly in her ears, just before she went to sleep.


There was no help for it, Irja simply had to give her notice yet again. Besides, it was so hot. The place was bleak. Shiny tiles, stainless steel, dazzling the eyes, lowering the spirits. The whole time was spent in scrubbing: floors, walls, kitchen utensils. They would have liked to scrub Irja too, if they could have got at her. They kept saying “Pull that cap further down over your forehead, we don’t want hairs in everything”. And the manageress said, “You ought to be wearing a corset, with that figure”. The way she said “figure”, it sounded as if she thought …. Well, Irja had good reason to know that any such thoughts were quite mistaken. Arska had never once touched her, never tried to come to her room, never even sat beside her in the back of the van. It was sad that she could be so sure. But the situation might improve, and meanwhile it was a nice thing in a way, there was something beautiful about it.

And then her sister had called. She always did, sooner or later.

Irja had been there only as second assistant cook. The pay was what one might expect. Her wages had gone down every time she changed jobs. What of it? She hadn’t had the nerve to apply for anything better. They were smart, the girls who applied for cooks’ jobs, they had their hair nicely done and wore good clothes and spoke in loud voices and smiled. Irja went in last and the manager looked her up and down and asked her all kinds of questions: where was your last job? where were you before that? where are you registered? what’s your address? are you Miss or Mrs? Heaven knows what they would have got round to asking, if Irja had made any attempt to answer all that.

Irja had not succeeded in scraping together enough money for the rent, or anything like it. All her money went on food. She ate a great deal, especially when Arska was away, and food was dear. If her landlady had allowed her to cook in the kitchen, it would have cost less. Even at night time Irja would munch a sandwich or gnaw at a piece of sausage as she gazed out of the window at the summer sky and watched the stars come out.

The landlady was huffed at not getting the rent.

“Now is the last straw, I am standing no more, you can go. I take you to court if you not paying all arrears in two weeks.”

Irja told Arska her troubles. Her landlady was going to throw her out. Kept pushing newspapers at her and telling her to try for this job or that job, even for housemaid’s jobs. Wanted her to go round begging for work, and then got angry because she wouldn’t. Now she would have no job and nowhere to live either. Arska listened, his eyes seemed to grow bigger and rounder, his mouth made a movement.

“Too dear, that room of yours,” he said finally. Irja agreed.

“It’s a steep rent. And you say the room’s very small?”

“Ever so. You can’t hardly turn round in it.”

“Clear out, then.”

“But how can I pay off the back rent? She’ll take me to court. And where can I find a cheaper room?”

Arska pondered the question. He sat at the wheel and pondered and the van raced wildly on towards open country.

“Suppose I lent you the money.”


“Yeah. And then … about new digs. Not to worry. We’ll fix something. Leave it to Arska.”

Irja was ready to burst into tears, but that wouldn’t have done at all. She felt so relieved and comforted, she just had to talk. She couldn’t have held her tongue, for the life of her.

“Once I’ve got away from that old hag I shall be free! I can go to the ends of the earth and nobody will know or care!”

Arska was silent for a long time. Ripples of fear crossed his face, and disappeared. After driving another mile or two, he spoke:

“Leave the old woman an address of some kind. Give her some house number that doesn’t exist.”

“What? What sort of a place would that be?”

“Oh, some empty patch of ground between the houses or something. Leave an address, anyway. That’ll stop her making enquiries.” The idea of a non-existent house amused Irja. She giggled at the thought of her own recklessness, and came back to it:

“A house that isn’t there … oh, you are a one … honestly!”

Arska drove on, his lips pursed.

But when Arska gave her the money Irja felt a bit ashamed and embarrassed, because he looked so anxious and unhappy, as though he were regretting it. But she had to take the money. The main thing was, she’d be free of that old woman.


And so Irja said good-bye to the grey-haired widow, who wept and told Irja there was no need for her to leave, now that the arrears had been paid. But Irja was not staying. She replied to the old lady with no more than a sulky murmur, and went on gathering up her things. “Where you now go? What’s becoming of you?”

Irja lost no time. In the evening she stuffed her belongings into a cardboard box which she had obtained from the grocer’s. Into this, in rapid succession, went her three sheets and her two pillowcases, her nightdress, her sauna sponge and soap, the bottle of deodorant she had once crazily bought (as if that would have done any good), and, noisily, the thick-soled boots her aunt had given her when … the dustbin would have been a better place for them, horrible laced-up things. In went her second set of underwear, eaten into holes by her worn-out girdle, followed by her winter stockings and a very tattered pair of woollen knickers. Finally her white aprons and headcloths, the insignia of her profession, disfigured already by irremovable stains, burns, rust-marks and gashes. She was surprised how few things she seemed to have: where had everything gone? Once she had had a fur coat, what had happened to that? And lots of nylons. And all kinds of shoes. And a pair of slippers with fur round them. And galoshes, and an umbrella. And she had had some books, and a mirror and some pictures. Well, they weren’t there now. She peered into the cardboard box: world’s whitest whiteness, announced the inscription on the outside. The box was narrow and deep, like a well. Her life was down there, at the bottom of the well … the fur coats, the nylons, the empty dreams. And fear came over her, she froze into immobility as she bent over the box, peering down the well. She listened. The landlady must have left the kitchen, Irja could hear the clock ticking, terrifying in its loudness. She came to with a start and flung the rest of her things on top of the others, tied up the box, pulled on her coat, looked at her dust-encrusted hat, opened the box up again and crammed the hat down the side, all squashed up, so that it couldn’t be seen.

When she took the box into the kitchen, the landlady was there again, standing beside her. “What’s becoming of you? Where you go?” “Can’t say exactly. But here’s an address.” Irja gave the landlady the address Arska had dictated to her, and swelled with scorn and pride. A house that didn’t exist! That was where she was going to live from now on, and they could all go and take a running jump as far as she was concerned.

“Good bye.”

“Well, good bye then, Irja, and I wish for you good luck, a pity only that you …”

The door slammed shut. What was the old fool jabbering on about, what a waste of time. Arska was waiting.

Good old Arska.

It was like setting off on a honeymoon, Irja thought. She felt like laughing, but Arska was serious. What did he have in mind, where was he going to find her a place to live?

It was getting dark already, and Arska was heading for the countryside. He jerked his head in the direction of a greasy-looking paper bag which lay on the seat between them. Irja was rigid with joy, she sat stiffly upright, her breasts swelled blissfully. Her hands groped along the seat and closed possessively over the paper bag. Buttered buns, must be. The fasteners on her ragged girdle burst open as she drew a deep breath, gulping the air into her rejoicing lungs.

They had travelled a long way before Arska pulled up, and in the brief summer darkness they put some coffee on to boil. Arska became talkative.

“And what I can’t stand”, he averred emphatically, “what I can’t stand is the kind of nasty little games that fellows and girls get up to together, you know what I mean, Irja. Now you’re different, I’ve seen that all along. I’m a chap who notices things. You don’t have to be afraid of me. That’s one thing that’s quite certain.”

Irja began to blush, ashamed of her secret hopes.

“We’ll find you some digs all right. Trust Arska, he can always find a good room. Not that such things matter to me, but I know how we can fix it, don’t worry. Now you can make a fresh start. Pay off that sister of yours, so she won’t start kicking up a fuss. And we’ll find you a good job, eh? Good pay. Oh, it’ll be all right …”

Never before had Arska been so nice to her.

Irja broke into a sweat, she felt weak, she could hardly hold the coffee cup. She hummed a tune and smiled to herself, and looked at the cardboard box – her cardboard box – with airy contempt. A landlady like that, and Arska so good to her, so good.

Arska went on talking. And suddenly he remarked that of course there might be another way of arranging the night’s lodging. His original idea had been for Irja to spend this first night in the van, and then tomorrow they would start to look for a room. He had a sleeping bag too, so she wouldn’t get cold, it was a very good thing to have. And there was nothing to be frightened of, she would be all right there. But if she didn’t sort of care for the idea, why shouldn’t she … why shouldn’t she go to his cottage?

“Your cottage? Have you got a cottage too?”

“Not far from here.” Again a ripple of fear crossed Arska’s face. “I drove in this direction, quite without thinking … I’d forgotten it was so near. You can go there if you like.”

“You’ve actually got a cottage of your own. Coo!”

Irja had a mental picture of one of those little wooden shacks she remembered seeing on the lake shores at home in the country. She couldn’t remember exactly what they were used for, shanties she supposed you would call them, built of planks. Arska’s cottage was doubtless something of that kind.

Arska started the van, and they moved off. He was tense. Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead. Irja understood: one doesn’t always want a stranger to see one’s own cottage. The van seemed to share its owner’s agitated mood, now leaping forward, now dawdling, now emitting strange squeaks and groans. They turned off into a narrow lane, almost blocked by overhanging branches, which scraped and banged against the roof of the van as it slowly nosed its way forward, wary as a forest animal, as though probing the track with invisible antennae. It was pitch dark.

The van stopped. Straight ahead, illuminated by the headlights, was a log building. Arska leapt down, seemingly in a hurry. Irja got down too.

“But what a super place. Is it really yours?”

“It’s nothing special.”

The building was on a rock foundation, it had a verandah. Around it there were flowers, large white sweet-smelling flowers, how could they be got to grow on the rock like that? There was a flagstaff too, and some steps leading downwards, and when Irja listened carefully she could hear the sound of the sea.

“Shall we go inside?” Irja asked in a whisper. They went along the path. At one point the path was slippery, Irja’s foot slid forward, and she looked down at the ground, and saw that there was clay on the rock, slippery grey clay. She remembered a field path she had known at home as a child, a clay path, and that too had had slippery patches in wet weather, though when it was dry the clay had been grey and rough and full of little cracks. She felt the touch of the dry clay under her foot, and remembered how she had always jumped over the slippery patches, so as not to get mud on her bare feet. A strange weariness came over her.

Arska rummaged in his pockets. In the glare of the headlamps, his face looked grim. “There now, I don’t seem to have brought the keys with me”, he mumbled. “Never mind, we’ll get the door open somehow.”

Producing a small metal object from his pocket, he went up to the door and fiddled with the lock. The door opened. Arska entered, using his pocket torch, and Irja followed him in.

“Haven’t got the electricity yet, you see … Have to do something about it … but we can get some light from this oil lamp, such as it is.” Arska struck a match and lit the lamp, which had a large glass globe over it.

“Not too good, but never mind.”

The soft yellow light flickered unevenly. Irja saw an open fireplace with a pile of firewood beside it, she saw a table and benches and a glass-fronted cupboard with china in it. A shelf with lots and lots of books. What did Arska want with so many books, she wondered. She began to walk round the room, she felt the shaggy brown bearskin rug on the floor, her heart beat faster. She touched the books, she opened a cupboard door and found linen sheets, some gleaming white, some in pale blue or a child’s bright red, and when she pulled out an embroidered pillowcase, she saw on it the letters E.B.

“Is it really all yours?” she asked in a dreamy voice. “I wouldn’t ever have imagined ….”

“Well, sit down … I’ll light the fire …. You see, I haven’t had this little place very long …I don’t know whether I shall keep it. I might sell it and make a good profit. Let’s get ourselves something to eat, there’s food in these cupboards … there are some tins here. Here’s the gas-stove, in this alcove, look, neat little job. Some bottles here too, we could have a drink. Not that I care for the stuff. But anyway, we can live it up a bit here, can’t we?”

“But where do you sleep?” Irja asked at last.

“Here.” Slowly, very slowly, Arska moved into the hall, torch in hand, and opened another door. “There you are, good place for a snooze, don’t you think?”

The room contained two bedsteads of a shiny, streaky wood, and the beds were made up. The beam of the torch picked out the white lace-edged sheets and the silky yellow coverlets. Irja quivered incredulously from top to toe. She turned shyly to Arska.

“Jesus, it’s beautiful.”

Arska recoiled, as Irja took a step towards him. There was terror in his face as he retreated across the dark hall, taking the torch with him. Irja groped her way after him.

“What’s the matter?”


He had calmed down now, and was standing by the hearth. “We’d better go into town after all. You could sleep at a hostel, I’ll manage somehow.”

“But it would be so lovely here.”

“Come on.”

“But I’d so love to sleep in a bed like that.” Irja’s fat little forefinger continued to point in the direction of the bedroom. She stood there so humbly and beseechingly, a podgy little woman. With a sudden loud roar Arska shot forward, but after taking a single step in her direction he pulled himself up again, and backed away.

“Come on, let’s go.”

“No,” Irja whispered.

Arska’s hand felt for some object in his pocket. He kept his back turned to Irja. His voice shook with rage and fear. “Stupid woman! Rubbishy bitch! Why did I bring you here?”

“No, no!” Irja retreated towards the closed door.

Arska was calm again. “All right, all right. Let’s go. Back to town. You’re a nice girl, Irja. I like talking to you. But human beings are … like wolves, see? … so it’s necessary. Let’s go.”

Arska switched off the torch, closed the door behind them as they stepped out, into the darkness. He was wearing leather gloves, had had them on all the time, Irja realized. They moved towards the van, Irja walking ahead of Arska. Her feet dragged, even her thighs felt heavy, the corn on her big toe had began to hurt, every step became more difficult, the soles of her feet seemed to be glued to the ground. The darkness was like a sack, it was stifling, asphyxiating.

Laboriously she pulled herself up on to the step of the driver’s cab. How high it was, it hurt her back. She heaved herself up, all but losing her handhold when a light shone out behind her. She turned her head and let out a piercing shriek: Arska was there, shining the torch on her, and Arska’s hand was raised, immense in the torchlight. The hand came closer, Irja screamed; the hand seized hold, she screamed again, more feebly.

Translated by David Barrett


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