30 March 2005 | Fiction, Prose

A short story from Lugna favoriter (‘Quiet favourites’, Söderströms, 2004)

We were in the space age, the age that came and went, the age of space and great dreams, when space was what we talked about and space was what the papers wrote about, and about Vietnam and protests and revolution, in articles precocious and prematurely old children spelled their way through, children living in the mixed forests of the North which had recently been transformed into gleaming suburbs where ink-caps, puffballs and parasol mushrooms still grow in the backyards of high-rise tower blocks. It says in the paper that we humans will soon have to move away, leave the Earth because our planet has become overcrowded and almost uninhabitable, and space and the eternity of space are waiting for us and we have engineers of the highest class who will soon solve such small problems as still remain. It’s not a question of forests of mixed trees or ink-caps or parasol mushrooms or other earthly things, it’s a question of it being too late now, that we must go further, first to the moon and then to Mars and Andromeda and further still, and here are some of the key words and phrases: space programme, space race, Apollo, Vostok, Tereshkova and Glenn. For humanity has dreams, dark mixed visions and a nagging and not easily extinguished sense of life’s inscrutability and greatness, but down here all goes on as before, we kill each other, we kill our fellow men in jungles and marshes, we kill them amid rugged mountains and in snow-clad forests, we poison them and blow them to pieces, we kill them in dark backstreets and in ramshackle wooden hovels and in mighty marble palaces where the bath-taps glitter with gold. Only a chosen few are able to escape, and to do this they have to set off upwards into a coolness, and seek out a darkness and solitude where there will be no anxiety or feelings of guilt. But before they can get there they must face opposition of a magnitude that can only be overcome by a fierce rush of power, and before the rocket can start it sits and breathes out smoke and gases and fire for a good thirty seconds before lifting off slowly and reluctantly as if unwilling to leave its home planet, as if it hasn’t the slightest desire to go, but when it gets under way it travels at incomprehensible speeds over unimaginable distances, it’s only 108 years since Lenoir invented the internal combustion engine and we are already up in space where it’s silent and cool and peaceful, just a little anxiety in case some instrument fails, in case some double safeguard shows itself insufficient, otherwise nothing, just weightlessness and silence, just the oceans and deserts and mountain-chains on the surface of our blue globe. Though let’s be fair: the Chinese, who haven’t been up in space, claim that the Great Wall of China must be visible from up there, but on the other hand they have nothing to say about the visibility of new-built suburbs in the miserable little capitals of small underpopulated countries with frosty climates.

There in the suburb the church is a block thrown down in a clearing in the forest. The inside of the church is plain and cool and high, this is where those who feel sorely tried look for comfort, and she who so often goes away goes there too, she goes there during the periods when she’s at home but she seldom finds any comfort. The tower with its bellmetal clock is a little way from the church, it’s made of cold concrete but the church itself is built of warm white brick, and in autumn just before everything dies there are several days when the Virginia creeper that climbs the church wall is as red as blood. But the shopping centre behind the church is low and dark, and next to the restaurant there’s a steep slide which leads straight down to Hell, or so I pretend sometimes when I want to scare the old women though in fact I just slide down to the open floor of the lower level where the suburb’s dog-owners arrange a dog show every fourth Sunday.

We live in one of the brand-new high-rise blocks which stand ten storeys high, naked and gleaming up on a rock, they look as if they are on a tray but at the same time in a world of their own. From the rock and the high-rise blocks a stone stairway leads down to a copse, and the quickest way to the shopping centre is to take the path which runs through the copse. Though the copse is full of drunks and flashers and future suicides, or so one of the old ladies says, she said it when she was standing in our kitchen crushing lingonberries to accompany the stuffed cabbage rolls she was making, flashers and drunks and suicides are lying in wait there in the woods for small boys she said, they lurk there and spy on the brand-new high-rise blocks, the dazzling white ships, the Flying Dutchmen up there on their rock.

It’s Sunday and my little brother and I are sitting in the back seat. Our car is in a marked parking place in the asphalt courtyard, standing there with the others, it’s Dad’s first car, it’s bright red and its name is Taunus. My brother’s as cute as an angel, so cute you can see his enlarged photo in a shop window right in the centre of the city, in Alexandersgatan Street, an insurance company’s premises, Naturally you want him to pass safely through life? When we drive off I look at my brother, he’s sitting there beside me in his harness and smiling and can’t keep his legs still and is kicking the back of the seat in front of him but this doesn’t matter because the seat beside the driver is empty. We drive past the Varuboden store where I buy penny sweets on Saturdays, and the Elanto Co-op where I stole a cone of fruit drops in the spring and was caught, we drive past the Finnish-language mixed school and out onto the motorway where Dad steps on the gas which makes the engine begin to roar. Dad doesn’t say much, he’s driving, he pilots my little brother and me through the Autumn Galaxy, we swish along down this road every sunday and by now it’s October, with flashes of red, yellow and gold on either side of the motorway, and Dad is deep in his thoughts. Occasionally he changes the music, the cassettes are large and clumsy and he fumbles with them while he drives, and when he’s had enough of Edmundo Ros he switches to Nancy Sinatra who sings duets with a man with a deep bass voice, and one of the songs is called Some Velvet Morning. Dad explains what this means. ‘I know,’ I lie; I don’t know much English yet although I do know a few words and when we had a chance to choose English names for ourselves during the lesson I chose Ted after Kennedy, the one who’s still alive. Dad’s music is nearly always big and resonant, as if he really likes gaudy colours and festive things though his own life is hard-working and modest and very quiet. On Sundays as we drive along the motorway he sometimes asks questions he thinks I can answer, or tells me things he thinks will interest me. ‘D’you think IFK will do well in the league this winter?’ ‘The French and English have built a supersonic plane that’s going into service next year, it’s called Concorde.’ ‘Did you know the Americans are going to build two giant towers both exactly the same which will be more than 400 metres high?’ ‘Where?’ ‘In New York. Lower Manhattan.’

This Sunday’s no different from others. We stop about halfway, drive off the motorway and then go several kilometres along a narrow winding country road to say hello to Uncle Errol and Aunt Sylvia. Uncle Errol isn’t my uncle and my brother’s but Mum’s, he’s a sheet-metal worker and was in the war, but Errol came back though both Mum’s and Dad’s fathers never did. Errol and Sylvia live in a cottage in Esbo, and Errol has grenade splinters in his body and the splinters go round inside him and sometimes push themselves out, making tiny sores in his skin, sores that hardly even bleed. Errol built his sauna entirely by himself and he’s particularly proud of the stove, he likes to make it burn and burn till it’s a hundred and thirty degrees Celsius or more. Dad and I go out naked into the garden to cool our smarting skin, but Errol goes on sitting there and ladles water onto the stones and calls out that anyone who froze at the front during winter in wartime can never be too hot. Aunt Sylvia is Errol’s wife, she’s a deaconess and has the kindest eyes I know. This Sunday she cuts slices of a cake and serves coffee as usual, but before we sit down at table she draws Dad a little to one side and asks him something in a worried tone, and Dad mumbles an answer and shakes his head in a resigned way. ‘Those poor boys, poor things all of you!’ exclaims Sylvia but is immediately embarrassed and puts her hand over her mouth. ‘Why not take your little brother and go out into the garden before coffee, you can pick some pears for yourselves, here’s a basket for you,’ she says to me in a kind voice, so we do what we usually do, my little brother and I, we go out into the garden, and the air is fresh and clear and the sky seems very high and the colours sparkle, and we pick pears, I pull them from the branch and give them to him and he drops them into the basket and looks pleased. By coffee-time Dad and Sylvia have said all they have to say, everything’s as before and as usual Uncle Errol tells about the time several years ago when he and Sylvia went to Norway for a holiday and stayed in a sportsmen’s hut up on Holmenkollen and saw the famous Finn Mäntyranta skiing, and this time too Errol says something he’s repeated again and again ever since that week on Holmenkollen, he says Oslo at night looked like a glittering jewel designed by a sick and restless soul, and though I don’t really understand this it sounds beautiful. Aunt Sylvia always hushes Errol when he starts talking faster and his eyes burn, but Dad has said that Errol’s really a poet, it’s just that he grew up in a lengthman’s cottage in Bennäs and then worked all his life in a shipyard, he’s been starved of impressions and ideas and sometimes this makes his brain boil, says Dad.

When we’ve left Errol and Sylvia and returned to the motorway and driven a good few kilometres further on and arrived and been able to meet her, she turns away from us with gloomy eyes. ‘It’s not so good just at the moment,’ whispers a nurse to Dad, ‘but it’ll be better soon, you’ll see.’ ‘Oh dear…,’ says Dad helplessly into thin air, ‘Oh dear….’ I keep close beside her then and suddenly I see that she wants, that she really terribly wants…, and she gives a weak smile, not at all like one of her bubbling laughs or like her warm smiles when she’s well, when she can cope, but a smile nonetheless. ‘I’m so fond of you all, I hope you understand that,’ she says to me and quickly ruffles my little brother’s hair, but she doesn’t take him in her arms, she doesn’t touch us any more than that. But when she gets better she will, then she’ll laugh her laugh and hug us and sing Incey Wincey Spider and Ride a Cock Horse again, because one of the old women has promised she will.

When we’re driving home I tickle my little brother under the chin and ask at the same time whether Mum had to rest even when I was little. ‘Of course,’ says Dad, making it sound like the most natural thing in the world, as natural as wanting a revolution or having a holiday one day on Mars or the moon. And we drive on homewards and the evening’s red as fire and lilac, and a strong wind’s blowing as the dusk grows deeper and deeper, and I know there’s a woman with rough features waiting at home in an apron, she stands over the cooker and makes stringy meat with spotty potatoes and stuffed cabbage rolls with lingonberries and she comes from another world, from a world of cowsheds and haystacks and milking stools and dented enamelled buckets, and she speaks a language I can’t understand though Dad says it really is a dialect, and the only thing I want is for Mum to come home and make me spaghetti with minced-meat sauce that I can have with a big blood-red pool of American ketchup.

‘I’m going out to the yard,’ I say to the woman in the kitchen. ‘Do tha so,’ she answers. ‘I’m going out to the yard,’ I tell Dad who’s sitting in the livingroom and reading the newspaper and smoking a Marlboro while my brother crawls about shut up in his wooden playpen. ‘Are you taking your brother with you in his buggy?’ asks Dad. ‘No,’ I say and go out into the dark autumn evening. In the yard there are children playing who speak a language I can’t understand, and they call after me. I take no notice of them and go down the steps, I leave the rock and the white spaceships, I walk around among the redbrick buildings east of the shopping centre, backwards and forwards over patches of grass where I kick the ink-caps which fall apart black and watery, and step on the puffballs which say foff and send out microscopic little astronauts wrapped in a cosmic cloud. In the woods the lunatics and drunks and future suicides are lying in wait for me, they look up towards the shining white high-rise blocks on the rock and nod sadly as they wait for the buildings to lift off. I get tired of treading on the puffballs to free the microscopic astronauts and walk past the brick bunker with its cross and Virginia creeper and the high clock-tower, I go into the dark cramped shopping centre and slide down the shining steel path to Hell where our neighbour’s golden retriever Sandy won The Blue Ribbon a few hours ago. The whole suburb is a spaceship and we’re all strangers here, and when we look at something I see one thing and Dad sees another thing and my little brother a third and Mum a fourth and darker thing, and it’s natural that this should be so, just as natural as it is to make a revolution or take a holiday in space. Everything has its place, everything is natural but a little sad and the truth is I don’t know any-thing yet, I know nothing of the dry autumns and tropical summers to come, and I don’t know that life is to be steered into ever faster grooves, and I know nothing of the towers and walls that are to be built and blown up and built and blown up and built again, as it has always been and always will be. Nor do I know that soon, very soon, I shall myself be grown up and caress the hair of a sad child and say that we all sometimes feel pain and we can’t always know why, but each and every one of us must still try to cope with his or her own life as best we can. For that’s just the way it is, and it’s only natural that it hurts a bit, it’s just as natural as the fact that she who’s away won’t be back for a long time yet, just as natural as going to the dark side of the moon for a holiday, just as natural as me sitting here trying to wipe away the memory precisely through remembering.

Translated by Silvester Mazzarella


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