One night stand

Issue 1/1987 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Stories from Yhden yön pysäkki (‘One night stand’, 1985) and Unohdettu vartti (‘The forgotten quarter’, 1986). Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

At the beginning of November it really started to freeze. A month earlier than usual. There was little snow to speak of, but the ground froze hard as bone.

Tamed by hunger, reindeer clustered along the roadsides and on the village outskirts. Many of them ended their misery by flinging themselves under the timber-lorries in the evening dark. Bony and bloody carcasses littered the ditches and field-edges.

Then the snowstorms came. It snowed without stop for nearly two weeks. At times the whole landscape was reduced to a white line. Snowdrifts mounted round the houses and up the snow fences. The reindeer carcasses lay about under the snowbanks, waiting for spring.

At the beginning of January it was minus forty degrees centigrade. The villagers’ minds went back to wartime. The dog howled in the yard, coat and muzzle rimed with frost.

On the ninth of January Matti started the tractor in the yard; it was an hour before the engine warmed up. Elli despatched him to the shop to get oatmeal for the cows and macaroni for the humans.

Matti said not a word. He took his gloves and cap from the stove and set off out. He hadn’t uttered a syllable for over two weeks. Eat he had done, and drunk coffee.

At the shop, the hairs on his chin bristling with rime, he hauled the sacks, the oatmeal and the macaroni, onto the tractor platform. He looked earnestly, deeply into the shopkeeper’s eyes, but gave no nod as the shopkeeper rattled on.

‘He’s always the same, that boy, Elli’s eldest. A right proper lad!’ the shopkeeper said as Matti started up and turned onto the road.

Matti’s ears were freezing like hell. Practically ten miles, and only one person coming the other way: an old biddy with a sledge. Day was at its height, the landscape a funeral cortège.

He turned on to the home road. Two miles of wild forest, and tiny patches of field. The early-dawn snow lay soft on the narrow potholed road. Matti pressed hard on the accelerator, his face numb. One front wheel bumped into a snowdrift. Cursing enough to send the spit flying, he kept at it backwards and forwards until it was nearly dark. The wheels sank deeper into the soft snow. He switched off the engine and let the sweat freeze into drops on his cheeks: 21 years for nothing.

Matti walked smartly into the yard. Lights were on in the living room, the cowshed dark. Not yet six, then. He went along the tractor-tracks into the stable, took a thick towrope off the wall and walked snowy-booted through the dark entrance to the cowshed and into the hayloft, threw his gloves on the floor and climbed onto the top of the highest haystack, fastened one end of the rope to the top rafter and made a knot. He checked three times to see that the knot held, chucked his cap angrily onto the floor, put the noose round his neck, took a running start and jumped.

He died immediately. The corpse was already frozen when Elli found it after the evening news.

From Yhden yön pysäkki (‘One-night stand’, 1985)


The doll’s house had three walls and two floors. It was at face-height on the top shelf of the bookcase and was the first to get the brilliant frosty-morning sunlight.

The room was tiny. A light white bunk-bed filled the middle of the floor; under the window there was a table covered with make-up and knickknacks. And the bookcase with its doll’s house, where all thirteen dolls slept, each in its own little bed.

They slept a restless morning-sleep on the white bunk-bed, wrapped in each other’s arms. Their long fair hair intermingled, and their sweaty legs were glued together.

They woke after twelve. No point in going to school now. They lay on their backs, and the boy’s hand slowly found its way to the girl’s little breasts. They made love, as they did every morning and every evening. The girl handed him a toilet roll and threw the wet squeezed-up paper into the corner.

The boy’s face was worried and sad, the girl’s face was completely without expression.

The girl leaped up from the bed, and covered her skinny figure in black clothes gathered up from the dusty sweepings on the floor. The boy lay on his back on the bed and held his breath. He was thinking about all the mistakes he wanted to avoid in his life. The girl put on all her twenty necklaces, gave the boy a disdainful look and began to dress her dolls in their everyday clothes. The boy stared at the playing girl’s absentness and felt the sorrow mounting within him and completely filling him up.

From Unohdettu vartti (‘The forgotten quarter’, 1986)


Through the open window, out of the December darkness, there came the excited shouting of children playing. The boy sat in an armchair and riffled inattentively through a foreign comic-strip book. His face was uninspired and pale, and his well-cared-for fingers were drumming rhythmical breaks on his leather trousers. The room was hot and untidy. Several weeks’ papers lay about among the cigarette ash and dog-ends. The corners were stuffed with LPs and dirty clothes.

The girl lay on the bed and longed for an illness that would free her, even for a few days, from the frowsty thoughts that went round and round in her head. At six her mother came home, went straight to the fridge and ate some cold chicken, standing by the draining-board, rinsed her fingertips in hot water and switched a coloured picture onto the television screen. Precise German tones began to shriek from the box.

The boy closed his comic strip and threw it onto the floor beside the water jug, turned to the girl and allowed tears to well into his eyes. The girl fled deeper under the quilt and felt great joy at the thought that the end of the world was at hand.

From Unohdettu vartti (‘The forgotten quarter’, 1986)


The room was dim and hot. Indistinct horror-video images were flashing in technicolour on the gray lino. The girl was sitting in an armchair and smoking a cigarette; the boy was further away on the bed, very quiet. Mother was off to the country for the whole of July. The fridge was empty, and the dirty dishes in the sink were nurturing their own microfauna in the yellowish water. The girl’s face was exceptionally white, and the boy looked scared day and night. The girl got up from the armchair and walked uneasily over to the boy. She grabbed him by the toe and squeezed hard.

‘You’ll never ever go away from me and mother, will you?’ she said in a frightened voice. The boy smirked and cleared his throat anxiously.

‘No,’ and jerked his foot out of her hand.

From Unohdettu vartti (‘The forgotten quarter’, 1986)


Then it was winter, and the snow covered the streets and pavements with slush. A man rang the doorbell early in the morning and woke the woman out of her deepest sleep. The woman got up only half-awake, pulled on a blue dressing-gown and opened the door. The man stepped inside, took off his shoes and coat in the narrow vestibule, and walked across the room to an armchair, as if used to it, and sat down. The woman stood by the telephone table, and the tiredness had instantly vanished from her face. She drew in the belt of her dressing-gown and tossed her long hair over her shoulder. The man lit a cigarette and regarded the woman with sad eyes. Perhaps everything was as it ought to be.

The woman went into the kitchenette and put the coffee-machine on for the first coffee of the day. The man got the newspaper from the telephone table and immersed himself in it. The woman put on a black woollen jumper, a tight skirt, and brushed her hair in front of the vestibule mirror. Then she put a modest breakfast on the low coffee-table and sat opposite the man.

He folded the paper neatly and put it on the floor beside the armchair. The woman poured coffee into two small white cups.

‘When did you get here?’ she asked.

‘Just now, on the first train,’ he said and looked at her with his mouth slightly twisted. His expression was either earnest or slightly ironic. He was troubled and weary and lit another cigarette.

It was still dark outside. The street-lamps threw a yellow light on the row of motionless car-bonnets. The yard was empty and the early rush hour had not yet started.

‘You still haven’t got a phone.’

‘No, I haven’t.’

They drank their coffee in silence. He kept glancing out of the window at the wet view in the front yard.

‘You can stay here the night.’

He nodded and allowed something rather like a smile to come onto his face. What she had said was obvious. She got up from her armchair and went to the kitchenette.

She was tall and slim. He looked at her fine legs that disappeared into her tight skirt. She pretended not to notice.

‘Here you are. The keys.’

She handed two keys to him and smiled. The faint odour of sleep and strong coffee hovered in the room.

He went to the lavatory, put his shoes on, took his coat and left.

After eleven in the evening he came back. The yard was as wet and dark as when he left in the morning. It was quiet everywhere, nothing was moving, except on the motorway, which ran behind the neighbouring block.

She was sitting in an armchair, watching a late-night movie on the small portable television set. She was wearing white pyjamas, a blue dressing­ gown and pink slippers. Her face looked delicate and calm. She had the beauty of midnight in her hands. The man took a glance at himself in the vestibule mirror before he went to sit down in an armchair. The bluish glow of the television was playing in the middle of the floor. The far corners were in darkness. He lit a cigarette and blew the first smoke straight upwards towards the matt-white ceiling.

‘Something to eat?’ she asked and turned to look at his gloomy face.

‘No,’ he said and stared at the television.

She opened her mouth to say something but shut it quickly. They watched the programme to the end.

‘You can sleep on the sofa.’

She stretched to get clean sheets and a blanket out of the vestibule cup­board. He studied her figure without turning his head. His hands were large and heavy. His lips thin and boyish. She made the bed and rolled the blind down.

‘I go to work at six. I’ll leave a thermos of coffee, and there’s stuff in the fridge.’

He nodded and squeezed his tired eyes shut. He hid his face in his hands for a moment and then took his jacket off and put it on the back of the chair. She went to bed, leaving her blue dressing-gown on the armchair. He switched off the table lamp, sat on the edge of the sofa in the dark for a long time before he undressed, put his clothes on the chair and perhaps fell asleep.

He woke up with a start sometime after noon. He lay on his back stupefied for another half-hour and smoked two morning cigarettes. It was nine months since he’d last slept so soundly. The sleep had done its work, and his head felt clearer. He dressed and took a long look out of the window, where a red-coated woman in the yard was impatiently watching her child toddling in the slush. The cloud was one grey curtain covering the whole sky from top to bottom.

He went to the lavatory, washed his face and brushed his teeth. He straightened his bed carelessly, drank two cups of black coffee and went down in the lift. In the yard he went past the red-coated woman but didn’t give her a glance. He took the shortcut to the bus along a little path and shivered alone in the cool breeze. The bus was slow in coming, and as it braked it skidded to the stop. On the way it got stuck at the lights every time and wound along narrow bits of street between the high, lifeless blocks of flats: a ghost town, right up to the market square at the centre. He gazed out of the window and shoved his hands deeper into his overcoat pockets. He found the town all too familiar. In the town centre he went to a kiosk and bought a newspaper. He went paper in hand into a cafe, glanced over the pages, and sat sunk in thought with a determined look on his face.

Before one, he glanced at the clock, bought some cigarettes from the counter and walked to a telephone box. After his call, he went back to the cafe and ordered sausage, egg and chips. The proprietor took a look at him from the kitchen. The man didn’t notice. He ate rapidly and then disappeared into the city din.

The woman was cooking in the kitchenette when he arrived back at the flat after seven. He went to the kitchen door and smiled in an offhand way. She was clearly irritated. They ate minced beef and potatoes. He drank three glasses of milk.

‘How’d it go?’ she asked somewhat compulsively, as if dreading his stay would become extended.

‘Taking its own time,’ he said, reading her thoughts precisely.

He felt a lot better than he’d done for months. She appealed to him; the more laconic and cool she was the more he liked it. She sort of liked him but she was disturbed by his gloominess. She did know that she’d nothing to fear. The two men had known each other for years. There was something about the man that weighed her down, that made her go silent and feel the flat was too small for two.

‘Have a shower, if you like, and borrow some of Harri’s clothes. I could wash your own clothes,’ she said after they’d eaten. It seemed like her duty, since there was still a lot of the old debt unpaid.

He nodded and a pleased look went across his face.

She got an appropriate suit of clothes out of the wardrobe. He was a long time in the shower and reappeared wearing Harri’s clothes. She was watching an American film about the good and the bad. He smoked a cigarette and absent-mindedly riffled through old magazines. The film ended with a hideous tune, and she washed up.

‘Friday tomorrow – I’ll be back earlier,’ she said and went to bed via the bathroom.

He nodded and went on sitting in the armchair while she dropped off to sleep.

Friday morning she woke after five. He was still sleeping, with Harri’s clothes on. His face looked tired even in his sleep.

It was after seven when he came out of a heavy sleep. He listened to the radio till the end of the news, then got up, dressed and glanced out at the yard. It looked cold and frosty. He went to the lavatory and shaved. He examined his face; it didn’t please him. He’d have liked to look a little more alert and fresh. He’d have liked to smooth away all the wrinkles from under his eyes.

He clattered about in the kitchenette and managed to get a couple of cups of coffee ready. After ten he caught the bus to town. The temperature had dropped another degree below zero. His hands were cold and his toes freezing.

In town he went to a phone box, spoke a bit and went to a cafe. Jaska arrived twenty minutes later. They sat by the window, drank beer and talked desultorily.

‘How long you planning to stay?’

‘Long as I have to.’

‘Where you staying?’

‘At Harri’s place.’

‘Everything OK?’


There was a suspicious expression on Jaska’s face as his eyes moved over the other’s face and hands.

They chatted for another minute or so in the cold outside the bar before separating. The man caught the bus back to the flat, where he settled into an armchair, flicking through old photograph albums. Most of the pictures he didn’t recognize. He sat and waited. People hastened to the bus stop and back.

Jaska turned up at quarter to five and handed him an envelope. The man smiled and thanked him. Jaska refused a cigarette and a cup of coffee and left looking depressed.

The woman returned after six and pulled a bottle of Bacardi out of her bag.

‘Here’s to you!’

He concealed his amusement.

‘I’ll be off back in the morning on an early train,’ he said and took a sip from his first glass. ‘Jaska’s taken care of everything O.K.’

‘When’ll you get out?’ She was swallowing uneasily.

‘April. Then go straight out of the country. Jaska’s fixed the money and the tickets. Got them today.’

Evening was penetrating into the room. Cigarette smoke was drifting lazily towards the kitchen.

‘Harri asked me to do everything you say, as…’ she broke off for a moment. ‘I got a letter from Harri. They may let him out in June.’

‘Don’t need to do a thing – this is just between Harri and me because we’re mates. I help Harri today, take half his sentence. Tomorrow perhaps, he’ll help me.’

She looked even more uneasy, and they sat for a long time sunk in their own thoughts. She was feeling despair at having to get ready to live most of her life alone, even though she was married to a man she loved.

She broke the heavy silence: ‘Anyway, I will help you if you need it.’

He nodded and grinned.

They drank the bottle empty, chatted a bit about the years gone by and watched the late-night football.

In the morning he was up earlier than she; he changed back into his own clothes and shaved. She made coffee.

‘Maybe we’ll move out of the country too,’ she said.

‘Harri’ll know what to do when once he gets out,’ he said and went to the door.

‘Till April, then,’ she said, as he opened the door to go.

He glanced at her sadly and ironically and closed the door behind him carefully.

From Unohdettu vartti (‘The forgotten quarter’, 1986)

Translated by Herbert Lomas


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