Notes related to pharmacist Pemberton’s holy nectar

30 June 2000 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Vådan av att vara Skrake (‘The perils of being Skrake’, Söderström & Co.; Isän nimeen, Otava, 2000)

At the time of Werner’s stay in Cleveland Bruno and Maggie had already been divorced for some years, and in an irreconcilable manner. But they were still interested in their grown-up son, each in their own way; Maggie wrote often, and Werner replied, he wrote at length, and truthfully, for he knew that Bruno and Maggie no longer communicated; to Maggie he could admit that he hated corporate law and bookkeeping, and to her he dared to talk about the raw music he had found on the radio station WJW, he wrote to her that the music of the blacks had body and that he had found a great record store, it was called Rendezvous and was situated on Prospect Avenue and there he had also bought a ticket for a blues concert, wrote Werner, he thought that Maggie would understand.

Bruno was not a great letter-writer, he sometimes dropped a line to Joe McNab on abrupt postcards in which he asked Joe to report on his son’s progress in his studies, that was all. On the other hand, he sometimes telephoned, transatlantically and intercontinentally, it was a complicated and expensive and easily interrupted procedure that most often consisted of father and son being silent together at a distance of almost 10,000 kilometres from each other.

When Bruno discovered by letter that his son, the Latin scholar and athlete and student of law, had by some strange means got hold of a ticket for a Negro concert and had also used it, he immediately booked an international call to McNab. When the call came through it was afternoon in Helsinki and early morning over there in Cleveland. After some preliminary questions and laconic replies and a period of silence accompanied by cosmic crackling and the roar of the mighty Atlantic between them, Bruno came to the point: ‘I’m not paying for you to stay over there to be beaten up by Negroes, Werner,’ he said. Werner was silent, then he said: ‘So Uncle Joe has been gossiping.’ ‘I wouldn’t call it gossiping,’ retorted Bruno. ‘You live with him, he’s responsible for you.’ ‘I’m a grown man, Dad,’ said Werner bitterly. Through the crackling and the roaring of the waves he could hear his father take a deep breath, then Bruno said slowly: ‘Uncle Joe also writes that you’ve given up your course in company law. “The boy is a bit whimsy, he seems prone to follies,” he writes.’ Then Werner lost his temper. ‘I’m not a bit interested in company law, Dad,’ he said, ‘and I’m not a boy. I’ll be twenty-one next month and I’m going to start choosing my courses myself.’ ‘Aha,’ said Bruno, who wasn’t used to being contradicted, ‘if that’s the tone you’re going to adopt you can have your birthday here at home.’

If one has a father like Bruno, one’s father’s word is law, and Werner went home from Cleveland early, to a Helsinki that was spring-fragile and windy but no longer so war-scarred as it had been, where people were already preparing for the summer’s great party. He came home via London and Stockholm, Atlantic flights were still a novelty and Werner was scared of flying, he would rather have taken the Queen Mary from New York and then one of the North Sea ferries to Denmark or Gothenburg: it was Bruno who insisted on the outrageously expensive air tickets, he wanted to get his son home before he fell prey to more follies. And thus it was that Werner Skrake and Geoffrey Mulcahy arrived at Malm Aerodrome on the same flight, and after changing planes in Stockholm they actually sat next to each other, but without talking: the only thing that happened was that Werner grunted embarrassedly as he squeezed past Jeff Mulcahy from his window sear in order to visit the toilet.

For my grandfather Bruno the situation out there at Malm Aerodrome must have been a difficult one.

The last plane of the evening, the metal-gleaming aeroplane hulls still coloured faintly red by the dying light, spring dusk, a sky still white with a pale crescent moon hanging like a sword of Damocles over the control tower. There was to be a writing of History, and the whole of the Soft Drinks Company’s board of management was assembled to meet the prominent guest, they were dressed in black suits and well-ironed white shirts and had serious, furrowed warriors’ faces, they were a bilingual elite force that represented the very backbone of Helsinki’s post-war capitalism, they were the men who had paid off the gigantic war reparations in less than eight years. And then the Americans send a young whippersnapper in a tweed jacket and light-coloured sports shoes! And then his own boy, the rebel and renegade, comes along with the same plan, after being away since September!

Bruno observed strict self-discipline. He made a deprecating gesture to Werner as the latter passed by at a distance of ten metres, one of his hands made a swift circular motion around his ear: that meant Bruno was to telephone as soon as he got a chance. Werner nodded and continued his way towards the baggage reclaim. Bruno straightened himself up and then led his cohort towards the aerodrome’s spartan guest rooms, which the Soft Drinks Company had reserved well in advance. He cleared his throat and silently rehearsed the first words of his speech of welcome: board chairman Artwall had sent word to say he was prevented from attending, but Bruno had a feeling that what was preventing him was a blue funk at the thought of speaking English.

Werner got his baggage and then ordered a taxi. He stepped out into the cool spring air, took a deep breath and then rode to his study den on Fjälldalsgatan street in Tölö. The one-room apartment was rented, but Werner knew the tenant and was secure in the knowledge that he could put his baggage there, perhaps he could even spend the night on the sofa. He did not want to go to Bruno’s desolate house on Armfeltsvägen street, and Maggie was in Stockholm for the spring, staying with an old female friend out in Saltsjö-Boo.

Back at Malm Aerodrome, in the Room for the Reception of Prominent Guests, was Bruno. ‘Dear Mr President, dear fellow members of our board…’ he began. Jeff Mulcahy immediately began to laugh. Bruno broke off, and looked in surprise at the new arrival. ‘I’m by no means a president, Sir,’ said Jeff Mulcahy, ‘I’m just a junior executive.’ Bruno hesitated for a few seconds, then he repeated, tentatively: ‘Dear Mr Junior Executive, dear fellow members of our board. It is with the utmost pride that I take this opportunity of saying a few words on this historic night….’

Jeff Mulcahy came to Finland early, almost two months before D Day. His only and all-overshadowing task was to prepare the Landing, it was Jeff who was to see to it that everything went according to plan and that the launch was a celebration to remember. The company he represented was in the habit of carrying out each launch according to a tested strategy that varied only slightly from country to country, the arrangements could at a pinch be adjusted if one encountered resistance in the form of religious or cultural customs, but one was reluctant to do this, the main principle was that one should follow the rules that had been decided by former company director Candler back in the early 1920s, and another principle was that this should be done in the most precise detail.

If the reader is Finnish, he will know what year we are in. It is the glorious Fifty-Two, a magical year, a year that will soon be transformed into a myth. The last trainloads of reparation deliveries to the Soviet Union are leaving the railway stations, chugging away towards the eastern border pulled by proudly belching locomotives. The last ships fully laden with heavy machines and timber are leaving the harbours of Åbo, Helsinki and Kotka and are setting course for Leningrad, at the same time as the remnants of Zhdanov’s Control Commission are leaving the Torni, Socis and Kämp and the other downtown hotels and their bars. The outsides of the Olympic Stadium and the Stadium Theatre have been freshly painted white, in Kottby and Otnäs stand the modern one- and two-room apartments of the Olympic Village, waiting with their corrugated iron balconies and their greyish zinc sinks. The new Olympia Quay has been opened, as has the Palace Strand Hotel, streets have been asphalted and new bridges have been built. Miss Armi Kuusela is returning in triumph from the Miss Universe contest in Manila, and at the Borgbacken Amusement Park the Sailors’ Quartet is singing and the black hair of the gypsy tenor Olavi Virta is pomaded and combed back as never before. ‘It’s over,’ the citizens of Helsinki say to one another that spring, solemnly but with relief, they don’t particularly care about the fact that there is a war in Korea or that a bleached brunette called Marilyn Monroe is voted Covergirl of the Year, while the Rosenbergs sit in Sing-Sing waiting to be sent to their deaths, they just see the sky arching in such a deep, intense blue above their town.

Into all this festivity Jeff Mulcahy also fits, flexibly, entirely, like a hand in a glove. He belongs to a nation that an ever increasing number of Europeans, among them Finns, want to get closer to and identify with (even though as yet very few of them have a command of English as good as Bruno, who took private lessons in his youth, and Werner). What is more, Jeff represents a product of great symbolic value, even though that value is as yet far from being at its maximum, something they also know at headquarters ‘over there’. In short: while Jeff Mulcahy guides and governs before the Landing he is given a treatment worthy of a king. The members of the Soft Drink Company’s board of management and those closest to them (except for Maggie, of course: she is exercising her right of divorcée and will have nothing to do with the whole business) turn out in force, there are private dinners in luxurious apartments in the residential area of Eira and in Munksnäs and on Granö island, there are gin & tonics and whisky sours in the bars of the best restaurants and after the drinks there are reserved alcoves with lobster au gratin and T-bone steaks ordered off the à la carte list, there are long evenings at the sauna at Fiskartorpet Hotel and at the out-of-the-way Hvitträsk, and there are weekends out on the Borgå and Ekenäs archipelagos, with more saunas and grilled spring herring and plenty of schnapps.

But in spite of all this extravagant attention, Geoffrey J. Mulcahy III occasionally wants to be alone. On those days he gently but firmly refuses the invitations from Bruno and the other board members. On those evenings Jeff Mulcahy chases women. He chases them clad in unmatched trousers, open-necked shirt, casual cotton waistcoat and perforated leisure shoes, and he does so with great success. Jeff is young, he is from a very good family, his mother’s maiden name is Vandermeyer and she belongs to the American moneyed aristocracy, and so he avoids all flirtation with the wives, daughters and mistresses of the hospitable board members: he knows that in that world avarice lurks, and also duties and responsibilities if things should go wrong. Instead, he moves about in the city incognito. He introduces himself as Jim Jones, foreign correspondent, and so innocent is the city of Helsinki at this time that everyone he meets accepts the name and occupation without suspicion (except for the Soviet embassy on Fabriksgatan street, which only a week after his arrival has detailed two men to shadow him day and night).

Jim Jones carefully avoids the Kämp and the Royal and the König and the other places where Jeff Mulcahy goes to be lubricated and fed. Instead he quickly develops a taste for the Moulin Rouge and its revue girls, for the jazz restaurant Sordiino down at the far end of Kalevagatan street, and for the restaurants in Tölö and north of Långa Bron.

Once again it was Grandfather Bruno’s turn to attend to the guest’s comfort and good humour. Bruno decided to invite Jeff to dinner and spend the night at his stone summer villa in Råberga.

But before the dinner at Bruno’s took place, something ominous happened: Jeff Mulcahy’s patience snapped. And it was precisely that Thursday morning, when Jeff and some of Finnish Soft Drinks Company’s advertising staff had decided to run through the whole strategy, including the inspection of slogans, posters, transport vehicles and even the assembled corps of drivers, that the large number of unsatisfactory details became to great for him. And yet it was hard to determine what had gone wrong. The trucks were white and red precisely as agreed, and the slogans, commissioned from the Recla-Max advertising agency, had been painted on and were in the right place. But the panel trucks were not… they were Swedish trucks and they were not elegant ones, they made an almost pre-war impression, they did not radiate dynamic free enterprise, they look almost… almost Soviet, Jeff thought. And then the drivers: they stood lined up before him, shoulder to shoulder, all rough-mannered men with creased faces and weary eyes, probably all war veterans as they carried themselves so stiffly and carefully, as though they had grenade splinters in their bodies and had to feel at frequent intervals where the splinters were, exactly. And the slogans….

‘Why on earth have you painted four different words on the trucks?’ Jeff suddenly burst out as he stood in the courtyard facing the Soft Drinks Company’s warehouse far out in Kånala.

The head of advertising, a man in his thirties who shared his surname with the company’s chairman and was his son, came running with a question on his lips: ‘Mr Mulcahy, sir?’ Jeff unrolled the advertising poster he was carrying in his left hand and made a quick check:

‘And you’ve made the same error on this poster. I said two words, remember? You didn’t get that, did you? TWO WORDS! Short and precise, like in the original: Lovely… and refreshing.’

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ said head of advertising Artwall, and then went on stiffly: ‘But Finland is a… a two-language nation, you see. And that must always be… be taken into account.’

‘I don’t fucking care!’ said Jeff Mulcahy sharply (he had rolled up the advertising poster again, he stood drumming it against his left thigh, he was wearing striped trousers but he was no longer in good-natured, he was impatient, he was a man on the way to having had enough).

‘We simply can’t have it like this!’ he hissed, imitating with meagre success the words he saw written on the trucks: ‘Look at this! Höörlit… ööpfrrisckandei. Jesus! There’s no punch in it! And this! Pirrristevei… virrkkistevei…That’s even bloody worse! It’s nonsense! It’s not one bit sexy!…’

‘Everybody has been following your instructions… to the letter,’ the head of advertising retorted as guardedly as he could, looking unhappy.

‘Everybody has WHAT…!’ snorted Jeff Mulcahy, he was furious now, his pupils had narrowed, there was a red flame at his throat and the drumming at his thigh was frenetic, he continued:

‘Can’t you people see we’re trying to sell a fucking lifestyle here? For Christ’s sake…’ – here Jeff cast a glance at the line of drivers, they still stood at immobile attention, none moved a muscle, most of them had had a much worse telling-off on the Karelian Isthmus eight years earlier – and then he shouted, no, he roared, before rushing into the office and the Soft Drink Company’s staff canteen where he was met by the sweet-sour smell of stuffed cabbage rolls and lingonberry jam he roared: ‘…GET ME SOME FRESH YOUNG PEOPLE WITH A PURE, INNOCENT LOOK! AND GET ME A FUCKING REINDEER WHO CAN WRITE DECENT COPY!’

About the intimate dinner at my grandfather Bruno’s home in Råberga there is really not much to be said (and yet it was to be so vitally important for Werner and for me). In addition to Jeff Mulcahy, Bruno Skrake and the latter’s two children there were three more people at the table: the engineer Wiherkaisla, the flawlessly bilingual and also English-speaking director of a firm in the motor vehicle trade, the engineer Wiherkaisla’s wife, and a woman in her thirties who was introduced as ‘Miss Saxelin from the office’ and whom Werner and Mary at once realised was father’s new mistress. Bruno’s housekeeper Klara had followed them from the house on Armfeltsvägen street (he lived there, in two small basement rooms that were put in when the store of firewood became excessive), and Bruno’s driver Mielonen and Reidar Österman functioned as waiters.

Thirty-six hours had passed since Jeff Mulcahy’s outburst of anger, but he still had not regained his composure. Even during the hors d’oeuvres – pickled raw herring with dill and mustard sauce, a selection of herring preserved according to various Eastern Nyland recipes, tiny new potatoes from the year’s very first harvest, beer, schnapps – Mulcahy was sullen and morose, he made ill-tempered comments about Finland, he sighed at the schnapps songs that Bruno and engineer Wiherkaisla intoned, it put a damper on the mood. But the longer the dinner lasted, the less reserved the American became. For the schnapps was strong and the songs were many, Klara’s Vorschmack à la Mannerheim was exotic but none the less excellent, her small Tournedos Rossini were tender and perfectly cooked, the red wine that Bruno had brought up from his wine cellar back there in the city proved to be a full and exquisite burgundy, moreover the daughter was radiantly pretty if also a bit high and mighty, and the son, the hammer-thrower, turned out to Jeff’s surprise even capable of having a baseball chat about Babe Ruth against DiMaggio. And it was because of this, because his despair at the bleak Arctic land where he was staying gradually subsided and was replaced by a gentle warmth in the pit of his stomach and a sense of summer and sea and light in his soul, that towards the end of the evening, over the coffee and the excellent French cognac, Jeff Mulcahy was animated by new thoughts, two thoughts that etched themselves firmly on his inner being, even though at that point he was taking part in the conversation with heart and soul, heartily but well-mannered:

1) That girl there, Mary. She’s completely blonde, even her eyebrows are fair. She is probably a Gold Yellow. But do I dare to try?

2) That lad there, Werner. He smiles a bit strangely, evasively in a way. But otherwise he has the right look. The boy next door, all American: he’s going to drive one of the trucks.

The latter thought Jeff Mulcahy presented to Bruno and Werner that same evening. The other thought he kept to himself, his courage failed him, he did not dare to try, that father did not look like someone to fool around with. And anyway, the girl was so stuck-up.

D Day arrived. The New Lifestyle lay waiting in the warehouse over there in Kånala, hundreds of thousands of litres of it. In the evening Jeff Mulcahy and head of advertising Artwall had rehearsed the routes with the drivers, in the early morning, between four and seven, the crates had been loaded into the trucks, the Meteorological Institute had promised warm and sunny weather: it was shaping up to be a perfect day.

They were going to drive on two separate convoys, and both convoys had the same number of establishments and stores to deliver to en route: eighteen.

The convoys started out from Kånala at 2pm on the dot. The press entourage was enormous, a forest of cameras was raised when the leading truck of the first convoy carefully turned out from the brewery area with its priceless load. Werner was in the convoy that was to enter the city from the north, through the working-class districts. He was truck number 11, and had calculated that he would not get rid of his load until Market Square, as most of the restaurants, cafés and stores that had agreed to take part in the Landing were in the centre, and in the better-off parts of the town: the workers’ movement and its cooperatives had naturally taken a very negative attitude towards Jeff Mulcahy’s laboriously staged show.

It turned out that most of the press entourage, among them the newsreel film unit sent by Suomi-Filmi, opted to accompany Werner’s convoy. They were probably tickled by the fact that it was to roll through the working-class districts, that was the place where they wanted to take pictures and film because that was where the tension was, the conflict in pharmacist Pemberton’s capitalist nectar moving in triumph along the streets and past the houses where people wanted revolution, where people wanted socialism, where people were grieved about Finland having been forced to stand side by side with Hitler during the Continuation War, and where especially the older folk still had bitter and painful memories of the year 1918 and its aftermath.

I won’t go into all the details, I don’t want to revel in things that have already happened. If I were a film maker I would of course do just that, I would begin with a panorama of the red-and-white convoy and the media vultures in its wake, I would show the procession rolling leisurely in along Backasgatan street, its speed is about 30 kilometres an hour, perhaps a little more, it is a warm and sunny afternoon, exactly as promised, and there are quite a lot of curious onlookers along the street. As the procession crosses Sturegatan street I would slowly zoom in on the eleventh truck from the front, I would show the procession continuing down the very gentle slope to the old Varggropen where two tall stone buildings have just been erected, but then I would concentrate on the important, the inexplicable thing: how truck number 11 slowly and almost with dignity begins to swerve to the left, how the driver doesn’t seem to notice what is happening, how the truck and its driver have the misfortune to swerve out from the road just where there is no pavement kerb that can stop the debacle, make the driver wake up and notice what is going on. By a pedestrian crossing on Backasesplanade Werner drives out, he avoids hitting a mighty lime tree, he slides over the tram-rails, he still doesn’t notice anything, then the tram comes over from Tavastvägen street, there is a threat of frontal collision, the tram diver almost stands on the horn, the sound is piercing and Werner wakes up, he makes a violent swerve to the right and avoids the tram, but when it has passed he swings just as violently to the left, probably stepping on the accelerator as he does so: the red-and-white delivery truck again slides over the rails and first touches a traffic sign, then drives into a tree, after the impact the shrill, crunching sound of thousands of bottles being broken continues to be heard, for a few seconds it drowns out the monotonous droning of the trucks’ engines, then the whole convoy stops, only Werner’s truck still idles, in a few more seconds he turns off the engine, then clambers forward out of the driver’s compartment, his forehead bleeding profusely and his left arm hanging limply at his side.

That was the picture all the newspapers published. The scene is even preserved in an old newsreel, accompanied by a spirited voice, typical of the time, saying, in Finnish: ‘Oops! A lot of fine soft drinks are going to waste here. But it could have been worse. And at the wheel was the son of a prominent man in Helsinki’s business community. Wonder what our driver was thinking of?’

You may perhaps think I am exaggerating when I assert that it was the stigma from that day that subsequently made my father become increasingly shy and retiring, so that he neglected his legal studies and began to dream of writing books instead, so that he began to enjoy life more out in Råberga where he fished like one obsessed and gradually saw to it that Bruno’s functional-style villa got a boiler room and double glazing and extra insulation on the upper floor, so that when Werner later at the end of the 1950s met Vera in Stockholm (it was the year before Bruno died) there was never any question but that the newly married couple should move into the villa on a full-time basis.

But if that is the way you think, you are probably not a Finland-Swede, nor are you a member of any other small and inquisitive society. Perhaps you even live in Paris or Berlin or some other big city where one can acquire a new identity when life gets to be rough. Or else you live in the United States of America, where one can move to L.A. if one is disgraced in New York, and vice versa.

For it goes without saying that what Werner did that Olympic summer was too visible and above all too unique to be quickly forgotten. My father was eternally… no, there I was about to fall into a linguistic cliché, things would happen later on that would give Werner a new, important role to play: but for many years to come my father had to put up with the role of The Finland-Swede Who Drove The Coke Truck Into A Tree.

Translated by David McDuff


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