Secret lives

30 September 2002 | Fiction, Prose

From Piiloutujan maa (‘The land of the hider’, Otava, 2002)

When we look for a good apartment, a good café, a good place to be, we are looking for a childhood hideaway. We are looking for the wardrobe we used to retreat into when we had been hurt. We will always remember what being there feels like. We yearn for that same illumination, felt by the baby Jesus in Mary’s womb, as the world’s light shone in through the hymen.

the attic

You can hide in the cellar when a pounding bass and Chechnya are missing from your life, when your own body makes you sick and everyday life is bleak and limp – but you can always hide in the attic. The attic is full of the warmth of burnt orange. The attic smells of sawdust. Downstairs someone is talking, the wind rustles through the trees and wasps live in the cracks between the logs in the wall. An attic hideaway can also be like a cage made out of chickenwire in the storage facility of a block of flats; if you furnish it, even this can become a cosy nest.

Everyone has sometimes secretly left the noise of the ground floor and climbed up the stairs towards heaven, into the silence of an attic hideaway. Up there people’s voices sound only faintly. Up there the hubbub of the world outside sounds muffled as if from another time, a time already survived. Up there you can lie down under the loom amidst the smell of old newspapers and faded cardboard wallpaper and listen to how life flows past. You feel light, like in an undertaker’s office in July, with the proprietor sitting eating a cheese sandwich and the sun shining on to the sides of the coffins.

There is no room for large crowds in the attic. The intimate space embarrasses people. Even grown men lose their presence of mind. The attic is for solitude and youth, this is where we learn about sex and existentialism: a 17-year-old secretly returns from the dance, carefully turns the key, climbs up the stairs, opens the attic door, undresses, lies down on the bed and in the darkness whispers, under the covers: ‘Why do all the floorboards creak?’

The father enjoys hiding in the attic too, enjoys escaping his Saturday chores and leafing through a copy of an agricultural magazine from 1956. When he comes back downstairs it is already afternoon, lunch is ready and all is well. The father realises that he is not always needed, that the damage and the benefits which he causes cancel each other out. This knowledge is calming. He is able to go on meddling in family problems for a long time to come.

A good hiding attic is filled with heaps of useless paraphernalia, wrapping paper from the Christmas before the last, old cartridges and a paperback in Swedish, It’s love, Gunilla. It has everything, but none of it affects the present day. There is dust and the smell of old rags; diaries and empty boxes of sweets. There is some field post describing the sight of shreds of meat hanging from the branches of a pine tree on the front line; there is a medical officer’s equipment bag, which was used in the 1960s when a farmer from the neighbouring village drove to the edge of the hay field in a Jawa motor bike and asked to have his aching tooth extracted. There is an old family album and in it a group photograph with a horse standing in the back row. It is looking glumly at the camera.

When you have spent the afternoon in a silent attic and you come downstairs, it feels as if you are coming from afar. The living room is light, outside the sky is high up. The trees stand there boldly. The wind thrashes at the rope on the flagpole – the landscape is full of details. A path leads from the yard out into the world beyond. Life out there is chaotic. Out there, at times we are drivers and at others merely passengers.

On the ground floors of the world, years can pass by for an attic person. When you return to the attic, you recall your childhood. It seems that everything you believe in stems from this place, all stability and strength, everything which makes you get up in the morning. It seems that you would still have got everything we deserve out of life even if we you never once left the attic.

the library

A cosy local library can be a paradise but there are hideaways to be found in a scientific library. Awaiting the visitor are kilometres of austere shelf space, the silence of lonely potplants and a melancholy like that at a long-jump pit in October.

First you should wander as if searching for something, then suddenly grab a book and open it. The title pages waft dust into the air. The surface of the paper is a delicate shade of yellow, the typeface is matter-of-fact, the book’s subject the reception of Catalan women’s writing in Sweden. The book should be stroked tenderly.

As you continue wandering, you know that the world will endure. Humankind is overflowing with love and trust. People do not desire evil, rather, they wish for time and for a safe cell in which to examine matters. When you think about it, it makes you want to huddle in the space between the wall and the shelves. Sooner or later the gentle smell of coffee floats into the room, indicating a well-deserved break for the hard-working library staff.

the second-hand book shop

Many people have stepped into the backroom of the second-hand book shop as devout and relieved as a priest who has just made his way from the nave into the sacristy. Only a handful have stolen a glance into that secret corner of the bookshop’s backroom which is hidden by a curtain. There are books there too. They are strewn in piles on the floor. They look as if they have never had a desirous, sensitive owner. There are loose pages from an engineer’s register, paperback Westerns, histories of rural parishes and E. Tiquette’s work Are your manners impeccable? The ancient scent of oblivion hangs over everything. In the front room, on the other side of the curtain and the wall, life carries on. Competent-looking men are poring over the bargain bins and the door keeps opening and closing.

If you slip behind the curtain into the backroom at closing time on a Saturday and immerse yourself in the books, you can expect a heady weekend. The owner shuts the shop at two o’clock and rattles the door – then there is silence. Now your own time begins. It is worth saving the front room until Sunday; today it is enough to spend your time in the back room delve into the rarities which have fallen down behind the shelves.

How melancholic a little piglet looks as it smiles on the pages of a children’s book in the silent second-hand bookshop. How beautiful is the gloaming of a spring evening as the light streams in through the dusty windows and your ears are filled with the hopeful purring of a thousand books. The authors of the world reach out their hands. You can answer the gesture with a sigh of joy.

The flea market is an obscene place. It cannot offer the calm of the second-hand bookshop. The tables at a flea market are packed full of complete strangers’ lives, the crippled nakedness of pots, pans and video cassettes. In a second-hand bookshop a person accepts things as they are; in a flea market he craves a crystal swan, anything which could swallow up his confusing desire.


When watching a bad film you should keep an eye on the edges, street scenes and interiors, look for something which will while away the time. When you cannot hide, when you are lying on your bed or sitting on the back seat between the wrong people, you have to seek hideaways in the details.

A child sees the details. He focuses his eyes on a plank burnt by the glare of the sun and on a fly walking along it. There is only silence and the faint buzzing of the fly. The world claims him as its own. They are one.

The adult is at one with the changing of the seasons and with autumn, which is always approaching. Only in exceptional circumstances does he find substitute hideaways within the details and remember that there is another reality besides this one, in which we do not dash across the streets and worry about tomorrow.

In an autumnal forest, a man trying to come to terms with his divorce stops on the banks of a great ditch. The current is strong, the rushes bend under the pressure and on the surface of the water flow small bubbles of air. The man stares at a bubble as it skates past on the current and disappears. He wonders what kind of existence this is, the existence of an air bubble living in the dark waters of a forest ditch, first bright and inevitable and then completely gone, disappeared. He is startled by these thoughts. Now he can continue his journey.

In a room in a hospital even a pen can help. It does not betray the hospital’s sorrows. A white pen with a logo brings into the room the same natural peace as the view from a ridge out across the lakelands. A hider can feel safe in this peace. With this protection, he can follow what is happening to him.

During the morning rush hour a business planning manager glances at a solitary pine tree by the side of the road and recalls the clemency of nature. His soul remains in that pine tree as his Volvo and his haste continue their journey towards Helsinki.

At the social services office someone looks up to the ceiling into the air conditioning pipe and sees in its neglected contours a sense of brotherhood. From up there by the pipe the person watches as his body steps humbly up to the desk to submit his form.

A father on his way to a military refresher course notices a battered old toilet-paper dispenser in the bus-station lavatory and places his heart upon its cover. There the heart will await the father’s homecoming.

Substitute hideaways can be found everywhere. Anywhere an innocent nut and bolt or a skirting board can catch your eye and lead you somewhere else, just as an ecstatic accordion player can disappear into the beyond.

When the mind is at rest and does not need hideaways, silent details radiate an aimless longing; at times like this you look at the window hook or a button on the sofa with empty eyes. This does not matter either, you are already elsewhere by then: a part of a great international fraternity of those staring into emptiness.

Translated by David Hackston


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