Oedipus Cleverclogs

Issue 3/1997 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

 A short story from Ammattimies (‘The professional’, Tammi, 1997)

I had just pounded the life out of a couple of Germans when mother appeared at the door of my room, her blonde hair in a bun, in her white nightdress, through which I could clearly see the outline of her figure. She looked at me a little pityingly and suggested that we should go out for a meal at the weekend, just the two of us. I nodded and went back to concentrating on my acts of heroism.

And mother did not break her promise. Although she did not earn much as the junior cook at the children’s home, that did not stop us eating out. She took me to a good restaurant that was right on the harbour, in the shadow of the old steamships. The night before, she had ironed my only white shirt and hung it on a hanger with my terylene trousers. My mother had dressed me in the same outfit on my first day at school. I was decidedly over-dressed that day, but I put a good face on it. Mother’s men must always look their best.

In the morning I dressed carefully and put on the shoes mother had polished for me. Mother was wearing her new, springlike, blue-and-white spotted blouse and straight, dark blue trousers. On her feet she had white strappy shoes. We walked hand in hand along the sunny side of the street, right through the town; lots of men turned to look at us, mother in particular, but I met their glances with a severe expression.

In the restaurant we took a window table for two; through the window I could see a couple of steamships, but I wasn’t interested in them. I thought they were far too old, ugly and small for real ships. The waiter came up to the table to ask us what we wanted to eat. Mother leafed through the plastic-covered menu and chatted with the waiter; I looked around me. The table-cloth was white, the glasses had thin stems, the knife looked ridiculously large, I mentioned it to the waiter, who brought another one without objecting. But I decided to use the original one.

Mother ordered Chicken Alexandra and looked at me. I wanted to eat the same as her, definitely not the Smiling Frankfurters the waiter recommended. If you were supposed to eat chicken and rice in a restaurant, that is exactly what you would eat.

On the television two black men were boxing; the waiter said the broadcast came directly by satellite. I did not understand what he meant by that, and I did not like him, anyway. He poured milk into my glass and remained standing by our table, looking stupid; he smiled at mother who, as always, smiled back. As he left, the waiter ruffled my hair, pushed his smooth face up to mine and said he didn’t suppose this little boy would be a boxer when he grew up. I liked him less than before. I put a white cloth on my chest, as mother directed, and waited for my chicken, holding the cutlery tightly.

Mother smiled at me constantly. ‘What a handsome little beau I have,’ she chirped. I did not join in her little game. ‘How have you been doing at school?’ was her next attempt. I tried to wink, but blinked both my eyes at the same time, and that amused mother enormously. I looked around me: at the comer table sat a bald man with his bouncing wife and two daughters in plaits, one of whom, the one with glasses, glanced at our table. I did not let her know I had noticed her. On the television, one of the boxers was leaping rapidly around the other, who swayed back and forth without sensible direction. I don’t know, somehow they just looked like monkeys.

After an unreasonable time, the waiter brought our food to the table. He wished us bon appetit and disappeared without another word. Mother raised her beer-glass, and I responded with my half-drunk glass of milk. Mother looked as if she was eating with a good appetite, but the same could not be said of me. The chicken was pretty slimy on top, and dry on the inside; I had to pour a whacking great dollop of ketchup on top before I could eat it. I responded to mother’s question, ‘Do you like it?’, by putting a whole forkful of Chicken Alexandra into my mouth.

After the chicken, mother ordered a cup of coffee, and when the waiter had cleaned up my side of the table I asked for some ice-cream. Both came pleasantly quickly. Mother grew serious and looked at me, her hands clasped under her chin.

‘Has dad rung you this week?’ she asked.

I shook my head. The old man hadn’t rung for at least a week. I only really knew him on the telephone, since he was generally away during the week. Once a week he rang and asked whether I was looking after mother. Of course I’d been taking care of her, good care: washed her back in the sauna and given her good-night kisses. Some weekends the old man came home, walked in with giant steps, straight through the kitchen into mother’s room, mussing my hair on his way. The door closed and the giant conquered my mother.

On Saturdays the old man sometimes took me to trotting races, he placed bets and I ate sausages. To finish off the evening we went to the sauna together. The old man looked strong: his forearms were as broad as telegraph poles and his legs, when he stood astride, could have carried power lines; hairy front and back, from top to bottom. I preferred to look at mother. I often looked at the old man in the sauna, when he flashed the week’s official paternal smile at me. Did he think I was stupid?

Mother put the coffee cup down on the saucer. ‘We’ve been thinking, your father and I’, she said, ‘and we’ve come to the conclusion that it might be best if dad didn’t come home any more.’

Mother stopped talking and looked at me. I looked at mother. And?

‘Your father and I have grown so much apart, and because your father is away so much, all sorts of things have happened and we think that … he could always come and fetch you at weekends ….’

So much had happened? Could she be referring to that moustachioed idiot who had been sitting at the kitchen table one Sunday morning when I had crawled out of my room? ‘Is this the little man of the house?’ the guy had begun, but had fallen silent having read my opinion from my lips. After that he had not made another appearance.

‘Your father has some new friend, too … if you think it’s a bad idea, just say so … you don’t have to go there, of course, but it would give me some time off occasionally …. if I could just be by myself, just sometimes.’

Mother swirled her spoon in her coffee and gazed around her. I spooned ice-cream into my mouth and looked at her bright blue eyes and pink skin, the light down of her cheeks. She was well-preserved, for her age; to my calculations, she must already be over thirty. Perhaps she was under the protection of a higher power, so that even her heavy work dare not leave its mark on her.

Mother reached out her hand across the table and took mine. ‘Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?’ she asked, her head tilted, looking sympathetic. I nodded my head. Of course, no panic. ‘We’ll manage all right, as long as we try together’, mother continued.

Mother’s hand was warm and clammy, but it felt good that she wanted to hold mine across the table. We had nothing to hide. The girls in plaits were no longer wasting their time glancing at me; I suppose they realised I was not for them.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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