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Eeva doesn’t want to remember. But now she’s forced to return to Finland and confront her past. ‘In Stockholm, everything is bigger and better.’ When Pappa announces the family is to leave Finland for a new life in Sweden, 11-year-old Eeva is elated. But in Stockholm Mamma finds feminism, Eeva’s sister, Anja, pretends to be Swedish and Pappa struggles to adapt. And one night, Eeva’s world falls apart. Fast forward 30 years. Now teaching Swedish to foreigners, Eeva travels back to Finland when her beloved grandmother becomes ill. On the overnight ferry, a chance meeting with her married ex-lover, Yri, prompts family secrets to unravel and buried memories to come flooding back. It’s time for Eeva to find out what really happened all those years ago… Coffee and Vodka has it all: family drama, mystery, romance and sisterly love. If you like Nordic Noir, you’ll love this rich Nordic family drama by the Finnish author Helena Halme. Review: ‘Coffee and Vodka is a rich story that stays with us….with moments of brilliance.’ – Dr Mimi Thebo, Bath Spa University. Review: ‘The descriptions of the difficulties of childhood, sisterhood, relationships and parenthood transcend national borders.’ – Pauline Masurel, editor & writer. Review: ‘Like the television series The Bridge, Coffee and Vodka opens our eyes to facets of a Scandinavian culture that most of us would lump together into one. I loved the way the narrative wove together the viewpoint of Eeva the child and her shock at arriving in a new country, with Eeva the sophisticated adult, returning for the first time to the country of her birth, and finding it both familiar and irretrievably strange.’ –Catriona Troth, Triskele Books. Review: ‘I loved reading this. After picking it up (or opening it on my Kindle I should say) it was hard to put it down; I even missed my stop on the bus to carry on reading.’ – Goodreads reader. Pick up Coffee and Vodka to discover this brilliant, heart-warming Nordic family drama today!
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The English Heart
Also by Helena Halme
About the Author
I was sitting on the wide ledge of the corner window. The pane felt cold against my cheek, even though it was a warm and sunny day outside. It was the fourth week of the summer holidays, and I had nothing to do. Our old flat was outside the town centre, next to a large cemetery, where dark-green pine trees and headstones with black crosses lay behind a thick brick wall. Anja and I would sometimes sneak over the other side of the wall and walk solemnly between the graves, pretending to be looking for a relative, copying the adults as they stooped under the weight of the wreaths they were carrying. My favourite gravestone had a boy’s head drawn on it, and always had a pot of flowers in front of the inscription: ‘Juhani Simberg, 1953 – 1964’. Juhani had been the same age as me when he was ‘crudely taken away from his beloved parents’. I wished I’d known Juhani, but he’d have been 21 by then and unlikely to want to know an 11-year-old girl like me.
The smell of sausages made me turn my head away from the window. Mamma was cooking in the kitchenette. She wore an apron over her light blue trousers. The ribbons at the back were tied with a big bow and she had a white sleeveless top underneath. She wore her straw-coloured hair in a bun, and she smiled at me when she turned her head. ‘Are you alright, Eeva?’
I turned my eyes towards the cemetery again. Then I saw Pappa park his red Triumph on the side of the road. He waved to me and I jumped off the ledge, ‘Mamma, Anja, Pappa’s home!’
Anja was sitting doing her Swedish homework at the table and Mamma said, ‘Anja, can you move your things now. Quick before Pappa comes in! Dinner is almost ready.’
Pappa came through the door and went to kiss Mamma on the lips. ‘It’s all arranged, Kirsti.’ He didn’t seem tired and he didn’t once glance at the mess Anja had made on the table.
‘What’s arranged?’ she asked, her blonde head still bent over the exercise book. She’d flunked her Swedish exam at the end of the year and would have to retake it at the beginning of autumn. She hated Swedish, she told me, but I envied the time she spent with her teacher at the school. I’d have given anything to spend my summer holiday learning a new language with Neiti Päivinen. I wished she’d start clearing up so that Mamma could set the table and Pappa didn’t have to wait for his dinner. The only thing he usually said when he came home was, ‘Where’s my dinner?’ and then Mamma would have to hurry to get the food on the table.
But instead of looking at Anja, and the mess, Pappa came over and gave me a hug. He smelled of aftershave and I noticed that I could touch his shoulders without being on tiptoe. Everyone said I looked much older than I was. I was the tallest girl in my class and had caught up with Anja’s height. I wished I had her curves, though. I was as straight as an ironing board, with long thin legs. Pappa lifted me back onto the window ledge and one of his soft earlobes brushed my cheek. He looked at Anja and then at Mamma. His face looked very round. It had been that way ever since he’d had his hair cut short.
‘Shall we tell them?’ he asked Mamma. His eyes were bright and blue and he was smiling. Almost laughing. Mamma took Pappa’s arm and said, ‘Yes, go on then.’
‘We’re moving to Stockholm!’
Anja and I stared at each other. Anja put a strand of her wavy blonde hair behind her ear and tuned her eyes towards Pappa, ‘When?’
‘Soon. Before you go back to school after the summer holidays.’
‘Why?’ I said.
Pappa laughed and ruffled my hair, ‘Eeva, the “Why Girl”. It’s because I can earn lots more money in Sweden. After just one year we will have enough to buy our own flat!’
‘Wow!’ Anja said. Then, ‘Does this mean that I’ll have to leave my friends here?’
Pappa’s mouth became a straight line, ‘If you mean that junkkari, that drunkard and the other layabouts you call friends, good riddance!’
Anja was thirteen and always knew what she wanted. She got her way because she was very beautiful. Even Pappa sometimes gave into her. She had a way of speaking, saying the right words. I tried to copy her and sometimes got what I wanted, especially from Pappa. But my hair was the same colour as the fur of the squirrels that in winter ran up and down the tree trunks in between the headstones at the cemetery. And it was straight and thin. I sometimes wondered how I could look so different from Mamma and Anja, who were like peas in a pod, although Anja’s eyes were a bit darker. Anja was so grown up compared to me, too. One morning when she got dressed just before the end of term, I’d noticed she had breasts. She told me that on Saturday Mamma had taken her shopping for bras. She’d bought two: one white for sports and one with pink and blue flowers for every day. She put on her new underwear quickly, as if she’d been doing it for ages.
‘All the girls in my class have a bra, have had for ages,’ she told me while I watched her from the top bunk bed.
Anja now crossed her arms over her chest and gave Pappa what he called her cocky look. This, I knew would annoy Pappa even more. I couldn’t understand why she wanted to make him mad. Last week Anja had been caught drunk in the centre of Tampere. Mamma and Pappa came out of the cinema and saw her sitting on a park bench with a teenage boy. Anja had a half-empty bottle in her hand and Pappa said she could hardly speak.
‘I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life,’ Anja had told me. ‘They dragged me away from an innocent walk in the park with my friends. I’ll never forgive Pappa,’ she said.
‘Pappa called the boy you were with a waster,’ I’d said.
‘I know, it’s so unfair,’ Anja replied. ‘It’s only two months till I’m fourteen and then he can’t tell me what to do.’
Mamma now looked from Anja to Pappa and said, ‘C’mon let’s eat. Anja put your books away. It’s sausage soup.’
Mamma was worried about the move to Stockholm. I heard her talking to Grandmother Saara about it when we were standing in her kitchen. Grandmother was painting, and Mamma and I watched her dab tiny amounts of blue, which she’d mixed with yellow, onto the canvas.
‘I don’t know how we shall manage,’ Mamma said.
Saara’s kitchen smelt of white spirit and coffee. She’d started painting right after Vaari died. I missed him too, but Pappa said Grandmother Saara couldn’t be consoled. First she’d painted the walls of her flat different colours. The hall became orange, the small bathroom at the end of the hall yellow. It reminded me of the chicks Saara bought one Easter and raised into hens in her two-bedroomed flat. Pappa just shook his head when we went to visit, while Anja and I held the soft furry things in the palms of our hands.
Saara painted the bathroom with a small brush, creating swirly patterns on the walls. Pappa said he was glad not many people would see that particular room. Saara used a roller on the other walls in the flat. She chose light green for the lounge, and left the kitchen white. Her small bedroom, which had two single beds side by side, though one was always empty, she painted orange like the tiny hall. Pappa said his mother would soon come to her senses and see this was a silly hobby.
‘It’s no hobby,’ she said to me, letting me mix her colours. Sometimes when I stayed with her she gave me an old canvas to paint. Now Saara turned her head away from the painting.
‘But Kirsti, rakas, Mikko has a job to go to that is well paid, doesn’t he?’
‘Yes, but…’ Mamma replied, then saw me and stopped.
‘Eeva, why don’t you go and get some cakes from the bakery?’ Saara said, turning her head away from the canvas towards me.
I worried the colours would dry and be wasted if Mamma didn’t let her carry on painting. The picture was of a very pretty town with stone houses and trees, and a blue sky with white fluffy clouds.
Saara seemed to love Mamma more than Pappa, who was after all her son. They were always talking, Mamma’s blonde curls close to Saara’s black and grey ones. They laughed and smiled at each other when Mamma and I visited. But then, I guessed, everyone had favourites. I knew Mamma loved Anja more than me. And Pappa was always mad at Anja and nice to me.
I looked at Mamma. She was very pretty. Today she was wearing a pair of light-blue trousers and a pale yellow blouse with white spots. Her glasses were dark brown, which she got from her youngest brother, Uncle Keijo, the optician. When they were orphaned he’d been taken by the rich side of the family and had a good education, Mamma had told me. I decided I, too, would get my glasses from Uncle Keijo when I needed them. I wondered if he could send them to us in Stockholm.
Saara’s flat was just a walk through the park from my school. After Anja started at Tampereen Lysio, and left me alone in the junior school, I would walk through the park to Saara’s place and watch her paint.
Often, like today, she sent me down for cakes from the bakery on her street. I skipped down the stairs, deciding not to risk the lift. It jolted at each stop and made me think one of the ropes would give way and drop the cage, with me in it, all the way to the cellar.
The lady in the shop knew Saara and gave me the best Mannerheim cakes, with runny raspberry jam in the middle and soft and warm sponge. My favourites, though, were laskiaspullat, large sweet dough buns cut in two and filled with whipped cream. They were only baked in February for the Sleigh Day, when the streets were slippery and I had to keep to the sanded parts to avoid falling. The round-faced woman behind the glass counter smiled at me when she placed the Mannerheim cakes in a clean, white cardboard box.
‘Tell Saara we’re baking a new batch of rye bread tomorrow morning,’ she said as I took hold of the string loop she’d made for me to carry the box.
Saara, Mamma and I had coffee at the round table spread with a rose-printed cloth and watched young mothers push prams on the street below. We saw older children playing in the sandpit outside her house, or on the two swings. When I was little I used to play there too, and sometimes Saara came down and pushed me higher and higher on the swings. Now they made an awful jarring sound and Saara said they should be fixed or replaced. ‘The little ones will get all sorts of disease from the rust on those iron chains, or get hurt on the splinters from the seats.’
Watching people come and go, like always she told us who they were. Sometimes she waved at someone. She was disappointed if they didn’t see her. She knocked her fifth-floor window so hard, I was afraid she would break the pane.
When we left, Saara squeezed me hard in her large uneven bosom and said, ‘You’re a good girl, Eeva.’ Then she adjusted her artificial breast and went over to the window, ready to wave us goodbye.
The next day Mamma was sitting on my bunk bed helping to pack my books. She said I should take only the grown-up ones, not the baby books.
‘You haven’t looked at those for a long time,’ she said, nodding at a shelf. ‘We’ll put them in the storage boxes – you won’t lose them, they’ll be waiting for us at Saara’s. The white boxes are for storage and the brown ones go with us,’ she reminded me.
Saara would have to take a load of stuff, I thought, and felt good that at least Charlotte, my doll, would be in a safe home with her. It was a baby thing, and I was nearly a teenager, not a child who played with dolls! Besides, Pappa told us we couldn’t take everything.
‘We can buy new things in Stockholm,’ he’d said.
Anja had no difficulty deciding what to take and what to leave. She’d finished her packing the day before and was sitting listening to the radio in the living room.
‘Anja, Mamma needs your help with the cleaning,’ Pappa said.
‘Why should I?’
‘Because it is your room, too!’
‘And Eeva’s. She’s still packing, and the rest has nothing to do with me.’ Anja was looking through one of Mamma’s old magazines.
‘Anja, we are all very busy packing, now please do as I say!’
‘Jag är färdig!’ Anja replied in Swedish.
Pappa didn’t say anything, but sat down on the sofa opposite and picked up the Aamulehti. Anja turned the radio up when a song that she liked came on and Pappa glanced at her over his paper but said nothing. I couldn’t wait to learn Swedish too.
‘It’s a shame you chose English instead of Swedish like Anja.’ Pappa had said when he told us about the move to Stockholm. I couldn’t remember being asked to choose, but I liked my English classes so I didn’t really mind. Or hadn’t until now.
‘How much are you expecting my mother to store? Some of it must be thrown out, don’t forget. Especially the old toys,’ Pappa shouted from the lounge. Mamma looked at me and sighed.
‘I’m going to put Charlotte on the top. I don’t want her in a dark box all by herself,’ I said.
Mamma gave me hug and said, ‘You do that, Eeva.’
We spent the night before going away in Saara’s flat. Anja and I slept on the sofa, top to tail, which Saara called a sister bed. We had to get up very early to catch the first train to Turku, then a ferry to Stockholm. I was very excited but Anja hated waking up early.
Outside it was still dark when we all sat at the round table eating bread, cheese and salami. I had a cup of milky coffee with three spoonfuls of sugar. It was sweet and felt warm in my tummy. I only managed to eat one piece of rye bread with liver pâté. ‘Liver makes you strong,’ Saara said, so I had some even though I didn’t really like it.
‘Anja, aren’t you having anything for breakfast?’ Saara said pouring more coffee into the cups.
Pappa was glaring at Anja. She was sitting at the table, looking like a lifeless doll. Her hair was a mess.
‘Anja, did you hear what your Grandmother asked you?’ Pappa said.
‘Please have just one piece of bread,’ Mamma said, stroking Anja’s back.
Anja shook her body so that Mamma’s hand dropped away. She looked straight at Pappa and said, ‘I’m not hungry.’
‘You won’t get any food until the ferry,’ Pappa said. Anja just shrugged her shoulders.
‘Sit down, Saara,’ Mamma said, and smiled up at her, ‘This is a lovely breakfast.’ Saara sat down at her painting chair with a heavy sigh. She looked sad. Then she got up again and said, ‘I’ll make you a couple of sandwiches just in case someone gets hungry on the train.’
Mamma looked at Pappa and said, ‘What a good idea. I’ll make them.’
‘Don’t be silly, Kirsti, you have to get ready. I don’t have anything better to do.’ Eventually Mamma gave in and we all rushed around the small flat to get our things ready. As I was packing a book into my canvas holdall, I saw the set of colouring pencils and a small drawing pad that Saara had given me for the journey. I looked up and saw her in the kitchen through the narrow hall. She was standing sideways, wiping her eyes with a kitchen cloth. Pappa was still sitting at the table reading a paper. He put yesterday’s Aamulehti down and looked at Saara. She sat down facing Pappa and he put his hand on her arm. I couldn’t hear what he said. Saara got up again and started clearing the plates while Pappa continued reading the paper.
Anja was sitting on the unmade sister bed.
‘What a stupid idea to leave so early in the morning!’ She still hadn’t brushed her hair, nor packed her bag. ‘I read the brochure Pappa has. The night ferry looks really good, they’ve got a disco and everything!’ Anja stood up and said, ‘Not that they would have let us go there.’ She was finally getting ready. Pappa had finished reading his paper and came over to the lounge.
‘Are you ready?’
‘Yes Pappa,’ I said, and looked over to Anja who was examining her bag.
‘Anja?’ Pappa said.
‘Alright, alright,’ she said. Pappa took a deep breath in and went to Saara’s bedroom. I went to the kitchen where Saara was standing at the sink. Her head was bent over and I went to stand by her. This is where I often stood to dry the dishes while she washed up. I had no time to do that today. I looked up at her.
‘All packed?’ Saara asked. Her eyes were red and wet. I pushed myself against her large body and started crying.
‘Eeva, don’t you start me off again,’ she said. I pulled away and looked at her. She was smiling. ‘Soon you’ll be on that ferry and then Stockholm, and you will have a wonderful time,’ she said, holding onto both of my hands.
‘Don’t forget to open up the box and check up on Charlotte every week,’ I said.
‘I won’t,’ Saara said. I hugged her again and thought how warm she was and how soft her cotton apron felt against my cheek.
‘The taxi’s here!’ Pappa said from the door. Everyone started rushing. I went out first with Anja. I ran down the stairs and was at the bottom well before her. I opened the heavy front door and said, ‘Hello’ to the taxi driver. He wound his window down and rested one arm on it. He was wearing a black leather jacket and smoking. He blew puffs of smoke out, making rings with his lips. I watched them rise and then disappear into the air. He turned around to look at me, tapping the ash off the end of his cigarette onto the pavement. His eyes looked small and watery. ‘Hello,’ I said again, but he didn’t say anything.
I turned to look at the lift. I saw the wires moving inside the cage. The lift was slowly coming down. It creaked and I hoped it wouldn’t give way under the heavy luggage Pappa had with him. With a loud thump the lift stopped and Pappa carried the suitcases one by one into the back of the taxi.
‘Good morning,’ the driver said to Pappa. But he didn’t get up to help him with the cases. Then Mamma and Saara came down in the lift. I heard them talking over the luxurious humming of the taxi. I’d only been in a taxi once before.
‘Where’s Anja?’ Mamma asked.
‘I’m here,’ Anja said. She was still coming down the stairs. She looked very tall and grown-up in her cropped trousers and stripy t-shirt. She’d tied her hair back and the end of the ponytail rested on her shoulder. Uncle Keijo had said she looked like Brigitte Bardot. I wished Mamma had let me have trousers like hers instead of a pair of white cotton ones. Mine were far too big for me and I had to roll the hems so that they wouldn’t drag on the floor.
‘We are going to Keskusasema,’ Pappa said to the man. When the taxi started to drive off I glanced back at the door. Saara stood there, large but lonely, her arms hanging loose by her side.
It was as if the lock was trying to tell me something. I didn’t want to panic; this had happened before. Two months ago the key had initially refused to work on my front door. I’d resolved to phone the caretaker, whose offices were an hour outside Stockholm, to make an appointment to have the lock replaced. Of course, I hadn’t. I now cursed myself for being saamaton, one of those Finnish words that were impossible to translate. Neither ‘inefficient’, nor ‘incapable’ came close. The word meant something immoral, like laughing in the face of life and its commitments. As I was thinking of this word, the lock suddenly clicked open and I sighed with relief.
I picked up the pile of post lying on the threshold. I scanned the useless advertising flyers and other junk mail for a long, thick envelope, with Saara’s scrawling handwriting on it, but it wasn’t there. How long had it been since I’d had the last letter? Must be over three weeks, I decided, and then started to worry again. This was the longest gap between her letters I’d known. I thought of phoning her, but by the time I was home it was usually too late. The hour’s time difference to Finland and her habit of going to bed early meant I might wake her up. I hung up my coat and took off my boots. I wiggled my toes on the wooden floor of the narrow hall. My feet in the high-heeled boots had started aching on the walk from the bus stop to the flat. I should have worn something more sensible. I went into the kitchen, a narrow galley-shaped room with cupboards on either side, and made myself coffee. Out of the window I saw it was still light; at last the nights were getting longer. I sat at a round table, which I’d painted cornflower blue. The chairs had been the hardest. I’d used a small brush and the paint had run down my hands. I had the stains on my fingers for at least a week afterwards. I could sit four people, squeezed up, if I had a dinner party. Usually, though, it was just Janne. He often sat opposite me for breakfast on a Sunday morning if he’d stayed the night. He would lean back in my blue wooden chair, reading Dagens Nyheter, while blindly drinking milky coffee and eating bread with cheese. I’d watch his hand come out from behind the paper, looking for his plate or cup. He ate with ink-stained fingers, and I thought of the poisons entering his body through his dirty hands but said nothing. Occasionally, he’d make a comment about something, folding the paper and looking me straight in the eyes, so it was hard to ignore him.
From the kitchen, through a half-open door, I saw a stack of papers sitting on top of my desk in the bedroom. This was translation work I was due to finish in a week’s time and should really work on tonight. The day’s lessons at the Stockholm Language Centre had worn me out. It was strange how differently the foreign students learned the language. Jacob, a man from Somalia, had just moved into the advanced class. His progress had been quick, though he still found it hard to verbalise in Swedish. He’d pick that up once he started working, I thought. He was one of the lucky ones. The exams were all written papers, and he’d certainly get a good mark. Unlike Irina, a dark-haired woman who was 42, like me, and came from Russia. She’d been in Sweden for a year and was a mathematician, but she struggled with the language. Today I’d explained the Swedish sentence structure to her at least five times while the class was chatting in low voices around me. I’d felt like a children’s schoolteacher, like my first teacher in the school in Rinkeby, trying to keep the class’s attention. Irina should not be in my class; how many times had I tried to tell the Head of Learning, Stefan Andersson, that she should be in the beginners’ group? But Stefan, a small man with a flabby body, had to think about his performance figures.
‘Eeva, Irina will soon come along. If anyone can, you’ll teach her the language,’ he’d said, with his smarmy smile, touching my arm as if we were close friends. The looks he gave me made me shiver. Besides, he was a married man with two, or was it three, children? I’d rather have sex with a slug than him. He often made me so angry I felt like spiking his coffee in the canteen those times he insisted in joining me for lunch. I’d daydream about putting my eye-drops in his cup while he wasn’t looking. My old school friend Harriet, who worked as an air hostess for Scandinavian Airways, had told me that the drops gave you the runs. She’d given them to drunk passengers to stop them drinking more.
‘The Finns, you mean,’ I’d said.
Harriet smiled wickedly and said, ‘Actually, more often than not it’s the Swedes these days.’
I’d smiled back at her; she never forgot my roots however much I wanted to.
I thought of Saara again, alone in her flat. Perhaps she was painting a new picture, and had forgotten to write? I opened a drawer and took out her last letter. The envelope felt soft and full in my hands. The lilac-coloured crepe lining rustled faintly as I opened the flap and took out four sheets of writing paper:
Tampere 17 February
My Dearest Eeva,
I hope you are keeping well. You must look after yourself and try not to work too hard. I know all you want to do is help those foreign people, but you can only do so much. I do like the sound of Irina, although I have never known a nice Russian. But I suppose the world is a different place now and we all must try to get on. I’m glad to hear the weather is getting warmer for you in Stockholm.
Here there is still a thick covering of snow on the front lawn but the sun is beginning to warm a little now. In places the ice on the pavements has melted, but then we have a frosty night and are back to winter again. I have been going out to the shops every day, the pavements towards the Konditoria and the bus stop are very well sanded, though Marja next door tells me in town it can be terrible. She says the council have no money and couldn’t care less if old people break their necks walking on the street. It would only save them money in hospital costs, she tells me. Well, you know how she is, likes to complain about everything. When I’ve been to town to get more paints I’ve had no such problems.
I laughed at the picture Saara had drawn in the margin of a woman with a stick, toppling cartoon-like on ice. The shaky writing in green ink, which at times faded to an almost invisible watery mark, made me smile. I put the sheets down on the table and took another sip of coffee, but it had gone cold. If I made another cup, I wondered, would I be awake all night? My thoughts were interrupted when the phone rang.
‘Eeva Litmunen,’ I said knowing it was Janne before he spoke. He phoned the same time every day, about half an hour after I’d got home.
‘Eeva, how are things?’ Janne always asked that, and I wondered what he really meant by it.
‘Shall I come over and cook you something soothing?’
‘I got a nice bottle of Shiraz from the Systembolaget, and I could do my mushroom risotto. Then later I could rub your feet or massage your shoulders…’
‘Janne,’ I said, interrupting him.
‘Yes, what is it?’
‘I haven’t heard from Saara.’
‘She writes every week and it’s been three now.’
‘Why don’t you phone her?’
‘No, I can’t. She’ll just worry and…’
‘I’ll come over, I’m at work, so it’ll take me just twenty minutes to be with you.’ Janne was speaking quickly now.
‘No, really, I’m very tired.’
‘I’ve got some translation work; it’ll take my mind off Saara.’
‘If you’re sure.’
I heard the disappointment in his voice and thought of how he must have looked. Mouth in a straight line, eyes a darker green than normal, his fair eyebrows knitted together, his wiry body tense. Why couldn’t he understand that I had to concentrate on not thinking about Saara and what if?
I looked at my desk. There was dust around the PC, and I went to fetch a cloth from the kitchen to wipe it off. Then I felt the need for some air and went into the lounge where I opened the balcony door. I took in a deep breath. The balcony floor was wet. I thought of the summer evenings when I had sat there having a glass of wine, or beer, listening to the other people around me enjoying their balconies. Soon it would be time to fill the window boxes again. I looked at the empty containers on the floor. Now it was too cold to leave the balcony door even ajar, so I closed it and went back to my desk to start the translating. The outside air had invigorated me. I turned on the PC, took off my skirt and blouse and put on a dressing gown.
Then the phone rang again, and I wished I had one of those machines that tells you who’s calling. I sighed and went to answer it.
‘Can I speak with Eeva Litmunen?’ The voice of an older man asked in Finnish.
‘Speaking’ I said, thinking, I really must not accept any more translation work before I finish the lot staring at me from the desk.
‘Yes,’ I said and in the briefest of moments I knew who this was. I wanted to double over and hold my stomach, but put my right hand on it instead. Holding onto myself like this, I sat down at the desk, waiting. Then the words came:
‘Pappa täällä,’ he said. The voice was soft, as it always had been, a little deeper perhaps, but still silky.
‘Pappa,’ I said, sounding like a little girl.
For a while neither of us spoke. I was thinking, ‘Why is he phoning me, after twenty, no, nearly thirty years, what does he want with me?’ I wondered if I should just put the phone down, but that would be childish, and cowardly, it would confirm all his beliefs about women.
‘Eeva, I’m phoning about Saara.’
‘She’s in hospital and she asked to see you.’
‘What’s wrong? When did this happen?’ I wanted to know everything, I was feeling dizzy and my mouth was dry.
‘I’m sorry to have to tell you this over the phone,’ he said.
I listened to Pappa recite ‘doctor speak’. A stroke, they thought, in the night, two days ago. Saara had improved, but today had worsened, and in a faint whisper had asked for me.
I looked at my watch. If I packed quickly I could make the overnight ferry. ‘I’ll try to get there by tomorrow morning. Where is she, where shall I come to?’
‘You’d better come to my house.’
‘Your house?’ I couldn’t believe his arrogance, why would I go to him?
‘I’ll take you to the hospital, you won’t find it on your own,’ Pappa’s voice was dry, matter-of-fact, ‘It’s Lauttakatu 7.’
It was the same street as Saara’s. I didn’t know they lived close to one another. I couldn’t think straight.
‘I’ll phone and tell Anja,’ I said.
Pappa coughed and said, ‘If it’s what you want.’ Then, ‘You’d better take my number as well.’
After I’d put the phone down and looked at the note I’d made of Pappa’s telephone number, I wondered how he’d known where to find me? Saara must have told him. I had a sick feeling in my throat and ran to the bathroom and retched, but nothing came out. I looked at my face and wondered how I could look so normal. It was the bone structure, the high cheeks, as Mamma used to tell me.
‘I remember when you became beautiful,’ she once told me, years before, ‘you must have been fifteen or sixteen.’
But I knew I wasn’t beautiful, not like Mamma and Anja. But I was slim and tall. ‘Striking,’ Janne said when I asked him why he started talking to me in the Tunnelbana. He told me he’d seen me for weeks on the platform waiting for the underground train, and had taken the same carriage. Eventually he’d summoned up enough courage to approach me.
I washed my mouth with cold water. I went into the bedroom and dialled Anja’s number but got her answer machine.
‘Anja, it’s Eeva. I didn’t really want to say this in a message, but I’ve just had a phone call from Pappa. The thing is, Saara isn’t very well. It’s quarter to six now, I’m taking the ferry over tonight. Ring me as soon as you get this message.’
I put the phone down and covered my face with my hands. How was I going to tell Anja about my correspondence with Saara? They were never close, I knew, but still, if she didn’t come back from hospital, if the worst happened, would or should I tell Anja I’d been in touch with Saara all these years? I didn’t think Anja would want to see either Pappa or Saara now, but she was my sister after all and Saara’s first granddaughter. She’d never hidden her disgust for Pappa, not even when she was younger. Now, of course, we never mentioned him. What a weird, dispersed family we were. But it was all Pappa’s fault, and now Saara was ill. I looked over to my bed. All I wanted to do was to climb in and hide my face in the pillow, hoping it would all go away. But I needed to hurry, I needed to get to see Saara and not think about it, just get organised.
I dug out an overnight bag and put in my toiletries, underwear and a couple of tops. I took my black trouser suit from the wardrobe. It was by Sand, the best one I owned, and made of a fabric that didn’t crease. A travel suit, it had said on the label. As I changed I decided to pack a pair of flat indoor shoes, black courts. I looked at myself in the mirror, which had been fixed to the inside of my wardrobe door by Janne. The suit made me look tall and slim. I’d bought it in the NK designer shop for that reason alone, though at the time I’d told myself it was a practical purchase. When I showed the suit to Janne, he said I should wear the jacket with nothing underneath, he said I would look sexy like that, but I’d never dared. I decided to wear my Clarks short boots with rubber soles and a warm lining. I put on my heavy Ulster. It would be cold and the pavements would be slippery in Tampere.
The lock will have to wait until I come back, I thought as I shut the door behind me and ran down the two flights of stairs. Outside it was raining a fine drizzle and the light was fading. I saw people going about their mundane tasks. On the other side of the road by a cluster of shops, a woman lifted two heavy plastic bags into her car. She slammed the boot shut and then strapped a child into the back seat. A man, hunched up inside his grey coat, was walking a dirty-looking poodle. Putting my bag on the passenger seat of the Volvo, I thought that I should phone the Language Centre. Inside the car I checked for the mobile in my handbag, then for my wallet and credit cards. As I started the engine and turned left onto the Lidingö Bridge that would take me to the Silja Line ferry terminal, I checked my watch again: there were only forty minutes till the ferry was due to leave.
The rain was now falling steadily and there was mist on the horizon. Not many people were travelling midweek from Sweden to Finland by ferry; no other cars were ahead of me as I drove up to a small booth. The girl inside was wearing a blue uniform and her hair was fixed up in a loose bun. When I asked for a single cabin, she didn’t look at me, but at the screen on her desk.
‘You realise you’re paying double for a cabin for one person only?’
She cast an uninterested look at me through her little window. Leaning out of my car I wanted to shout at her that I couldn’t share. I nearly said, ‘My Grandmother is dying, just let me get on board.’ But instead I said, ‘Ja, I do,’ and gave her the look.
‘Here you go then, have a nice trip,’ she said handing me the tickets. Then as an afterthought she added, ‘Drive up to lane six.’
I parked behind a large Mercedes. The sea was calm. I remembered there was only an hour or so of open sea and then nine hours sailing through the archipelago.
There was a knock on my car window. A man in a fluorescent jacket, with a hood, was staring impatiently at me. I wound down the window and said, ‘Yes?’
‘Please drive in, you’re holding up the lane,’ he gestured behind me and I looked in the rear view mirror. A single car was revving its engine, smoking in the misty air. Rain was dripping from the edge of the man’s hood. I said nothing, just started my engine. Ahead of me, another man in a yellow wax jacket waved his arms, guiding me into the dark belly of the ship.
On the passenger decks it was all plush carpet and polished brass. It had taken me a while to get to the right cabin. There were several lifts, but eventually a woman, in a sailor’s suit and wearing an insincere smile, guided me to the right one. The tired, smelly ships of my childhood were long gone, I realised, as I stepped into a blue and white designer space. There was a window at the far end of the cabin overlooking a shopping mall in the middle of the ferry. I opened the door to the toilet and found the old smell still resided in some places. I shut the door quickly, the nausea from earlier on was still there. I looked through the window at the shops and restaurants in the mall. People were walking in twos, holding hands, browsing. I wished I’d asked Janne to come with me. I decided to call him as soon I felt a bit more settled. I read the glossy brochure placed on the table next to the sofa. The ship had a swimming pool, a sauna and several eating places. You could have steak, fish, or oriental food. I was oddly pleased to see they hadn’t done away with the smörgåsbord, or the more expensive alternative that Anja and I had always wanted: the à la carte restaurant. I decided to try her again and dialled the number, but got the answer machine. I wished I’d talked to her before leaving. I realised I hadn’t told anyone about this trip. Anja might have wanted to travel with me. I brushed this thought aside. She had her family, and would be driven by her husband to Tampere, or even fly. Or she may not be able to go at all. That wouldn’t surprise me.
I took a book out of my bag and left the cabin, taking the credit card-style key with me. In the lift there were several people who were obviously travelling alone and a few families with very young children. No drunks. Still, just in case, I kept my eyes lowered to the floor of the lift and, clutching the book, went to find the à la carte.
After my meal I found a seat at the back of a bar in the bow of the ship. I dug my mobile out of my bag and saw that Anja hadn’t tried to return my call. I needed to phone Janne but kept putting it off. I knew I should have called him before leaving; I didn’t know why I hadn’t. I thought about the last time we made love, slowly and pleasurably. Janne was very attentive, never too demanding or rough. It was good with him and I thought of Yri less and less.
I felt the ship move. We must be on the open sea, away from the shelter of the archipelago, I thought. I remembered the first time I’d felt the motion of the sea, on our way to Stockholm thirty years before.
I wondered if Tampere had changed at all. Was our old block of flats still standing? Our tiny flat in Tampere, overlooking the large cemetery with its imposing statues. Where a red brick wall sheltered the dead from the road running between the flats and the tree-lined rows of headstones. We had only two bedrooms and a kitchenette, separated from the living room by a stripy red and yellow curtain. Both rooms had large windows. The flat occupied a corner of the house and had two aspects: one to the road and the cemetery, one to the children’s play area between our block and the next. The flats were built after the war – made of solid stone to house the new generations. Three of them stood side by side, with young families, like us, inside.
My sister Anja was two and a half when I emerged quietly and with little pain to my mother. She’d walked two kilometres to the maternity hospital, Naistenklinikka, past the cemetery into the centre of town. Pappa and Anja were still asleep when the phone call came that another little girl had been born prematurely. There was disappointment in Pappa’s voice, I was told later, but when Mamma came home with me, and Pappa held me for the first time, he said, ‘This little girl I like! We will call her Eeva.’ From that moment on Pappa was my hero and I could do no wrong.
Pappa was a big man with blue eyes but delicate feet and hands. Those hands could fix anything: a broken vase, a punctured bicycle tyre, a creaky door. His mouth was curved, and when he smiled his eyes had a kind look, instead of the sad one he usually wore. When times were good, he’d joke and make up stories while I sat on his lap, tugging his fleshy earlobe between my thumb and forefinger. The softness of Pappa’s earlobe made me dreamy, the silky feeling of it comforted my whole being as I rested my wispy blonde hair against his strong chest. Now, looking at the rain dripping down the black windows at the bow of the ship, I realised we were both happy then.
Finding it hard to concentrate, I lifted my eyes from the pages of my book, and looked around the bar. At the small round table next to me a man was sitting nursing a large pint of beer. He had one hand around the tall glass while the other held a cigarette between his lips. When he looked back at me, I quickly moved my gaze down. Then loud laughter startled me. It was coming from a blonde woman sitting at the other end of the bar. She had a short black skirt and her legs were crossed. They looked long and slim in her black stockings. A man standing close to her was admiring the curve of her neck. I sighed. At that moment the man turned and my heart stopped.
Yri was wearing a suede jacket over a pair of light beige trousers. His hair was a bit thinner, but, standing sideways a few tables away, he didn’t look any older. I touched my hair and remembered I’d not had time to wash it before leaving the flat that afternoon. And my make-up was old and faded by now. My lips were pale and unpainted, unlike the giggling woman’s. Then I thought for a moment. Could she be his wife? No, I’d seen a picture of her, and their two children, smiling into the camera. She’d had short, dark hair and slight features. Somehow I’d always imagined she was short too, nothing like the flirty, leggy blonde sitting close to Yri now.
I didn’t want Yri to see me unkempt like this. He’d think me old and mousey. But just as I was about to get up and sneak past the couple unnoticed, he turned and looked squarely at me. I saw in his eyes that he’d recognised me. I looked at his piercing eyes first, and then his mouth.
It was his mouth that most haunted me. He had wrinkles either side – laughter lines, he’d said. Two years ago that mouth had told me in Polish: ‘Kocham Cie’ after a day locked up in bed in my flat, a snowstorm raging, listening to the harsh wind outside. At the end of the night, when it was calm again and the fresh whiteness illuminated the streets below, Yri had stood at the door. Turning around, he’d taken hold of my face in his strong hands and said the words while looking into my eyes, making sure I knew what they meant. Standing there in his overcoat he’d asked me, ‘What’s “I love you” in Finnish?’
‘Minä rakastan sinua,’ I’d replied, my body abandoned in the palms of his hands. I took in his scent, of cinnamon and coffee, as I buried my head into his neck, the tips of his blond hair tickling my face.
‘Don’t go,’ I’d said. But he did, over and over, until it was too late and he had to go for good.
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