Letters to Trinidad

Issue 1/1990 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Kirjeitä Trinidadiin (‘Letters to Trinidad’, 1989). Introduction by Suvi Ahola

Elisabet suggested that they should go to the beach. Seppo would have liked to show her the coral, but his wife thought it was too far, and so they decided to go to the beach nearest the hotel.

They hired mattresses and a sun umbrella and found places in the first row, close to the water. The sea glittered, and long, shallow waves rolled towards the sand, like long, even snores. Seppo dozed for a moment, then sat up and, taking his binoculars, focused out to sea. Two warships sailed eastwards through the glittering waves. Egypt, Jordan and the Arab countries all around, Iran and Iraq close by, Libya not far away – it was like lying on a keg of gunpowder!

Elisabet went swimming, and he followed. He carried his wife through the waves, played the life-saver and dragged Elisabet’s apparently lifeless body through the waves. They dived, and Elizabet complained that the salt stung her eyes. They lay on their mattresses and when Seppo glanced at her, he felt again the sharp stab of desire, and would have liked to make love, but had to content himself with caressing her thigh. When his desire became too great he covered himself with a rowel, and Elisabet laughed.

‘Again? You’re insatiable’, she said.

Elisabet said she would go and take a shower. Seppo saw a crawfish in the sand: it had a hollow not far from where they lay. When he stretched out his foot towards it, it disappeared into a hole.

Elisabet came back and lay down on the mattress on her stomach.

‘Have you seen the coral?’ Seppo asked. His wife murmured something – the coral did not interest her – but Seppo went on regardless.

‘Coral is an animal, amazing! It’s made up of thousands of other animals, connected to each other by the stomach. When one manages to grab some sea creature to eat, the whole coral society benefits. The food passes from one individual to the next through their hollow stomachs. And their reproduction is amazing, too. The mother grows an individual out of her side, which is connected to her by its stomach, and this grows another individual, until there are lots of them, and they form a reef. Nowhere else in creation do you find a single unbroken family society, a single symbiotic fortress without the shame of dependence. They’re beautiful, too, incomparable in their reflection of light. But not safe: if you touch them, you can burn yourself or get a spine in your finger. That’s how they protect themselves from external dangers. Marvellous!’

Seppo had spoken with his eyes closed, recounting what he had read in the encyclopedia before leaving home, guessing that it would interest his wife. After all, before setting out she had said that it was because of the coral that she wanted to come here, the underwater life, because the world’s most beautiful corals were in the Red Sea.

He opened his eyes and found that Elisabet was gone. He looked behind him and saw her walking away with swaying steps. He felt faint; had he been in the sun too long?

There was a bar on the beach, a round, straw-roofed hut; Seppo gathered together his belongings and went there. As he approached the door his legs felt weak, and he stopped at the threshold. In the middle of the bar was a circular counter, in front of it some thick-legged chairs. Elisabet was leaning on the counter, talking to a man, the same man Seppo had seen in the hotel bar the night before. There were no other customers. The man was wearing knee-length, flowery shorts; his chest was bare. Around his neck was a gold chain, and on the chain a heart. Behind the counter; another man in shorts was cleaning the coffee machine. He shouted something at Seppo, presumably telling him to leave, because the place was closed. But Elisabet asked Seppo to step in. She was smoking and sipping something from a tall glass; come here, she said, perhaps Amar will buy you a drink, too. Her lips were red, and she smiled listlessly. Seppo stood beside Elisabet and looked at the man.

‘My husband; Elisabet said; Seppo offered the gigolo a sweaty hand. Elisabet said that Amar had promised to drive them around; outside, there was an open-top jeep.

‘What will it cost?’ Seppo asked, and Elisabet translated the question, which the man answered, emphatically: ‘For you, nothing. Elisabet my friend, nothing.’

Seppo let out an unnatural laugh: friend, he thought, what friend is that of my wife’s?

Unwillingly, as if forced by an uncontrollable power, he got into the car. Elisabet sat next to Amar, Amar put on a pair of mirrored sun glasses and smiled. Seppo noted his sharp, pointed teeth.

‘Let’s go’, said Elisabet, and threw her cigarette on the ground. The man started the ignition and the car screeched on to the road.

They drove away from the town, passing the harbour and the half-built hotels against the cliffs, the tourists lying on the beach and the little beach restaurants and cafes, drove onwards until the landscape began to empty, until finally there was only the sea and the barren red earth. They were driving fast; the man’s expression was tense.

‘Where are we going?’ asked Seppo, but got no answer. He leaned backwards, thinking that despite everything the landscape was impressive, and that it was better to sit in the open jeep than to scorch on the burning beach.

They came to a junction and turned on to a gravel road which led to the desert. The sea lay behind them; in front were increasingly high, rough cliffs. In a moment they were in a canyon, a narrow gorge.

For the sake of asking something, Seppo asked what the cliffs were made of, was it chalk that made them so pale in parts? Or salt? Elisabet shrugged her shoulders; Seppo remembered Lot’s wife and did not think it impossible that the rock should have a high salt content.

The road led uphill, with a sharp drop to the left, and enormous blocks of stone stranded as if after an earthquake.

‘Just like on the moon!’ Seppo shouted. Elisabet did not react.

‘Just like on the moon!’ he croaked.

On the plateau a pleasing landscape opened up over the desert. The Red Sea was only a narrow, shining band. The landscape was desolate and lifeless, rocky and parched, the mountains receded in waves and folds into infinity. Was this where the Israelites wandered for forty years, was this where Jesus and other holy men after him struggled in the wilderness with only snakes and scorpions for company? Unbelievable!

The road became narrower and rougher; no one had passed them for a long time. The sky was bright and cloudless; Seppo looked at his watch and wondered how far they were going to go. It was lunch time and he, at least, was hungry; he had left breakfast untouched that morning. Finally the man braked; at a point where the road broadened he turned the jeep around and stopped. He got out of the car; Elisabet followed him and they walked together to the bluff. The silence rushed in Seppo’s ears, and he could hear his heart beating. The sky was dazzlingly open and bright, far above the misty, hazy mountains.

He, too, got out of the car. They stood side by side. The atmosphere was reverent, and at the same time tense. Amar knelt down and pointed to something on the ground. It was a scorpion; Seppo took a stick and began to inspect it, and did not notice when Elisabet and the man went back to car. He had never seen a live scorpion before and, like everything else that lived and moved, it interested him. He heard the engine start, but did not hurry; let them wait a little since we’ve come as far as this. The scorpion clung on to the stick with its pincers, it was a small, colourless, malicious-looking beast.

The car was moving when he rose and looked up. He took a step, and it drove away. When all that was left was dust, he broke into a run, ran a couple of dozen metres and stopped. He stared in the direction the car had gone, saw the dust settle, and heard the noise of the engine die away. Hands on hips, he stared in front of him and looked anxious. Hell, he said, my sun hat’s in the car. The silence was even more intense than before, the sky higher, the space more infinite and his loneliness complete. He began to sing. He did not know many songs, but he remembered a couple of melancholy tunes from school, why should it be they that had stayed in his mind? When the song began to seem too sad, he began another one, more cheerful, whose words he did not know, but which he could whistle. He stopped. He wondered whether he was in danger of death, and what he would do if that happened. He had been alone in the wilderness, spent quite long periods in the forest, but at home, where he knew the conditions and the possible dangers. The biggest risk were the birds of prey, a jackal might leap on him from behind a boulder if he wasn’t careful, or a snake might bite him. He looked upwards; a couple of carrion birds flew across the sky. So he might not be far from habitation, and perhaps, if he was lucky, a tourist bus or other vehicle might drive by.

He set off hopefully, walking along the road and thinking with satisfaction that it was downhill all the way to the town. Walking at normal speed, he would be there in an hour and a half- no, at most an hour.

After he had walked for an hour he realised he was lost. How was it possible, he could have sworn that he had been following the road the car had driven along. But now when he looked around him the sea, which he had used to give him direction, was no longer visible. He began to run back the way he had come and, realising that the landscape was the same everywhere he looked, panicked. He fell and hurt his knee, then got up and decided to calm down and be reasonable. After ten minutes he came to the crossroads and realised that was where he had taken the wrong turning.

The sun burned hot. He tore a sleeve from his shirt and made it into a hat, but soon the wind blew it off. The road was stony and the surface was soft under his feet; walking was hard work. He could not have imagined that walking in the desert was so hard.

Two and a half hours later his face was bright red and his eyes glassy. The road seemed to have no end. His knee hurt, but he did not notice it any longer. For the last hour an image had forced itself into his mind again and again, and there it was once more, Elisabet in front of him and him strangling Elisabet. The more he strangled her, the greater his enjoyment. He wanted to banish the image from his mind and began to sing again, he must not give way to despair now. It was enough that one member of the family was mad, and that was undoubtedly Elisabet. But again he was strangling her, and this time the feeling that went with it was so strong that he dropped to his knees and cried out in anger. Recovered, he looked around, and again it seemed he was lost. He turned back, and walked for an hour before he found the right road. He was dizzy, he was staggering, he felt sick. About ten metres ahead of him he could see a woman lying on the ground. It was Elisabet, and when he came closer he could see she was dead, someone had attacked her and probably raped her, because her groin was bloody and her legs twisted into an unnatural position. There were dark marks on her neck and her tongue was black and, lolled, swollen, out of her mouth. He heard the croak of a bird and looked away; when he looked back at the body again it was gone. He continued on his journey and began to sing, decided to persevere and sing through all the songs he knew, and the ones he didn’t know, he would make up the words, he wouldn’t give up; and so he sang like sometimes in the army on a long march with the last of his strength, sang on even when he could no longer make a sound, but went on singing in his mind, sang with all his heart, until at last, at evening, a little after six, as the hotel customers were sitting down to dinner, he staggered, half unconscious, through the dining room door.

Vainikainen and his group had arrived back from their trip to Sinai and were sitting at the back of the dining room; Elisabet was eating with Amar at the next table As Seppo stood in the doorway he saw them at once, first Vainikainen’s bright, clearly defined form, then his wife and Amar; the man was wearing Seppo’s pale summer suit. There was a ringing in his ears; could they be filled with sand?

Dimly he realised what he must look like. After the long hours of wandering in the desert, his skin was burnt, his face blistered, his eyes glassy, his lips dry and parched, his knee bloody. His clothes were in tatters; his shirt was missing a sleeve. But he gave a friendly smile as he met the gazes of those around him; a waiter stopped, astonished, in front of him, but he carried on, wove his way between the tables and sat down beside Elisabet.

The first thing he noticed was a stain on the suit Amar had borrowed; it was from last summer, when he had dropped some bilberry tart on it in the market at Hakaniemi. He tried to tell the story, but could not get a word out of his mouth. His throat was dry; Elisabet poured him a glass of water and he tried to take it, but closed his hand on air. The glass fell and shattered on the floor, a waiter came with a broom and swept the broken glass away and gave him a new one. This time he succeeded, and drank glass after glass.

Elisabet and Amar were eating their main course, but he had to admit that he was not hungry. The whistling in his ears had become a rumbling. He turned and met Vainikainen’s gaze; Vainikainen looked strangely pale. Seppo smiled, and wanted to ask how the trip had gone, but could not speak. Marja Lavén, further away, nodded to him embarrassedly, and generally his travelling companions seemed silent and serious as they looked at him. He wanted to say some­hing encouraging, something like, well, we survived in spite of everything, but he couldn’t. Instead he raised his glass as if to drink a toast; but no one drank with him.

‘Idiot’, said Elisabet.

He felt cold. Elisabet pushed her plate away and drank wine. Her lips were dark red; Amar leaned backwards, apparently relaxed, but it was plain to see he was troubled.

‘How can you come to the dinner table in that state?’ asked Elisabet. ‘You could have gone and tidied yourself up, and then come to eat. I’m so ashamed to be seen with you.’

‘The journey was long and tiring’, Seppo whispered.

‘Always complaining!’

Elisabet poured more wine into her glass.

‘I gave him your suit, you don’t mind, do you?’ she said, in a friendlier tone. ‘He was hungry and when you didn’t come back, I thought that he could come here to eat.’

She leaned forward and lowered her voice. ‘Tell me how I can get rid of him. He’s clinging to me like a limpet. Look how he’s smiling. Try to be nice to us. Arse-licker!’

The waiter brought Seppo a plate of salad. He tried to pick up his fork, but his fingers were too thick and stiff. He shivered with cold and tiredness.

‘Why don’t you go to sleep. I can’t bear to look at you like that’, said Elisabet.

‘Did you want to kill me?’ Seppo asked.

‘Don’t be silly. We just wanted to be alone for a while. You should have hitched a lift, there are plenty of cars on the road. You can’t blame me.’

Elisabet got up abruptly, took the bottle of wine from the table and said aloud that she was sick to death of listening to baseless accusations and that even if Seppo and the assembled company damned her to deepest hell, she wasn’t guilty.

She looked at Seppo and Amar, and in a low voice, very slow, she said:

‘I hate men’, and left the room. Seppo saw her go out into the yard, flop into a deckchair and begin to drink straight from the bottle. Seppo felt sick, the room spun, the ringing in his ears intensified. With uncertain steps he got up and left by the same door as his wife, opened another door in the yard, which led to a corridor; followed it until he reached his room, took a couple of steps toward the window, grabbed the window bars, and glimpsed the turquoise, bottom-lit water and Elisabet lying loosely, thighs apart, with a bottle in her hand, in her face something infinitely comfortless and final, before the world darkened, he fell to the floor and lost consciousness.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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