The situation in Narva

Issue 4/1993 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Pakosarja (‘Exhaust manifold’, WSOY, 1993)

We went into the building where Voroshilov said the waitress had disappeared. Inside was a big room lined with wooden benches. A tin-clad stove radiated heat. Someone had shut the dampers too early, probably out of meanness; it had that kind of smoky smell.

A corridor led from the room, with a few doors off it. We peered inside, but there was no one to be seen. There was nobody in the entire building. We left.

We walked across the railway yard in what I thought was the direction of the train. We heard the sound of the engine long before we could see anything through the snowstorm. At regular intervals the engine’s pressure valve let off steam. Voroshilov went for a leak. He leaned against the engine’s big back wheel and watered the lever, which had been left in the down position. The liquid ran down the engine’s rounded flank. The snowflakes melted as they fell on to the black casing of the water-tank.

The lowest step of the saloon car was as high as a man’s thigh. It wasn’t intended for mounting from ground level. I looked at Voroshilov trying to climb into the carriage and realised that it simply wouldn’t work. I told him to wait and struggled on to the bottom step, and from there into the doorway. I fetched the conductor, who was stuffing chopped birchwood into the stove. He pulled and I pushed. We got Voroshilov inside.

I took Voroshilov into the sleeping compartment in the hope that he would pass out. He lay down on the coverlet, which was decorated with winged wheels, the old railway­ company logo, but instead of passing out he began to sing.

Voroshilov had a grand voice, and he sang for a long time. I suppose they were revolutionary songs. I recognised some of them. I’d sung them myself. Voroshilov stopped singing and began to hum, and then, jerking his head towards the wall beside him, asked what that was.

It was a circular hardwood disc, about ten centimetres wide, with a red velvet disc at its centre. I said it was for a watch. Voroshilov did not understand.

I took my watch from my pocket and hung it from the little hook on the oaken surround of the watch-cushion. Khorosho, Voroshilov grasped the principle. I told him that when the war reparations were being settled, a member of the Soviet delegation had asked the Finnish representatives the same question. When they heard that the puck on the wall was for hanging watches on, the Soviet side demanded watches to hang on them. The Finns had a job to lay their hands on two hundred pocket-watches. Voroshilov laughed.

Voroshilov kept slapping me on the back: what we Finns and Russians have in common is our generosity and our sense of humour, he guffawed. I said it was a good job it was the Finns the Soviet Union had beaten in the war, and not the Swedes, for example; they were a dull and stuck-up lot. Voroshilov guffawed.

Voroshilov got up and insisted that we must have liquor at once to drink a brotherly toast, and then another in honour of the good and friendly relations between Finland and the Soviet Union, and a third to the success of this project. Then he went into the saloon and searched the same cupboards he’d ransacked half an hour earlier, before we’d gone out after the waitress. There still wasn’t any liquor to be found.

Voroshilov rattled the door the waitress had locked. I told him, again, not to smash the oak door of the cupboard, but this time it didn’t look as if my words would do any good. I fetched some Black Monopol.

There was enough brandy for a couple of decilitres for Voroshilov and a little for me. Vorshilov gazed out through the net curtains. He said it looked like Siberia. I asked him if he’d spend much of his life in Siberia. He started guffawing again and complimented me on my sense of humour.

Voroshilov also praised my sense of direction, and said he’d been sure just now that we’d never find the train out there in that Siberia, but would freeze to death in the dismal railway yard of this provincial town. I told him Tampere was an old industrial town, Finland’s second largest since Viipuri had been ceded to the Soviet Union in the peace treaty. I began to wonder which was the bigger town, Tampere or Turku. Voroshilov began to sing.

I asked him if he knew that Generalissimo Stalin had also spent time in this same railway yard. Who, asked Voroshilov. Stalin, I said, even if he wasn’t a Generalissimo then. When, wondered Voroshilov. 1905, I said.

Voroshilov asked what Stalin had been doing in the Tampere railway yard in 1905. Might have been oh-six, I said. I told him there’d been a secret Bolshevik meeting in Tampere.

By now Voroshilov had drunk all his brandy and was urging me to produce all concealed liquor. He said it was very bad form to conceal alcohol from one’s companions, and that it was particularly unsuitable in the context of Finno-Soviet relations, which were based on mutual trust. If no liquor was forthcoming, Voroshilov would be obliged to break down the cupboard door.

I said the cupboard was government property and I would take measures to ensure that it was not necessary to break into it. I fetched Voroshilov’s coat. He said he wasn’t actually freezing, even if he would appreciate a warming drop. I told him there was no more liquor on board the train, but we’d be able to get some in town.

As Voroshilov struggled into his coat he pulled the lead out of the laptop computer. Its brightly coloured screen went black. I started. I wondered whether Sorri had saved the file.

I plugged the machine in again and the screen brightened. I keyed in the project’s name and the same information came up on the screen: centred at the top, in bold text, was THE SITUATION IN NARVA. Underneath it were different-coloured columns with explanations and a restlessly twisting curve. We went out into the snowstorm.

I’d told Sorri that I would come on this trip in a restricted capacity only. As an expert. And would charge a hefty consultant’s fee for my knowledge of environmental science. I thought, now, that I’d charge more than I’d said.

Sorri and Kuosmanen hadn’t been able to stand Voroshilov for long. At Järvenpää they’d still been laughing and shaking their heads over his talk of Finno-Soviet friendship and co-operation and drinking whatever toasts he happened to propose.

At Riihimäki Sorri had whispered to the waitress, who was wearing a mob-cap and apron, not to bring any more bottles to the table. If Voroshilov wanted beer, she was to give him grade one, the weakest kind. Sorri guessed that Soviets wouldn’t know the finer points of Finnish alcohol legislation.

The girl said she didn’t have any grade one beer. Sorri rang the engine and told the driver to stop at Riihimäki. The waitress was sent out to buy some pilsner from a supermarket Sorri said was just behind the station. The girl was a student in my department: I had recommended her because I knew she was a single parent in need of extra cash.

The train stood at the station for a long time. When Sorri went to the toilet, I followed him. I said that the lavatory could be used only when the train was in motion, but Sorri waved his hands. I asked what he intended to do when we got to Tampere. He said he’d reserved a table at Rosendahl’s, but guessed Voroshilov would have passed out by then.

I said I knew how things were done beyond our eastern borders: Sorri and Kuosmanen wouldn’t be able to get round Voroshilov: they’d have to wine and dine him good and proper, and listen to his stories, if they wanted to get their clients’ sulphur-filters into the factory chimneys of Leningrad and the Baltic. I asked if Sorri realised that the German manufacturer would then have open markets all over the Soviet Union, and whether he’d worked out the size of the bills he’d then be able to put in to his client.

Sorri said he knew all that and I urged him to put up with Voroshilov for just a bit longer. When we got to Tampere Voroshilov was asleep.

Sorri got the train shunted into a siding. He argued with the station-master on his mobile phone about whether a conductor was part of the agreement that he’d made with Finnish Railways in renting the museum train. The station-master yelled back that he didn’t have enough men to wait on Sorri up and down the railway yards. Sorri read the rental agreement out down the mobile phone and said Finnish Railways had agreed to supply heating to the saloon car and as far as he was concerned it didn’t matter how it was done as long as the temperature in the saloon and sleeping compartments didn’t fall.

I asked if Sorri realised that we were in the Presidential Carriage in which Juho Kusti Paasikivi had left for Moscow to negotiate on the eve of the Winter War as the people stood on the platform of Helsinki station singing the Patriotic hymn, or that, after signing the Moscow peace treaty, Kyösti Kallio had dropped down dead in Marshal Mannerheim’s arms on the steps of this very carriage.

Sorri said he’d just about had enough of me, too. He said all he knew was that Finnish Railways had made him a reasonable offer and if this train journey impressed Voroshilov he stood to make a lot of money. Sorri and Kuosmanen said they were going to the disco at Rosendahl’s, where they knew from reading the Aamulehti newspaper that it was ladies’ night.

Voroshilov and I walked towards the market square. On Hämeensilta bridge Voroshilov admired the industrial architecture, which he said reminded him of the united strength of the working class. I told him the Tampere capitalists wanted to demolish some of the buildings and that others were being converted into studio-type working spaces. Was Tampere an important film city, then, Voroshilov asked.

There wasn’t a single bootlegger to be seen in the market square. We bought some black sausage, and Voroshilov queued up for more. Someone offered to sell us some liquor. I didn’t understand much of what he said. Voroshilov began speaking Russian with him, and a moment later asked me for forty marks. He swapped them for a bottle of Stolichnaya.

Voroshilov said his countrymen controlled the trade in bootleg liquor here. I said at those prices it wasn’t difficult. I asked Voroshilov if he was related to Marshal Klimenti Voroshilov. Voroshilov said that the marshal was his father.

I explained Finns knew the name Voroshilov because the tanks named after his father had caused them great damage during the war. When I mentioned that Lenin had been in Tampere and that he had a museum of his own here, Voroshilov wanted to go.

At the Lenin Museum Voroshilov rattled the door. I told him to leave off. I said that in Finland museums were closed at night: we couldn’t get in. Voroshilov went in through a side door. I shut the door and pulled it open. The lock’s tongue slipped out of its cavity, whose edges were worn smooth. Voroshilov shouted out of the darkness.

For the sake of something to say, I told the taxi driver that I was the director of this museum, and that Voroshilov was a foreign guest. We dragged him round the darkened Lenin Museum. In the taxi, fortunately, he woke up.

When we came to the railway yard, the train wasn’t there any more. We set off in the direction of the station. Then I heard my name on the loud-hailer. It said that the Presidential Carriage had been hitched up to the Ostrobothnian express, departing from platform one.

The train started and we put Voroshilov to bed. A woman Sorri had picked up in Rosendahl’s stroked Voroshilov’s bald head until he fell asleep. Sorri and the woman went into the sleeping compartment. I asked Kuosmanen where we were going next.

Kuosmanen said Sorri wanted to go north, to Oulu, 500 kilometres away, but that he wasn’t going. Not on any account. He rang the engine and told the driver to uncouple us from this train and hitch us up to the next one going south.

Kuosmanen went to sleep and Sorri and his woman came into the saloon. He asked after Voroshilov, and opined that everything was going well. The train was on its way north. I didn’t have the heart to say anything.

The train slowed and pulled in at a station. Sorri looked out to see where we were. Shit, he exclaimed. I looked out of the window. We were in Tampere again. Sorri went off to kick at Kuosmanen’s door.

Sorri and Kuosmanen drank some brandy and argued listlessly about where to go next. They ordered the carriage to be uncoupled at Riihimäki so that they could think about it. We all went to bed.

I was woken by a loud thud: our carriage was being coupled to the engine. I went to the door to look: we were still at Riihimäki. The engine was the same one that had taken us to Tampere the day before.

Sorri sat in the saloon reading a paper and drinking Czech beer. I asked where our old engine had reappeared from. Sorri said that we were on schedule again. The time he’d rented the engine and carriage for ran out this morning. To avoid unnecessary extra expense, Sorri had had the engine brought down from Tampere, since it was headed for Helsinki anyway. That way we’d all benefit, Finnish Railways and ourselves, the economy and the environment, Sorri explained.

The polished glass decanter began to rattle against its bakelite cork and behind the window belched brown clouds of smoke. The train set off. There was a strong wind. The weather was getting warmer.

Kuosmanen came into the saloon with the woman. They all started drinking Urquell and asking each other quiz questions from the evening paper. They didn’t get to the end because the woman didn’t know the rules or the scoring system. They spent their time arguing instead.

The little settlements by the side of the track came and went behind the window of the Presidential Carriage. By a level crossing at the Tikkurila paint factory stood an old codger, his foot on the pedal of his moped, staring at our train. Trains like this had driven past in his youth. Except that they’d been longer. They still were longer now, except from ours, which only had one coach and an engine.

Järvenpää, Kerava, Korso: the capital’s commuter suburbs. The railway transported their inhabitants to Helsinki in the morning and back in the evening with the money they’d earned during the day in their pockets. Or even if they weren’t literally paid every day, not even the dock-workers, their credit accounts and Visa cards let them spend their money in advance.

This iron umbilical cord carried energy that fattened these old villages and made them into towns, as if unborn foetuses had received adult features before their birth. The entire trackside between Riihimäki and Helsinki was really one and the same city. But it wasn’t really the city, or the countryside either.

‘What are you thinking about?’ Sorri pushed his face, swollen with beer, between mine and the window pane. I said I was thinking about traffic-flows and their economic and socio-geographic implications. Sorri said he and Kuosmanen and the woman thought they’d go to Helsinki airport and take the first plane. They thought they’d take a holiday. What did I think?

I told Sorri it was all the same to me where they went. Sorri said it affected me, too, because there was an important job I had to do before they could go on their holiday. First of all, Sorri explained, his and Kuosmanen’s wives were coming to meet us at Helsinki station. They’d agreed that. Sorri didn’t think it was proper for him and Kuosmanen to come straight out of the sleeping car with a strange woman before their wives’ very eyes.

So, Sorri went on, they were going to leave the train before it got to Helsinki. I asked how, since we were already at Puistola. We’d just passed the concrete tower blocks of Tapulikaupunki.

Sorri rang the engine and ordered it to stop, but the engine-driver said the inspector would report it at once to his foreman and that would be his, the driver’s, last job as a servant of the state. Sorri asked if it was possible to slow down. The driver said he’d be slowing down anyway at Ilmala. Sorri asked if he could slow down a bit more than usual. There were three passengers in the Presidential Carriage who intended jumping out on to the embankment. The driver replied that it would be better for his prospects as an employee of the railway if he didn’t listen to that sort of talk from a passenger whom he was conveying to his destination, but that the train would certainly be slowing down at Ilmala.

After that Sorri gave me directions as to how Voroshilov was to be sent to the Soviet embassy in one taxi, and I was to take another first to Sorri’s home, then to Kuosmanen’s, and fetch their passports. After that I was to send the taxi to the airport with the passports; Sorri and Kuosmanen would be waiting, tickets for first flight out in their pockets. Having done this, I would be free, and he would owe me a great debt of gratitude. But all this would have to be done very quickly, before Sorri and Kuosmanen’s wives got home and began to wonder who had been rummaging in their husbands’ desks and what key he’d used to get in.

Having explained all this, Sorri threw a crate of Czech pilsner on to the snow­covered embankment and jumped after it himself. He was followed by Kuosmanen and the woman, her skirt flying up around her ears. What happened after that I don’t know. I did hear later that Sorri and Kuosmanen had flown from Helsinki airport to Oulu.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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