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Did you enjoy The Red King of Helsinki?
A free book!
Also by Helena Halme
About the Author
Iain watched on the snow-covered jetty as a small tugboat slowly piloted HMS Newcastle into Helsinki South Harbour, frozen but for a jagged shipping lane cutting between thick sheets of ice. He’d been following the gradually expanding navigation lights for over an hour while the faint winter sun rose above the Gulf of Finland.
The snowfall had made the day’s copy of Helsingin Sanomat folded under his arm limp. Iain shivered as he placed the paper inside his thick winter coat and pulled the collar further up around his ears. A glance at his watch showed 08:06. They were on time at least. He stamped his feet. The Finns say the coldest winds blow from Siberia, and this morning Iain understood what they meant. Even the weather from the mighty Soviet Union was a bully to its small neighbour.
Finally the ship docked and Iain climbed onboard. He nodded at a Sub Lieutenant, who bounced down the gangway and told Iain to follow him. He looked like a child, with a freshly scrubbed pink face, and at the last minute Iain remembered not to salute him. He kept forgetting he was a civilian now. But the ship, with its musty smell, a combination of salty seawater and diesel oil, made him feel at home. ‘Good passage?’
‘Yes Sir,’ replied the officer, showing Iain into a small cabin.
The Colonel was bent over a tiny desk in the corner, his back to Iain.
‘Welcome to Helsinki, Sir,’ Iain said. Again the desire to stand to attention overtook him, and he half lifted his hand, but placed it down before it reached the side of his head.
‘Ah, Collins. You look cold and wet. Is it really that bad out there?’
Iain ignored this jibe and looked around the cabin. It was a small space, but a luxury for any officer onboard. There was a small porthole, ‘heads’ and crisp white linen on the bunk. The Colonel nodded towards a chair and Iain sat down.
‘Well?’ the Colonel said. His cheeks had broken veins and in the harsh overhead light of the cabin he looked old and weary.
‘Sir, page five, bottom right-hand corner.’ Iain handed the Colonel the damp Helsingin Sanomat. The short article was buried amongst domestic news.
‘A woman, aged 29, was found dead on Tehtaankatu late yesterday morning. It has been confirmed as the body of a Soviet citizen, employed as a temporary administrative assistant at the Embassy. According to the official source the woman died of natural causes.’
The Colonel considered the page. Iain watched his eyes as he scanned the print and spotted the small, insignificant notice. After a brief moment, he handed the paper back to Iain without saying a word. He crossed his hands over his considerable belly and leant back in his chair. Iain wondered if the Colonel’s Finnish was sufficient for him to understand the meaning of the words.
‘Don’t know if it’s significant, but brought it along in case.’
‘Hmm, well done,’ the Colonel said.
‘I wasn’t sure if I should have contacted the paper?’
‘No, of course not. We’ll look into it.’ The Colonel looked at his hands, then up at Iain, ‘How’s the surveillance going?’
There was a silence and Iain wondered if he was supposed to make a move to leave the cabin and the Colonel. But the Colonel handed Iain a green folder.
‘Try to find out more about this man, Jukka Linnonmaa. He’s just come back from Moscow and we need to know how active he is. He might get in the way.’
Iain opened the file.
‘Take it home and read it. There’s the address, wife’s name, any family connections, that sort of thing. Have a little look at his place, see where he goes.’
‘Yes Sir,’ Iain said.
‘You’ll soon get the hang of it. Report back to me daily.’
The Colonel got up, and Iain followed his example.
‘And Collins,’ The Colonel said when Iain was at the door, ‘try not to come onboard too often – once more to welcome us into town on behalf of the British Council, and perhaps when we leave to wave us goodbye, is the norm.’
‘Yes, Sir,’ Iain said. The Sub Lieutenant had reappeared outside the cabin.
‘Goodbye, Sir,’ the young officer said and saluted Iain as he made his way back down the gangway.
The city was quiet – only the noise of the tram trundling down from Ullanlinna broke the downy silence that the freshly fallen snow had created. Iain sighed and stuffed the folder inside his coat. With hands deep in the pockets, he walked briskly up the South Esplanade. People were hurrying to work, huddled against the cold wind. It was already ten o’clock and still not full daylight. The Esplanade Park looked grey. The bare trees were heavy with last night’s snowfall. Only a narrow path in the middle of the park had been cleared and sanded. He wondered if the sun was going to show itself today. It was February. At least the days were slowly growing longer, though in this kind of morning twilight, midnight sun seemed impossible.
Iain wondered what the hell he thought he was doing. Had it not been for the money, he’d never have accepted a job like this. But he now realised he’d also fallen for the flattery. The Colonel had been complementary when they met in a stuffy office at the British Embassy in Helsinki. Iain had never been inside the Embassy before. It was a beautiful white house on a leafy street in Ullanlinna. Had it not been so cold, Iain would have walked there, up the hill from the Council. But it had been a dull January morning, with a bitter northerly wind. So Iain rode the tram up three stops from Erottaja to Puistotie. The meeting was arranged to discuss the forthcoming British naval visit to Helsinki. Iain assumed he’d be told to arrange the appropriate, low-key publicity in the Finnish press. He’d wondered if the visit was organised to silence the reports running in the Western press about planned Finnish joint military exercises with the Soviet Union. Even the long-standing President Kekkonen, who was rarely directly quoted in the press these days, had given a televised interview just before Christmas to counter the press reports. Political and military neutrality was taken very seriously in Finland.
The Colonel had offered him a drink, ‘Whisky and soda?’
It was barely eleven o’clock.
‘So, how long have you been in Helsinki?’ the Colonel had sat down heavily opposite Iain.
‘Just over five months.’
‘Your wife was born in Finland?’
‘Yes.’ Iain looked down at his hands and added, ‘ex-wife.’
There was a brief silence. Iain had studied the Colonel closely on that first meeting. Mrs Cooper at the Council had hinted he was an important man in Helsinki. His build was heavy and he was in his late forties, or perhaps early fifties. His fair hair was thinning at the top. He wore half-moon glasses and was softly spoken, with the kind of low, commanding voice you’d expect from an Army officer.
A voice that would carry far on the parade ground.
He was studying a black file.
‘Now then,’ he began, ‘you’re ex-Navy, fairly recently retired?’
‘Six months February.’
‘Her Majesty must be sorely missing you already,’ the Colonel looked up and smiled, ‘we could use more officers like you.’
Iain had felt his cheeks redden. When he resigned, no one had asked him to stay. The Colonel was reading from his file. First Iain felt the flattery, then something else. Like a noose tightening around his neck. What was this all about?
‘You ex-wife, she would have no family or friends in Helsinki?’
‘Of course she does,’ Iain said, his voice rising when he didn’t want it to. Didn’t the Colonel know, or hadn’t he bothered to find out, that most people in Finland had a relative – aunt, uncle or brother – who had moved to Helsinki in search of work?
The Colonel sighed and looked down at his hands, ‘Your Finnish language skills are quite unique.’
Everyone, particularly Virpi’s parents, had been stunned Iain mastered the language – which they’d told him was the most difficult to learn after Chinese – so quickly.
‘It’s love,’ Iain had joked, squeezing Virpi closer to himself. The embarrassed silence following the comment reminded him how private and serious the Finns were. That was in the early days, on his first visit to see her parents near Joensuu.
When he left, and the break-up was obvious, Virpi had wanted to stay in their end-of-terrace house in Old Portsmouth, which Iain had painted pink in happier times. The house had become too small for the two of them. As long as Iain was away at sea for long parts of the year, Virpi was happy. She couldn’t cope with Iain at home. After six months of constant rows, Iain jumped at the chance of a job in Whitehall, only to regret it weeks later. He should have stuck it out in Portsmouth, worked on his marriage. But Iain had never been a match for Virpi, her determined voice, deadly looks and icy conviction. So instead he’d moved on and taken the job in Helsinki. In search of what? Escaping what?
‘Thank you,’ Iain said and smiled at the Colonel.
The Colonel made it all sound so easy, yet honourable. And Helsinki was so much more expensive than Iain had remembered. He couldn’t understand how one could live on the measly British Council pay in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Had he been earmarked from the start? No, Iain couldn’t believe that. The Colonel told him they’d found out by chance he was ex-Navy.
‘Handy for the Official Secrets Act,’ the Colonel had said, then continued, ‘What I’m getting at, old boy is…’, the Colonel glanced at Iain over the top of his glasses. The leather chair squeaked as he moved his leg on top of the other.
‘I understand. You’re right. No one from my past knows I’m in Helsinki,’ Iain said. And he was right. In the six months he’d spent in the small Finnish capital he’d not bumped into any of Virpi’s relatives or friends. Iain smiled. Perhaps they’d seen him first and were avoiding him. Or they didn’t expect to see him there without Virpi. Just as well, he thought.
The Finns liked to think Helsinki was a big city. Iain assumed that in a country with a population smaller than London’s, the largest centre would seem substantial to its inhabitants.
Hurrying along the sanded Esplanade to return to the warmth of his office at the British Council, Iain nearly collided with a woman in high-heeled boots. First he thought it was Maija. She had the same direct gaze, and the same colour eyes. Her fitted coat tied neatly around the waist reminded him of Maija too. He nodded to the woman and smiled. She hurried past him, not returning his smile. Iain was reminded of one of Virpi’s anecdotes about Finland.
‘In winter only drunks, lunatics and foreigners smile at strangers. And none of them can be trusted.’
Waiting for the traffic lights just outside the Council building to turn green, Iain decided he’d give Maija a call. He thought of her soft round breasts, her uncomplicated attitude to sex. As long as he remembered not to smile to strangers, life was uncomplicated here in Finland. No ex-wife, no long-lost naval friends reminiscing about the good old times, which never were so very good. So why did he complicate it by doing a job for MI6 of all things? Was he bored by his job at The British Council? Most days he sat in his office, on the fourth floor of a stone office building in the centre of the city, reviewing papers, planning cultural events. Not much different from driving a desk in Whitehall. Except there were no pubs, no English beer, no banter. Just drunks on street corners; even at well below zero temperatures they were there, singing to themselves, or shouting abuse at passers-by. Then there was his twice-weekly English night class at the Workers’ Institute, where he’d met Maija three months ago. She had sat at the front, her blue eyes watching him intently. After class she’d hung back and Iain felt like a school teacher, embarking on an illicit affair with a teenage student. Except Maija was by no means a teenager. She was divorced, like him, but unlike him had a seventeen-year-old daughter. That had scared him a bit, a complication he didn’t need. They used his small flat on Laivurinkatu, only a few streets away from Maija. Though it was up the hill to get home from her place, it could not be more convenient. Iain smiled. There was something about Finnish women that he still couldn’t resist, even after the divorce from Virpi. The blue eyes, the pale skin, the easy nakedness. This time, though, there wasn’t going to be a marriage. He wasn’t that stupid. His divorce from Virpi had come through just over a year ago.
Iain decided to skip the creaky old lift and walk up the stairs. He needed the exercise. On the fourth floor he was hopelessly out of breath. Surely spies were supposed to be fit? He smiled at the absurdity of the thought. Who did he think he was, James Bond?
Mrs Cooper greeted him with a quick, efficient smile. She smoothed down her skirt and opened the door to the stuffy offices. It always smelled of old books and the air hung heavy with dust. A man in a brown jacket sat reading a book in a corner where a few low-slung chairs were arranged around a table. Iain nodded to him and thought how rare it was to see the Council actually used as the library it partly was meant to be. He walked past the rows of ceiling-height bookshelves and opened the door to his office. His vast steel desk was covered with a pile of newspapers and a few letters. Iain sat down and sighed. The only good thing about his office was that it overlooked the Esplanade Park. Although on a grey day like today it might have been better not to be able to see out into the cold street.
Iain considered the green folder for a moment. Did receiving this file from the Colonel mean that he had an additional brief? Did he get it because his work had been satisfactory? Or just because he was already involved? Perhaps MI6 was short-staffed in Helsinki. That wouldn’t surprise him, though the Colonel had said this place was one of the most active Cold War cities.
The file contained only three type-written pages. Jukka Linnonmaa, 42 married to Beta (born Segerstram) for 19 years. They had a daughter, Anni. Iain noticed they lived just a few streets from Maija, on Tehtaankatu 48. There was a bunch of keys. Mr Linnonmaa’s career had taken him from Helsinki University, via Vaalimaa border station to Stockholm, Paris, London and lastly Moscow. He was fluent in Swedish, French and Russian. Beta’s profession was housewife, though she too studied French at the University of Helsinki. Iain ran down the list of Mr Linnonmaa’s titles and made a note of his present one, Special Counsellor, as well as the address at the Department of External Economic Affairs where he’d worked since September last year. So he’d been back in Helsinki for just over five months. Though brief, the file was comprehensive. There was even a picture of the family. It was taken in a traditional pose in front of a vast Christmas tree lit with candles. Iain looked closely at the faces. This was not a poor family. Mrs Linnonmaa’s smile was warm, though a little put upon. She was seated next to a serious looking blonde girl with long hair tied up in a bow. Mr Linnonmaa was standing behind his wife, with his hand on her shoulder. Iain turned the picture and noted the date, 24 December 1974. When he closed the file a piece of paper dropped out. It was a hand-written note dated ‘September 1978, Anni Linnonmaa enters Helsinki Lyceum.’
Pia had never met a real life Russian before. Not that she would dare to call the blond man standing next to the headmistress that to his face. Pia wondered if the word was really banned in Finland. You weren’t allowed to use that word for the country, although everybody did, secretly. Even the right-wing Mrs Härmänmaa, or the Old Crow as everybody called her because of her harking voice, never spoke badly of the Soviet Union. She stood a little apart from the man and watched him suspiciously. When she first introduced him, she’d tried to smile, forcing the corners of her mouth up.
‘Mr Kovtun has come from the Soviet Embassy to talk to you this morning.’
Pia smiled and turned her head towards her best friend Anni, who was sitting in the desk next to hers. But Anni was facing the front, with her back straight. Usually, she’d rest her elbow on the desk and let her long blonde hair fall on her face. It was a trick. That way the Old Crow could not see what she was whispering to Pia. Today Anni actually seemed interested in what Mrs Härmänmaa was saying. Sitting like that, she looked even taller than usual, with her arms crossed under her breasts. Anni was really slim. While Pia was always on a diet, Anni didn’t need to cut down on her eating – she had whatever she wanted and still wore jeans the size of a child’s. And she was the most popular girl in the school. She had the best body and the coolest clothes. Today she was wearing her dark-blue Levi’s with platform boots. Pia sighed and turned her head back towards the Old Crow.
Mrs Härmänmaa checked her watch and cleared her throat.
‘Class 6 A, please be quiet.’ She turned towards the Russian man and pulled her lips wide in another attempt at a smile. As usual her lipstick had bled into the corners of her mouth. ‘Mr Kovtun from the Soviet International Friendship Town Committee has come to the school today with some very exciting news.’
At that moment the door to the classroom opened and Miss Joutila burst in.
‘Sorry, I’m late, Mrs Härmänmaa.’
The Old Crow cast her evil brown-eyed spell over the room and it became quiet again. Pia held her breath. She was so close to a full giggling fit she didn’t even dare to look at Heikki at the back of the class, who’d laughed the loudest.
Instead, Pia started daydreaming about last Friday’s Vanhainpäivät party. Even though Vanhainpäivät was a school party, and the punch was supposed to be alcohol-free, it was the best ever. When the two teachers were out of sight, Heikki had poured a bottle of Koskenkorva vodka into the mix. Half of the punch had gone by the time the Old Crow noticed. By then it was too late, everyone was way past it. But she didn’t stop the music. Anni said it was so everyone would sober up before going home drunk – that way, the parents wouldn’t complain to the school.
Pia had worn her new blue satin shirt and trousers. She’d used heated rollers on her hair and must have looked good, because Heikki told her he fancied her, and they snogged for ages in the cloakroom on top of a pile of overcoats. He pushed his tongue inside her mouth and kept trying to get his hand inside her blouse. Once he touched Pia’s right nipple and it felt really good. But she stopped him because she was afraid someone might come in. When they got up, he pressed his hand between her legs and said, ‘I want that, Pia, you make me crazy wanting that.’ His breath was hot and his voice hoarse. Pia giggled and pulled herself away. He moved his hand to her bottom and squeezed it. ‘Nice arse too,’ he said. Pia turned her face to him and gave him her best smouldering look. His eyes were dark on her and his fair hair was tousled. Pia straightened herself up and walked out into the darkened gym hall. Everyone was dancing to a slow number. Pia turned around to take hold of Heikki’s arm. She wanted to join the couples on the floor, but Heikki had disappeared. Pia had looked all over for him, but he must have been smoking at the back of the school building. She didn’t see him for the rest of the evening.
Pia forced herself to listen to the Old Crow. The Russian looked very tall next to the short and fat headmistress. He had straw-blond hair, which he’d combed back from his angular face. He didn’t look very friendly, though he did smile at Miss Joutila. Perhaps the PE teacher knew the Russian. Why was she here anyway? It was a Monday morning and the class was supposed to have Finnish with the Old Crow first thing.
‘As I was saying,’ the Old Crow gave Miss Joutila, who again was wearing trousers at least two sizes too small for her, a quick nod, ‘we have some exciting news. As you all know, the cities of Moscow and Helsinki are twinned, cementing the friendship, mutual understanding and co-operation between our two great countries. This year, 1979, we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of this great association. As part of these celebrations, we are proud to be taking part in a gymnastics competition between Moscow Girls’ Lyceum and Helsinki Lyceum. Please, Mr Kovtun, perhaps you would like to tell us some more.’
Suddenly Pia grew serious. She listened intently as the Russian spoke in his broken Finnish.
‘From our great school in city Moscow, five girls will come to you. We will have a Friendship Trophy competition of gymnastics. The best will win!’
That’s all he said and then he started clapping.
Old Crow nodded to the class and put her hands together. Everyone clapped.
‘What are we clapping for?’ Pia whispered to Anni, but she didn’t hear her.
The Crow spoke again.
‘Five girls, from all the age groups at the school, will be selected to take part in the competition. Five schools from Helsinki and five schools from Moscow will take part. Helsinki Lyceum will compete in the group gymnastic section. There’ll be one girl from the Sixth Form. As the Upper Sixth are in the middle of their Baccalaureate revision, it’s been decided that the oldest girl, and therefore the Head Girl of the team, will be selected from the Lower Sixth. I don’t have to remind you what a responsible position this is. All those who wish to be considered should go and see Miss Joutila.’
Pia made a quick calculation. There were a couple of girls in the Upper Sixth, who – if Pia was honest – were slightly better than her. Anni was good. She was supple and could bend her body to amazing positions on the mats. But Pia didn’t think she was really that much into the sport. Please, don’t let her want to take part. Then of course there was Sasha. Pia glanced over her shoulder. Sasha gave her a sideways smile, a sneer really. She was sitting next to Heikki, as usual, leaning towards him, while playing with the curls on her permed, coloured hair.
Miss Joutila said something to the horrible Russian. He was looking directly at Pia. Pia smiled. Whatever, she thought, as long as I’m in that competition I’ll suck up to any Commie Russian they want me to.
After both Miss Joutila and the Russian had left the classroom, the Old Crow started handing out the week’s essay titles. Pia leant over to Anni, ‘I’m definitely going to go for it!’
‘What?’ Anni’s pale blue eyes were wide. She seemed upset, even angry.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Bloody Commie,’ Anni whispered. She picked up her pen and started writing.
Pia didn’t understand what her friend was on about. Of course all Finns, at least the patriotic ones, hated the Russians. If the Soviet Union hadn’t been attacked by the Germans in the Second World War, it would have invaded Finland. The country would be behind the Iron Curtain now, like Estonia and Hungary, instead of being neutral. Pia’s grandmother told her that when the tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in the sixties, it was only because of President Kekkonen that the Soviets left Finland alone. So now President Kekkonen and the rest of the country had to keep the Russian neighbour sweet.
Surely that’s exactly what Mrs Härmänmaa was doing too?
Why was Anni getting so upset up about it?
At break time, Anni said, ‘Why do you want to be involved in some Communist gymnastics competition?’
‘Because I want to win.’
Anni wasn’t looking at Pia, but was walking resolutely towards the tuck shop. Pia felt in her jeans pockets for any coins but knew she would find nothing. She hadn’t had her allowance for two weeks now and it was getting embarrassing borrowing money all the time. Her mother would be paid tomorrow. The smell of freshly baked apple doughnuts became stronger as they got nearer the stall. It was only half past ten but Pia was starving.
Queuing up, Heikki stood next to Pia and Anni. Heikki said, ‘You two gorgeous birds don’t mind if I join you, do you?’
There were looks from the smaller kids down the line.
‘Yeah, sure, you just want to jump the queue,’ Pia said, her eyes on him. Heikki Tuomila was the best-looking guy in the school with his fair hair and broad shoulders. Today he wore a duck-egg blue shirt. His thumbs rested inside the back pockets of his faded jeans. Pia looked down the line but to her relief Sasha was nowhere to be seen.
‘So you’ll go for the competition, then?’ Heikki asked Pia. He was standing so close she could smell his aftershave. The kids were following her every move, eavesdropping on their conversation. ‘Might do,’ she said.
Anni looked at her, ‘What are you having?’
‘You want cash?’
Pia lifted her eyes to her and said, ‘No, it’s OK.’
‘Two apple doughnuts,’ Anni said to the woman in a bright pink housecoat. She gave her the money and picked up the brown paper bag. The smell was unbearable. Then she took one doughnut out and gave it, wrapped around a paper napkin, to Pia. Anni was a real friend.
‘Thanks,’ Pia said.
Anni was the reason Pia had become one of the inside gang. Before she moved to the school, Pia had been a nobody. Anni’s parents were rich, her father was a diplomat and she’d lived all over the world. The family were only staying put in Helsinki for Anni’s education. She was planning to go to university in London or Paris. She lived in a huge old flat, with a bay window and a crystal chandelier in the salon. Sometimes when both Anni and Pia had a free period, they’d go and have lunch there. Anni’s kitchen overlooked a private leafy courtyard, with a lawn in the middle and benches. A secret garden in the middle of the city. Pia had never seen all the rooms in the flat. Anni told her there was a massive attic with windows, but that no one ever went there.
Anni’s father looked like an absent-minded professor, always in a worn-out cardigan, carrying books and papers. But he’d smile and say hello to Pia. She wished her own father was around more, though for years it had been only her and her mother in the little flat on Kasarminkatu.
Pia saw her father once or twice a year when he came over from Malmö in Southern Sweden to stay with Grandmother. The summer weeks by the lake with her dad were the best. They swam, fished and had a sauna nearly every night. Her dad called Pia his little sauna baby. He told her she’d only been two days old when she was taken into Grandmother’s dark, wood-fired sauna. ‘You never cried a bit, just laughed when the heat touched your little body.’ He squeezed Pia close to him. In the winter, just before Christmas, they had less time, but then he brought her nice presents. He bought them in Stockholm on his way through. Last Christmas he even went to Hennes and Mauritz to buy really fashionable clothes. He said the shop assistants helped him, although Pia suspected it was his new wife, whom she’d never met, that had chosen so well for her. Pia didn’t mind. She wished her father and his new wife could live a little closer to Helsinki. But he said his work at the car factory in Malmö couldn’t be moved. Once when Pia was younger, she’d asked if they didn’t need car mechanics in Finland. Her father laughed but didn’t answer the question. Of course, now Pia understood about the unemployment situation in Finland. Sometimes she wondered if the Old Crow ever talked about anything else while she nagged about the importance of a good education.
Walking between Heikki and Anni along the glass-fronted corridor towards the lockers, Pia stopped. Miss Joutila and the Russian were standing in the middle of the schoolyard. It was snowing lightly, and the Russian was wearing a black fur hat, making him stand even taller. Mrs Joutila also had a hat on, a woollen crochet beret. Pia shook her head, how unfashionable could the woman get? Miss Joutila and the man were laughing together. Something about how they stood so close together made Pia think they knew each other very well.
‘She’s a bit of a dark horse, eh,’ Pia said.
Heikki said nothing. He was munching on his doughnut.
Anni moved closer to the glass and said, ‘Traitor.’
‘What?’ Pia didn’t think she’d heard her friend right. What had got into her today?
Miss Joutila and the Russian walked to the gym hall by the side door. Pia decided this was her moment. She stuffed the rest of her doughnut into her mouth and said, ‘See you later.’
Pia was sure Miss Joutila would take the Russian to her little office next to the changing rooms. From the side door, a steel staircase took you up to the gym hall. Pia opened the heavy door and took off her boots. The red-faced caretaker was always telling the pupils off for walking on the polished wooden floor with their outdoor shoes.
Pia looked at the blue mats rolled to the side of the hall and at the climbing ropes tied together in the corner of the room. She felt at home here. She wished she could do a few front rolls on the blue mats instead of having to walk by them. She imagined a hall full of people, all cheering as she preformed her programme to perfection, each hand stand and each roll more gracious and controlled than the one before. She’d attempt a set of three or four back flips. Surely there’d be enough time to practise. She’d ask Miss Joutila.
When Pia reached Miss Joutila’s office, she heard voices.
‘You chosen the girl, yes?’
‘You take one with long brown hair.’ The Russian man’s voice was loud and clear. As if he was issuing instructions to an army.
The gym teacher was quiet, or perhaps Pia didn’t hear her answer.
‘What her name?’ the Russian said.
‘Mäkelä, Pia Mäkelä’
Pia stopped breathing. Her heart was beating so hard, she was afraid that Miss Joutila and the Russian would hear it. Quickly she tiptoed out of the hall, ran past the mats and put her boots back on. She skipped down the steel staircase, then realised how childish it must look and forced herself to walk normally back to the school building.
After the English lesson, Sasha came over to Pia.
‘You’re going for it then?’
‘Going for what?’
Sasha Roche laughed so that the mock blonde curls on her head shook. She was much shorter than Pia, but the hair made her head look twice its size. The whole effect was ridiculous. But her parents were rich. She had a swimming pool in her house and held the most amazing parties. So everyone wanted to be her friend.
‘Pia, take my advice. Forget about the Friendship Trophy. You know there are at least two people better on the mats than you. Anni isn’t going to take part. Her right-wing Nazi parents wouldn’t allow it. So that leaves me. So sorry, but we have to think what’s best for the Lyceum. We wouldn’t want to lose at the 25th Friendship Trophy, now would we?’
Sasha left Pia standing by her desk. She was glad she hadn’t said anything about what she’d overheard the Russian say to Miss Joutila. She would enjoy seeing Sasha’s face much more when the team, with Pia as the head gymnast, was announced in assembly.
What Sasha had said about Anni played on Pia’s mind as she sat on the tram on her way home. The number ten was full to bursting. Pia had managed to get a seat but as it approached the centre of the city more and more people came onboard. She had to give her seat to an older lady wearing a huge overcoat and laden with shopping bags. The woman didn’t even say thank you, just slid into the seat as if it was her right. Pia held onto a pole and thought that Anni’s father didn’t look like a Nazi. What was Sasha talking about? Pia hadn’t seen Anni since she’d left her and Heikki in the school corridor. Finnish was the only lesson they had together on Mondays. Even their lunch breaks clashed.
Pia stepped off the tram and instead of walking up to Kasarminkatu, she turned left towards Tehtaankatu and Anni’s home. She couldn’t wait to tell Anni her news. The street was dark, and as the echoes of the tram disappeared behind her, Pia felt a shiver run down her spine. She quickened her step.
All the lights in Anni’s house were out. Pia stood on the pavement opposite for a while, looking at the large windows. The block was a very old one, ‘Jugenstil’, Pia had heard Mrs Härmänmaa once brag to Miss Joutila, ‘... a fabulous example of Finnish Art Nouveau.’
It was a beautiful house. Only four storeys high, with an attic on the top floor. It looked just as Pia imagined a Parisian building, with decorative golden window frames. The roof was slate, with smaller sash windows. Pia looked at the darkened third floor. Anni’s parents weren’t sitting in the dining room or the salon. Pia walked around the corner. Anni’s bedroom was dark too, with the curtains drawn and no light on inside. Pia moved to the other side of the street and stood under a large elm to get a better view. It was cold. She put her hands in the pockets of the white down jacket her father had bought in the autumn.
Pia gazed up at Anni’s flat. Even the bay window was dark. They had a small lamp there, on a dark mahogany table with two antique chairs either side. It was usually switched on, with the curtains tied back with heavy gold tassels. Now all the curtains were drawn. It looked like Anni’s parents were away. Pia walked back to the front door and pressed the intercom button. She stood and waited for a few minutes. Perhaps someone else living in the block would come home and let her in. But the street was quiet.
Opposite Anni’s beautiful building stood the vast Soviet Embassy. It was a modern, grey, three-storey structure, surrounded by a high steel fence and large gardens. The fence was topped by barbed wire. To keep people out or in? All the windows in the building were lit up. Pia hadn’t seen many people enter or leave the building when she’d been to visit Anni. Sometimes the large steel gates opened and a dark car with blacked-out windows drove in or out. Otherwise the vast three-storey building and the gardens surrounding it seemed void of people.
Pia hurried back down Tehtaankatu. As she turned into Kasarminkatu, her own street, a man in dark clothing nearly knocked her over. ‘Oi, watch it!’ Pia shouted, but the man didn’t even look at her. Pia stopped dead. She’d recognised him from that morning.
The Russian, Mr Kovtun, was running as fast as he could on the slippery street towards the tram stop.
Leena Joutila sat at her desk, smoking a cigarette. She should be getting ready for her next class, but she didn’t move from her seat. She tapped the fingers of her free hand against the heavy black telephone receiver on her desk. She thought about Vladsislas, or Vadi, as he had asked her to call him. How long had it been since Leena had last been this infatuated? She didn’t usually allow herself this kind of teenage behaviour, but Vadi was different. As soon as Leena heard his voice, or saw his eyes, she felt her armpits dampen, her breath quicken. He was also the first foreign man Leena had ever fallen for. Not that her love life had been that exciting. Leena pursed her mouth and smiled. Well, at least she would have something to tell the young girls who at that very moment were doing everything but what they’d been told to in the gym hall. As if they’d be interested. What the girls didn’t understand was how much Leena could help them if they allowed her to. Instead they didn’t listen, thought they knew everything already. Instead they were obnoxious, unruly and loud. Always giggling, always making faces behind her back. Oh, Leena was so tired of the Lyceum. Tired of Mrs Härmänmaa, who seemed to think Leena had no idea how to do her job. The Head should remember that Leena, at forty-four, had two years’ seniority to her.
Vadi was tall, blond and muscular. She saw how his arms flexed through the tight-fitting shirt as he clapped at the end of the performance in Moscow. The pupils at the Soviet school had been immaculately behaved at all times. They were so orderly during the gymnastics display Leena had attended at the end of the visit, it had left her breathless. Afterwards she and Vadi had shared a drink in the bar of the vast hotel where Leena was staying. Vladsislas’ Finnish was charmingly disjointed, but flirtatious. At the end of the evening he told her she was beautiful.
Leena didn’t worry about first or second date rules. She was grown-up after all and didn’t need to play games. She invited Vadi to her room and after a couple of vodkas Leena found herself amongst tangled sheets, admiring Vadi’s lean body.
Back in Helsinki, Vadi called her the next day. Leena was flattered. She cooked him a meal in her small flat in Töölö and bought Koskenkorva vodka for him. She even drank some to keep Vadi company. The liquor made her heady. When Vadi made his move, she was glad she’d put clean sheets on her bed. Afterwards he told her about his daughter. Leena had noticed the long-limbed, brown-haired girl was the star of the Moscow school team.
‘My daughter, she very beautiful. And talented. But so, so sad,’
‘She cannot go home.’
‘Oh,’ Leena was puzzled. Why was he telling her all this? ‘Where is home?’
Vadi looked at Leena as if she had asked him to share his most intimate secret.
‘And her mother?’
Vadi waved his hand, ‘No good.’