Between two loves

Issue 4/1999 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

From Se tapahtui täällä (’It happened here’, Otava, 1999). Introduction and interview by Nina Paavolainen

She thought of the period between two loves as a spacious room, full of light, outside whose windows the seasons change unhurriedly. On the walls are reflections of the morning light. There is the sound of piano music; and the number of rooms grows. Somewhere, far away, a young girl, dressed in white, is at the piano; the wind fans the curtains. Slow awakening, the soft rocking of time, the sound of bare feet on a wooden floor. In the air there is the scent of flowers, apples, and the gentle morning breeze, and perfume, and the scent of clean, ironed clothes and furniture wax. The afternoon shadows are long and cool; the pages of a book rustle slowly. Now the music pauses.

How long was it since the day in late November when the woman had come through the forest carrying her black bag, her intention to fetch something and go away, and stayed?

While she had been in the house, the snow had melted, the first rains of spring had watered the ground; now there were buds on the trees, and soon there would be leaves. The town seemed to be growing ever more distant, and when the woman needed something, she drove to another town; it was more distant, and strange, and she did not know anyone there.

The buyers had visited. They had toured the house, said they would get back to her; it had become clear that they were in no hurry, although the estate agent had said they were: they were looking for a place for their peaceful old age, and as they said so they laughed, two young, well-dressed people; the woman had noted their clothes, their shoes. She had sat on the steps, heard the sounds of footsteps upstairs, in the parlour, on the porch, had heard doors opened, cupboard doors and room doors, and seen the buyers walking in garden and going to the sauna and coming back and discussing something they stood in front of the sauna. The child had tried to stroke the cat, had shrunk away. And the estate agent had walked through the house and yard with the buyers and pointed things out, drawing long curves with hands, and the woman had sat on the steps all that time so that the viewers the house had had to avoid her as they went in and out, and she had seen from the estate agent’s expression that she ought to offer them coffee, or even juice, and say something, but she had not done so.

After they had gone, the woman had visited all the places that they had visited, and seen everything differently from before. The loose window bolt upstairs; the split in the sauna floor which had always been there, but now looked threatening, as if the floor would soon crack and fall and reveal the damp, shadowy earth beneath. She had seen her father’s skis in the shed, his old wooden skis, with which he had made his own tracks in the untouched snow, and the bamboo poles, looked at them; there they were, and no one would use them ever again, and unless she took them away those people would burn them on the shore. She had seen her mother’s sewing basket in the parlour, and in it an unfinished piece of crocheting left over from her last summer here; I remember the long, lingering light of that summer, how the shadows lengthened, how it felt when the sun set and darkness seized the world. She touched the crochet-work and could not see what it had been intended to be: what should she do with it, unravel it, wind up the thread?

That evening, the woman had cleaned the house as if it had been dirtied by muddy shoes: she remembered the buyers’ shoes, the sounds of their steps. Then, waiting for the sauna to warm, she had sat in the yard, seen how the spring fog began to rise between the trees. Sheltered by the fog, the birds had begun their song; she could hear a blackbird. As she sat, she leafed through her address book, seeing names, addresses, telephone numbers. At each name she thought what the person was like, what their expression was like when they spoke and when they were alone and thought no one could see them; what they thought, what they did; and erased the name. When she leafed through the book again, all that was left were the emergency number, the number of the police station, and that of the estate agent.

How long had she already been in the house? The snow had melted, spring had come; in the mornings the birds sang in the stand of birches, in the mornings the blackbird whistled; there was a light smell of burned leaves; day by day, the buds on the trees grew. Slowly, imperceptibly, what the woman had come here to fetch was beginning to reveal itself.

On one of these days, the man telephoned: the buyers wanted to come again, this time with an expert, someone who drew up plans for renovations and buildings. All the same, that evening the woman sowed seeds in peat pots – mint, basil marjoram – set the pots in the window, and new that it must be done.

The circle of grief, I think now; that circle drawn around a person, impenetrable: of memories, on which falls a dazzling, vertical light. Slowly, very slowly, the light descends, grows more distant, changes into the ebbing light of evening. Where once there was pain, sadness takes its place, permanently; it is as if it is always the moment on midsummer’s night when the sun disappears from view, and she who is looking out to sea knows that time has shifted; ahead, soon, is the autumn of the trees, winter: soon snow will besiege this summer house, only a moment more of life, and that beyond winter is a new spring, summer, so difficult to imagine, believe in.

Might I take my shoes off, the man said.

There was a heat wave. It had arrived quite suddenly, during the course of a single night: when the woman had awoken, she had seen a white mist over the sea; as she had walked in the garden, she had felt the ground warm beneath her feet.

Of course, the woman said.

For the first time, she had telephoned the man: explained that her sauna stove was broken, and she should come and look; wouldn´t it affect the price?

The man took of his shoes, set the shoes beside one another next to the chair, and the woman thought that his desk must be tidy, papers neatly stacked, pens in good order, and that at home he must use one single plate and glass and wash them up as soon as he had used them.

The man’s feet were pink and swollen; the woman could see the marks left by his shoes and his too-thick socks. The man stretched them out, wriggled his toes, and said: I’m sorry, but it began to feel so suffocating.

Well, I’m not surprised, the woman said. Shoes like that. Then she glanced at the man. He was wearing the same grey trousers as always, but now accompanied by a striped shirt.

I’m sorry, the woman said.

Well then. The man got up, took a few cautious steps on the pine-needle strewn ground. Shall we go and take a look at that stove.

The stove was on the bottom bench of the sauna, partially dismantled: stones, casing, a heavy, cast-iron plate which had been on top of the firebox. A cracked, fragile, firebox lid. When the man tapped it with the sauna ladle, part of it crumbled away. The man bent to look in through the opening: at the bottom of the firebox were damp ash and rusty pieces of iron.

I’m sure we can rescue this, the man said. You should always fill the stove up with fuel as you leave the sauna, so that you don’t get any rust.

Yes, the woman said. She remembered the many years during which the stove had remained unused, thought about the damp autumns and springs and how dampness penetrated and slowly rusted the stove, rotted the window frames, swelled the door.

We’ll need some fireproof mortar, the man said. Can it be repaired, the woman asked; her voice was different from before, helpless; she could not do this herself, and it changed the tone of her voice. It’s not nearly as bad as it looks, the man said.

The woman stood in the doorway. The smell of smoke was still present in the damp coolness of the sauna; the walls were black. She had heated the sauna yesterday; when she had come to add more logs, she had seen how the flames leapt through the stove. Thick, grey, bitter smoke had met her at the door. She had aired the sauna, and then washed in the lukewarm water of the tank; and, standing there naked, soap on her skin and in her hair, gazing at the blackened walls and the cooling stove, she had thought: spoiled.

Damaged. Ruined. And: it happened here.

She had stood there; beneath her feet was cold cement, and through the window had wafted the air of the cooling evening. Had they washed one another’s backs, she had asked herself, first one, then the other, and the question had suddenly taken on extraordinary significance. And she had remembered that it was a long time since anyone had washed her back, and she someone else’s.

She had sat, wrapped in a towel, on the garden chair on which the sun still shone, gazing at everything around her: the trees which, straight, like pillars, rose high; the house, whose walls still seemed to breathe the warmth of the sun; and the grass, which was young and bright; and the sea, which, evening by evening, gathered more light into itself. And she had thought: I must do everything. I must change everything.

She had leafed through her address book, and thought that there would be someone who knew about stoves, and found three numbers: the emergency number, the number of the police station, and that of the estate agent. She had telephoned the estate agent, at home, and told him about the stove, and immediately the man had said he would come next day, like someone who has no work, much time and few friends. I shall come in the afternoon, the man had said; we’ll look at it then. And the woman had remembered that the man’s wife had died, and that they had had no children, and that he drove a lot, was not comfortable in his office or at home: that he was alone.

They came out of the sauna. The man’s feet were cold; the pine needles and pieces of bark outside the sauna prickled them. The knees of his grey trousers were dirty.

As he walked past the shore, he stopped:

Isn’t that the sofa bed that was in the parlour?

The very one, the woman said. They walked past it, the man put on his shoes and socks, and said: But it can’t stay there on the shore. That morning, the woman had carried the iron sofa bed out of the house and to the shore, had carried it even though it was heavy and awkward; its legs had bumped into the door frame, and on the shore branches had become entangled with the wire netting on its base. She had taken the sofa bed to the shore: why? Perhaps she intended to shovel mud over it, or perhaps she intended to leave it to the mercy of the rains of autumn and the snows of winter, to think about it from somewhere away from here, to see it in her mind’s eye disgraced, rusting, sinking into the ground; to see the meadowsweet and cow parsley growing through the netting; to see it disgraced, as it had disgraced her sleep.

I have a trailer, the man said.

The knees of his grey trousers were dirty, blackened by the soot of the stove. You should have put a newspaper down, the woman had said, and the man had shaken off what dirt would come off his trouser-legs: it doesn’t matter. But as he drove homeward, he was not thinking about his trousers or what he would wear to work tomorrow, or the shoes he should buy, light summer shoes, but about the fact that, when the woman had noticed the stove was broken, it was he whom she had rung. Of course he had to be told, and to see whether it would affect the price, but the fact that the woman had, without resisting, also agreed that he should mend the stove, that was what he was thinking about. Didn’t she have anyone, then, he thought; then he remembered how seldom the telephone rang these days, and how he had immediately promised to go, like someone who has nothing better to do, and what a relief it was to feel that there was something, someone, who made his existence necessary: even if only an old stove, and only for a moment. His mind sought a word, and did not find it; soon, he moved on to easier matters, the fireproof mortar he would need to buy, and that he would need to look for a plastering trowel and a decent torch; and trousers, some kind of trousers.

The woman, who was sitting in the wickerwork chair on the porch, knew the word the man was looking for, and did not find, and soon turned his mind to more practical matters. The woman sat, looking at the sea; her hands were in her lap, idle, her position that of a person who does not expect anyone, knows she will soon go to bed and does not think about whether or not she will waken in the morning. The sea before her was calm; mist was beginning to form above its surface now that the sun had sunk behind the crowns of the trees. Later that night, when the woman was already sleeping deeply, the mist would pack itself into a dense raft; it would be visible, even in the darkness, white and glowing; it would lie above the calm water like another sea, its reflection.

My sister came here, the woman said.

One July day, her sister had come. That summer was unusually warm; it was suffocating in the town, and it was quite understandable that she came, and stayed. It was a long time before I realised that she had come in the same way as a child, on Sunday mornings, comes into its parents’ bed and creeps between them, and if the child is a daughter, she curls up with her father’s arm round her or lies on his stomach; the mother lies beside them, she is alone, she has been displaced: the father is the daughter’s. She came and crept between us; I still do not know how it happened, gradually, imperceptibly; it is only now that the logic is apparent, the purpose, just as with that little girl in her parents’ bed; now I can see all the hatred behind what happened that summer. She was between us, she spoke to each of us separately; it was only at the beginning, only on the very first day, that we talked together. The evenings on the porch, I remember them, the moths flying against the window-panes, the candles lit, the already dark July evenings late at night; at first I liked them, those evenings, and then, gradually, everything changed.

The man took a cigarette from the box which was on the table, lit it, looked at the faded towel on the line between the trees and the years of dirt, the pine needles, on its surface. That’s a longtime ago, the man said.

It’s been years, said the woman. Perhaps some things do not grow old, she said, like the hatred that began in the nursery, or envy, where it began I do not know. Perhaps I did something; perhaps it was enough that I was different, completely different. The nursery, two beds against opposite walls; long into the night, above one of them, a little reading light, the sound of pages being turned; in the other, restless tossing, couldn’t you turn off the light now; or the shared desk made by father, cupboards at either end, two chairs, two lamps, a long desk, but never long enough to be able to use it together: one always had to give way.

The man remembered the sofa bed that had been taken to the shore. I thought it would gradually bury itself in the mud, the woman had said. No, it must be taken away, the man had said, he had come to mend the stove, bringing his trailer with him, and there they had carried the sofa bed, to be taken to the recycling centre. Yes, that was why, the man thought.

The child comes into her parents’ bed on Sunday morning, captures her father for her self; and, if the father is wise, he grasps the mother’s hand, secretly. gives her sign – we two, is its message; but if he is not wise, things begin to go their own way, irreversibly, and nothing can be done any more. In the end we could only speak through her, the woman said.

I gave way; I went away, and it happened here. I left when I understood that everything had already happened, been agreed; only the act was missing. What destroyed and finally ended everything had already been done, the ground-work. I remember the day, how my husband took me home; I remember my sister’s expression – oh, are you going already – I remember her voice. My husband took me home and then returned here, I was told later; as my husband arrived here, I was already sitting in a taxi-boat on the way to a fishing hut on a deserted island owned by a friend; it was already the beginning of September.

That summer was unusually warm, the warmest of the century, I had heard it said. In mid August the rains began. They were heavy, endless rains, tropical, it seemed, and she who had come here to escape the heat was still here. I went; she now lives very far away in some other country, so far that we shall never see one another again: we saw each other at my father’s funeral, and her hair, once red, had turned yellowish grey.

Of course you cannot sell this place, the man said. I don’t know. I don’t know, the woman said. And then she said: perhaps I really won’t sell it. The man took a wallet from his pocket, and from the wallet a piece of paper. He threw it into the air; in a moment it glowed red, and disappeared. The sales agreement, the man said.

She thought of the period between two loves as a spacious room, full of light, outside whose windows the seasons change unhurriedly. On the walls are reflections of the morning light. There is the sound of piano music; and the number of rooms grows. Somewhere, far away, a young girl, dressed in white, is at the piano; the wind fans the curtains. Slow awakening, the soft rocking of time, the sound of bare feet on a wooden floor. In the air there is the scent of flowers, apples, and the gentle morning breeze, and perfume, and the scent of clean, ironed clothes and furniture wax. The afternoon shadows are long and cool; the pages of a book rustle slowly. Now the music pauses. Faintly, dulled by the walls, scarcely audible, outdoor sounds can be made out. Gradually they strengthen. The silence of the room is filled with them: its own gentle scents begin to mix with the smell of cigars, exhaust fumes, a man’s sweat: the smell of pipe tobacco, the outdoor smell of a coat thrown onto the back of a chair, and dirty linen, the morning paper, strong coffee and still-warm sheets. Now the cat, which has been lying, replete, on the floor, awakens. The room becomes shadowy, cramped: now it is already full of smoke, noise and smells, the sounds of trams braking, plaster dust, steps and shouts. The walls are thin, powerless. The locks of the doors and windows no longer hold: now the room is open to the night of the streets.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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