19 September 2013 | Fiction, Prose

A short story from Novelli palaa! Matkanovelleja (‘The short story returns! Travel stories’, edited by Katja Kettu and Aki Salmela; WSOY, 2013)

Mum didn’t want to travel abroad. Mum wanted to tend her rose garden and her pea beds, which sloped down the hill towards the lake. In mum’s opinion, the view from the porch was the best view in the world.

Dad wanted to travel. He never got very far, because Mum wouldn’t go. Dad got as far as the neighbouring forest. In Mum’s opinion, there was no better long-haul destination than the lake at the bottom of the slope and the grove around the house, which was full of blueberries and raspberries and, in the spring, morel mushrooms.

In Dad’s opinion, the forest was full of mosquitoes and flies and ants and mites.

On the lake, the loons dived and called on late summer evenings, Mum thought it was the best sound in the world. Beautiful and harrowing, at the same time. The lamentations of the loon demonstrated that a living creature can be so completely happy that its cry is full of grief. Her children’s crying and whingeing and desire to go to the Linnanmäki funfair in Helsinki were, to Mum, a sign that they are ecstatically happy at home.

Little loons, Mum said to us.

Mum was sure that we would learn to value the best place in the world’s if we breathed enough of its unpolluted air into our lungs.

When I wanted to travel, I rowed on the lake. Or pushed the lawnmower up and down the slope.

Now I just have a failed marriage and what’s left of it: debts and three girl children.

One of my brothers became an airline pilot, the other a sailor. My airline-pilot brother says that he would never have travelled so much if he hadn’t had to live in the best place in the world.

I would like to travel as much as he does. If I had the money. Or the education. I still live close to the best landscape in the world.

I visit Mum and Dad every week. Mum is amazed at how the world has swallowed my brothers up. They don’t understand, they don’t understand; you, Virpi, do understand.

Mum has a glass bowl full of sweets.

My girls run around on the lawn, the world hasn’t spoiled them yet. They find joy in the beat of a butterfly’s wing, in a blade of grass.

Dad has a whole squared exercise book full of places. The Arc de Triomphe and the Empire State Building and the Taj Mahal. The Colosseum and the Suez Canal and the Egyptian pyramids and the statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

He keeps his exercise book in the shed under the wasps’ nest, so that Mum won’t notice. Other people keep a bottle of vodka among the logs, Dad keeps his dream trips.

In the middle of the summer Dad picked blueberries and Arctic brambles and heated the sauna every other night. The Arctic bramble is the best berry in the world. It took time to heat the sauna. Dad used his knife to cut pictures out of dolphins and churches and mountains and castles from travel brochures, and stuck them in his exercise book with a glue stick.

It was Dad’s loon book.

When a travel progamme came on television, Mum changed channel. We watched explosions on the news or repeats of Strictly Come Dancing. In Mum’s opinion, even the second time round, the dancers looked like whores or pimps. Foreign countries made people like that.

Mum has the best potatoes in the world.

And cucumbers. And tomatoes.

Dad liked to learn languages. In the end, he spoke Swedish and German and Russian and English and Italian and Hungarian. He even knew a bit of Arabic. Dad kept his language courses in the shed, so that he could listen to his tapes while he was heating the sauna. Sometimes he took his tape recorder into the woods and sat on a lichen-coverd tree trunk, muttering, with a longhorn beetle in his lap.

One day a van appeared in our drive. Small, dark-haired people emerged from the back door and ran, buckets in hand, into the forest. Dad spoke to the driver for a moment and the driver blew into a shiny whistle. The small, dark-haired people clambered back from the forest and into the van. The van curved onto the highway.

They were Thai berry-pickers. Dad knew their language, as well. They were looking for marshland to pick cloudberries by the hectolitre. Dad directed them to the golden hunting grounds in a neighbouring parish.

Dad hadn’t been to the parts he directed them to since he was in the army. But he was able to guide the pickers far from his own home stumps.

Mum was proud that he daughter and her granddaughters lived in the best municipality in the world. The roots of the land are in women, Mum said.

My parents were thrifty. Dry bread was not wasted, or old household appliances, or odd socks. An old, battered paint can could be made into a birdhouse. Rusty wire could be twisted into a fishing lure or a Christmas decoration.

Once my airline-pilot brother gave Mum and Dad round-the-world air tickets as a Christmas present. They would be valid for a year, allowing ten stopovers.

He thought that if Mum and Dad got the tickets, they would have to go. Their conscience would not allow them to waste the tickets.

They didn’t go.

Dad did pack. For both of them. He had been given a suitcase by his colleagues at work when he retired. Mum followed the packing silently, Dad asking her which dresses she’d like to take with her. Fine, fine, Mum nodded. The day before their departure Mum clutched her chest and had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital, she lay there all spring and the doctor told Dad that travel and changes of scene would be very dangerous for Mum’s pinched nerves. Your wife has a tender but delicate heart, which will not bear unexpected changes.

Dad stuck the tickets on the shed wall. They grew old and curly, like woodchips.

I would have loved to go round the world. I could have left the girls with Mum and Dad. I dreamed that when I came back the girls had changed into copies of my Mum.

I would have three more mums. In my dream I could bear it.

What scared me more was that if I once got outside my own country, I wouldn’t want to come back. The girls would just have to spin round the garden among the autumn leaves.

I would become a traveloholic on my first trip.

My airline-pilot brother got angry on the phone when it became clear that the tickets were no longer usable. Mum held her heart. My brother didn’t see her ventricular fibrillation at the other end of the phone network, but shouted and swore some more. Mum said that the world had finally spoiled Oskar. Luckily, Virpi, there’s always you. My golden girl. My little loon. Have I remembered to say it to you often enough?

Mum got dementia.

Dad didn’t want to put her in an institution; he looked after her at home. Mum often woke up during the night, sometimes she got the door open and went out. Dad had to go and fetch her from the grove. He put a GPS collar on her, using it to find her among the rustling aspens.

Love until death, the local priest was moved to say when he heard about Dad’s nightly expeditions.

My sailor brother said that an old man shouldn’t be burdened with continual guard-duties. Put Mum in a home. She’ll be fine when she can live behind locked doors. That’s how she’s lived all her life.

I disagreed. I thought dad wasn’t burdened.

He liked fetching Mum. He perked up as he followed the GPS app on his smartphone and proceeded through the undergrowth. Unknowingly, Mum took Dad on new expeditions. A little bit like Columbus locating the American shore in the misty horizon, again and again.

In the end Mum didn’t recognise Dad any more. She startled when Dad came in from the room next door, or then she stared at Dad with her mouth open, as if she were watching snow falling endlessly. That was when I decided that it was time for Dad to go, alone, on his first foreign trip.

We bought our old dad an air ticket. I mean my airline-pilot brother got it.

I promised to look after Mum. I would move into my childhood home, with the girls, while Dad was away.

My airline-pilot brother said that Dad could choose whatever destination he wanted, Alles in Ordnung. What about Australia, for example? Dad had always liked kangaroos, after all; he called them rabbits on growth hormones.

Dad retrieved his rolled-up notebook from the logpile and leafed back and forth through its brittle pages.

He announced that he wanted to see Vesuvius and Pompeii, which had been buried in volcanic ash

From the loft Dad fetched the suitcase, which he had not unpacked for fifteen years.. That was how long it was since he and Mum had tried to travel over sea, mountain and valley. The suitcase still contained Mum’s dresses and knickers and her bikini, which was so reminiscent of a baseball mitt. The creases in his Hawaii shirt were so sharp that Dad got a cut on his finger.

The collar of his white shirt was lemon-yellow.

One foggy November morning, my airline-pilot brother drove Dad the three hundred kilometres to Helsinki-Vantaa airport. My brother sent a text message to say that, together with a little boy, Dad had ogled the jets, nose to the glass, as they took off and landed. If my brother hadn’t taken Dad by the arm, he would have missed the flight.

Mum forgot my name a hundred times a day. I counted. She thought my youngest daughter was me. She thought my two older daughters were my brothers. Me she mistook for the hairdresser. As the hairdryer purred she exclaimed in wonder at the fact that a moment ago she had wet hair and one daughter and two sons, and now she had dry hair and three daughters.

Boy-girls, I said. Wild creatures.

Mum no longer knew she was at home. She thought she was away on holiday with her daughters. As a young woman. She was on her first foreign trip, in her own home.

My mum thought I was a hotel worker. When I wasn’t her hairdresser.

Dad arrived in Naples on 21 November. In Naples there was an electric blue sky and it was sunny, and a thin line of smoke rose from the crater as if the volcano were smoking a cigarette.

Dad himself didn’t see Vesuvius. He didn’t even get properly out of the terminal before he had a heart attack.

I suppose it was too big a shock to him, finally to be free.

A zinc coffin and transport were arranged for Dad in Naples. We waited for him to come home.

I thought, my head on the pillow, about how much abroad Dad had been able to see, apart from the patch of sky he had stared at from the rye-cracker-sized window of the plane.

Maybe Dad had been able to see the shadow of a Neapolitan palm tree on the tarmac at the same time as his legs gave way. A stork in the sky as he was already lying on his back on the asphalt. Maybe, as he drew his last breaths, he could hear the invitation of the horns of hundreds of motor bikes and Vespas: Come come come with us!

My airline-pilot brother went to meet the coffin at Helsinki-Vantaa. He rang at midnight to say no coffin had arrived. Instead of the coffin, Dad’s unopened suitcase arrived on the carousel. The zinc coffin had disappeared on the journey from Naples to Helsinki.

My brother brought the suitcase home and went to phone the airline.

I unpacked Dad’s suitcase. I found his much-listened-to Italian language cassettes. The tapes were so stretched that buongiorno sounded like the bellowing of a hare-lipped bull.

My brother kept his mobile’s speaker on and demanded immediate action; the Italian airport worker at the other end disappeared on a cigarette break and all that could be heard on the speaker was the clinking of espresso cups.

I felt like a coffee.

My brother kept getting new numbers from the Italian officials, immediate action was to be taken up. By evening he had rung sixteen different numbers. In the morning he had to go and fly himself.

It didn’t bother Mum that Dad was out of sight. She no longer recognised him even in a photograph.

My airline-pilot brother came back after a week. By then I had got, from Naples, Dad’s coffin’s baggage check number. I was able to follow Dad’s movements on the Internet on World Tracker. You can follow lost luggage, or your dead father, for a hundred days. Along with 26 million other lost pieces of luggage. If the luggage doesn’t return home within a year, it is left to circle the troposphere between international airports forever.

During the space of a week, Dad had already visited Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg, the Easter Islands, Delhi, Beijing and Singapore.

I sat with my brother by the computer in the evening. Using the World Tracker finder, we followed Dad’s coffin’s arrival in Tokyo.

Did Dad speak Japanese? my brother asked.

Enough to get by, I said. And he’s practiced the Japanese tea ceremony with the logs in the shed.

My sailor brother came home for Christmas. He had promised to be Santa. After the blueberry cake he disappeared outside, pretending he was going to light the outdoor candles. He lingered a long time in the dark garden; he couldn’t bear to be in the same room as Mum.

Mum insisted she wanted to go to the swimming pool. I didn’t know what the hell swimming pool she was talking about. She squeezed the girls by the hand; the girls bit their lips.

As we waited, in the eternal ticking of the clock, for the knock on the door, me and my airline-pilot brother opened his work laptop. I entered Dad’s coffin’s tracking number. AZ661748. Dad had visited Rome yesterday, and today he was already in Istanbul. In his coffin, he had already been round the world once, and on Christmas Eve he was setting out on a new tour, in the direction of the rising sun.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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