Welcome to the newest slot on my blog, the Sunday night Novel Nights In where I bring you guests’ novels in their entirety over a maximum of ten weeks. Tonight’s is the eighth, and penultimate, instalment of the first novel in this series and features the second section of Book 3 (of three) of a novel by literary author, poet and interviewee Rose Mary Boehm.
For shorter pieces I would run the story then talk more about it afterwards but because this is a longer post (10,276 words), here is an introduction to Rose then the seventh part of her novel…
A German-born UK national, Rose Mary Boehm now lives and works in Lima, Peru. Two novels (‘Coming Up For Air’ and the follow-up ‘The Telling’) have been published in the UK, as well as a poetry collection (‘Tangents’). Her latest poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in US poetry reviews. Among others: Toe Good Poetry, Poetry Breakfast, Burning Word, Muddy River Review, Pale Horse Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Other Rooms, Requiem Magazine, Full of Crow, Poetry Quarterly, Punchnel’s, Verse Wisconsin, Naugatuck Poetry Review (contest semi-finalist), Avatar…
Her poem ‘Miss Worthington’ won third price in the coveted Margaret Reid Poetry Contest: http://winningwriters.com/contests/margaret/2009/ma09_epaminondas.php
You can find out more about Rose and her writing at her blog: http://houseboathouse.blogspot.com, and you can also read one of Rose’s short stories on http://shortstorywritinggroup.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/short-story-for-critique-003-mrs-boffa-by-rose-mary-boehm.
Coming Up For Air
A young girl’s struggle to take control of her life – click to read Book I: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Book 2: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Book 3: Part 1. If you don’t want to wait the 10 weeks for the whole story, you can purchase Coming Up for Air at Amazon.com (just $2.95) Amazon.co.uk (only £1.87). The rest of the ‘adventures of Annie’ can be read in THE TELLING.
Book III: Spitting against the Wind (part 2)
“You slut!” my mother spits from where she stands, under the lamppost right by the front door of Udo’s building. My heart misses a beat, my stomach tightens into the familiar knot, and my first thought is ‘Thank God that Udo didn’t come down with me’.
Her face is drawn, angry, almost defeated. “You slut!” she repeats when she pulls me by my arm and then pushes me in the direction of the tram stop. “What did he pay you? That dirty old fornicator. Did you know he’s married? He has a reputation in town. Go on, walk!” She suddenly lets go of me and almost runs ahead, not even turning back. I follow her. What else can I do? Right now I feel neither very joyous, clever nor particularly grown up or even surprised. In my letter to Ruth I had seen it coming, hadn’t I? Mother’s rigid back speaks of fury, bitterness, hurt, and something I dare not recognise so that I won’t give in to loving her: sadness and vulnerability.
I deliberately remember all those times Mother has killed my happiness, cut my wings, sat in the kitchen waiting, bitter, resentful, putting down my friends, insinuating that I was guilty of the most terrible crimes, calling me names, physically pulling me out of harmless parties, sniffing me to detect what … cigarettes, alcohol and perhaps sex, too. No, I am not going to love her, especially after what she did today.
When we get home, Father is waiting in his study. Before joining him I go to my room, leave my coat and bag on a chair, then I walk into the study and sit down. Strange that now I don’t feel angry or even afraid but rather a little sad and forlorn. It’s no longer the same as it would have been only yesterday. Today I am no longer his little girl, today I am a confident young women and beginning to suspect who I may be one day.
Mother stands in the doorway, having put on her suffering face. “She’s all yours, Father. I picked her up from a man’s apartment. I don’t know what to do any longer. Your daughter is a slut.”
Father looks at his wife, then at me, then into a space only he can see. I take the initiative: “Father, we can’t go on like this. I am on my way to being 19 years old. Well, whatever. I am a woman, no longer your little girl. I love you, but you have had your lives. I have to grow into mine. I really don’t know how you two have managed, neither do I want to know. But tell your wife to stay out of my hair from now on. Just because I have to live at home doesn’t give her – or you – the right to treat me like a five-year old. Perhaps you mean well, but you’re screwing up. What I do may not be what you would do, but you aren’t me.
“Father, the best thing for everyone is that I move out and on. That I get as far away as possible from both of you. That will give you peace and allows me a breathing space. I need your permission, I know that legally I am not yet ‘grown up’. But you can see that that’s the best solution, can’t you?” I run out of breath and all of a sudden feel empty.
I can’t read my father’s expression. Could he be holding back tears? Mother has come into the study and is sitting on the sofa, her elbows on the table, face in her hands. My father clears his throat and says with an effort: “Perhaps this would be the best solution. Your mother has suffered enough. I’ll think about it.” I feel dismissed and go to my room, closing the door behind me. My legs won’t quite carry me. I kick of my new shoes and sit down. Will they let me go? And if they do, what will I do?
Udo and I no longer saw each other. We had some clandestine meetings, mostly in restaurants, bars or coffee shops, which left us feeling miserable and frustrated. I had made a discovery and wanted to repeat the experience. Still, very soon, to my surprise, I began to enjoy the fact that our relationship no longer included much time spent together (even Udo understood that he couldn’t go back to besieging me at the Austerlitz studios) and we both knew that surreptitious, hush-hush lovemaking was an impossibility. His attentions, though, now intense and full of unspoken need, were exactly what made my heart beat faster. To be wanted, longed for, without having to give, seemed enough right now and, cowardly, I used Mother as the perfect excuse.
Ruthie, my dearest friend, you haven’t written. Whine, whine. I suppose you, too, are busy investigating life. In your last letter you said you didn’t want to write too explicitly because you thought my mother would read your letters as she always read everything else, even my diary… don’t worry. She doesn’t open letters any more before she gives them to me. We had a big row about that! And when I’ve read your letters I burn them on the terrace. Once – with her sense of smell she should have been born a Doberman Pincher – she must have detected an atom of smoke, opened the kitchen window, leaned out and called over to me where I was doing my ‘Ruthie-ritual’ on the veranda and wanted to know what I was up to. So I told her I was burning my love letters on a regular basis. She was not amused.
Strangest thing happened: I had an orgasm the other day. Don’t laugh. I’ve never known what it would be like. You know perfectly well that sex for me was just a little boring and I didn’t know why. Sometimes it was quite enjoyable, but never quite, you know… When you said how your Rolf was making you feel, I was envious. For me it was the only way to getting hugged and cuddled, just the price I had to pay. I suppose it was about getting tenderness, touching, and feeling good about myself. But the other day, with Udo out of all people, I suddenly understood the world. Well, what makes people want to make love. I can now imagine that it can get sort of addictive, can’t it? The weird thing is that it only happened when he couldn’t be ‘good Udo’ any longer, but became passionate, intense, ‘can’t wait bad Udo’. Do you think that my Wolf experience has made me into a pervert?
But that’s just part of the story. My old spoilsport mother had followed us and waited for me when I came down from his flat. She called him names, called me ‘a slut’, and when we got home there was Father, all quiet and upset. She handed me over, indirectly accusing him that ‘his slutty daughter’ was all his fault and he’d better deal with the situation. You know my father, he doesn’t deal with anything, really (well, he ‘dealt’ with Führing that day, but that’s the only time I have seen him in action). The situation at home is becoming unbearable. Christ, why aren’t I 21 yet? Then I can do what I want anyway, but I can’t wait any longer. I want out now. I told them both that I think it’s time I left. Better for them – they don’t have to get so upset about their misfit daughter any more – and better for me because I can start to find out who I really am when I don’t have to be so revolting (ha!).
I’ll be keeping you abreast (one for me, and one for you – please smile) of the situation. Write! Your orgasmic friend, Anne.
The situation at home had already deteriorated before I joined the paper. As the result of the last exhibition with the local artist group, the town had offered me a scholarship to attend the renowned school for graphic design in a neighbouring city. When it had dawned on me that they would only pay for tuition, books and materials, I had refused the grant knowing that I would be in Mother’s clutches for the years of study. Every time I’d asked her for money, she had given it to me with conditions. And every time I felt I’d sold my soul. Mother never understood my refusal and I never explained. But she never quite forgave me for ‘throwing my future onto the dung heap’. So I didn’t hold out much hope for a solution to something that seemed to be only my problem.
In the meantime I continued loading cameras, developing negative, retouching, colouring, assisting Johannes in the theatres and jazz clubs, and even beginning to do some simple publicity shots in the studio. They left me alone, didn’t remark on Udo’s sudden absence – I supposed he must have talked with them – and life became routine. I didn’t mind. Right now, a slice of peace and quiet seemed the perfect counterpoint to all the recent events.
Ruth wrote me a long letter and explained (now that I’d joined the ‘grown-ups’) a little more about the birds and the bees. I was looking forward to seeing her during her Easter holidays. She wrote that she’d be off to live in West Berlin for a while after she finished in Switzerland. Her father had already rented her a flat in the Corbusier building for the next three years, and she looked forward to going to the ‘hippest’ town in Germany.
“…Annie, darling, I have told them I want to study sculpting. Since they want me to marry soon and just study and do only what a ‘young lady from a good family’ would do (Max was already scandalised enough by the thought I’d get my fingers dirty in the mud or I’d be hammering bronze or whatever sculptors do) that he won’t mind when I throw the whole thing after a couple of weeks and just enjoy my FREEDOM! The flat is paid, he did that much for me and I don’t want to go back home. Before doing that I’d rather marry the next bloke who has the courage to ask. But there is no way I voluntarily return to prison… Have you had any news from your guys yet? Weren’t you supposed to get the hell out of there?”
Yes, quite. I’d soon broach the subject again. Right now I felt half asleep. Got home, didn’t talk, ate, thanked Mother, and when I wasn’t seeing any of my old friends (something that I did very infrequently) I went to my room and felt just a little sorry for myself which I translated into dark poetry, expressing my ‘terrible suffering’ and convincing myself on page after page that I was destined for ‘higher things’. I practised cynicism and, for a while, felt arrogantly superior to my usual surroundings and sure I’d soon be on my way.
One day that passivity changed. Leaving the Austerlitz studio at the end of my working day, I noticed a Volkswagen parked at the corner on the way to my tram stop but didn’t pay it much attention. As I approached the car the passenger door swung open, and a voice I knew so very well said, “Please, Anne, sit down for a moment. I need to talk to you.” And the face I’d thought I’d never see again was leaning over and looking up at me. Wolf didn’t smile. And when I hesitated for a moment, he repeated, “Please, Anne… no harm will come to you, I promise!” My heart missed a beat and I felt as though my bowels would betray me any moment. At the same time I berated myself for feeling anything at all. What I had thought of as ‘love’ had died that fateful night. I didn’t even feel hate or anger. So what was my body doing to me, betraying me like this…
It was still only the end of winter – spring was yet a few weeks off – and at seven o’clock in the afternoon it was already getting dark. In that not-quite-dark-yet, the streetlights were coming on and the pavement and tram lines glistened from earlier rain, reflecting the yellow light. A lonely dachshund shuffled by, his bent hind legs seeming to curl around what could only be large testicles. Another car passed fast, causing a spray of tiny droplets to hit the offside of the Volkswagen with a swishing sound. I folded myself into the passenger seat and for the first time in nearly two years looked at the face that had caused me such pain. I’d left the door open. “Go on, pull the door shut. We’ll go somewhere where we can talk.” I closed the door with force and it shut with a hollow metallic thud, the window rattling in its frame. A completely familiar situation (Anne meeting Wolf, Wolf telling Anne with authority what to do) in an alien setting in an alien time. Wolf switched on the engine, the windscreen wipers removed the last droplets until they screeched on the drying glass and Wolf turned them off. He moved out into the traffic. We did not exchange one word. Finally, the silence needed to be broken and I asked with an effort everything at once: “How did you find me? Why are you here? Where are we going?” He just said, “Tell you in a moment. I thought we’d go to the ‘Round Hat’, we can sit there in peace. What do you say?” The ‘Round Hat’ was a sterile, soulless bar built on a bridge that spanned the town’s ring road. The name came from its shape. “Fine by me,” I agreed, “but I can’t stay long. I am expected home for dinner.”
We took a table by the window. Plastic and chrome, and cars speeding by below. Somebody who obviously liked Elvis was working the jukebox. “Love me tender …” Just what I needed, but I was coming together again and felt in charge. Sitting opposite Wolf I studied his face. It had lost some of it insolence. The expression in his eyes was difficult to read. He mostly looked at his hands.
“Well, Wolf, here we are. But we are not talking.”
“I’ll order a beer for me. Do you still like grape juice?”
“I’ll have a Coke.”
“Fräulein..! One Coke, one beer please.” After another long pause: “Anne, Annie, I don’t know where to start. When I decided this morning I’d see you today, it seemed all so clear in my head. Now I am not at all sure what I can say to you to make you believe me. Annie, I know I’ve been a great big dollop of excrement. I’ve been such a stupid, arrogant shit, and I am here to ask you to forgive me if you can. And before you say anything, I better get it out now or I’ll choke, I wanted to ask you to marry me.
“You know me, I haven’t been a child of sadness since. But no matter what I did, who I was with, I couldn’t forget you. So, here I am, at your mercy. Please, Annie, I love you. I know that now. Please marry me.”
I was too shocked to say anything immediately, and this time the silence became pregnant with unspoken words, hurt, satisfaction, feelings of vengeance and sheer misery. Why now? Too late. That train had been and gone. How these words would have delighted me – then…
Better this way, though. It wouldn’t have worked then and, clearly, it won’t work now. I have moved on. Wolf is no longer on my horizon, I can’t even say I like him. What a mess.
And yet, it’s as though his words have wiped something off the slate on which I kept engraved a mixture of guilt, failure, shame and a sense of betrayal. It also offers me the chance at handing out some form of retribution. I almost feel smug, vindicated, my imaginary booted foot resting on the chest of my fallen victim.
As I slowly stand up, Wolf’s eyes are following me. He doesn’t attempt to move. As I pull on my jacket myself, I manage with a certain satisfaction, “Too late, Wolfgang Föhr-Waldeck. Too late. I have moved on. You helped me grow up, kind of suddenly. So, thank you. Besides, I won’t be here much longer. I’ll be travelling soon. Be well.”
Self-consciously I walk away from the table, trying to show with my back all the contempt I am sure I ought to be feeling. Tears are trickling down my cheeks. I manage not to look back.
I never saw Wolf again. A few months later I heard that he was dead. Nobody quite knew what kind of overdose had killed him.
It was time, but I would no longer ask. Shortly after my meeting with Wolf I was determined to make it clear to both Mother and Father that I would be moving out. I’d be leaving my job with the brothers Austerlitz and would find something better paid in the provincial capital and would manage. Somehow.
As though they’d been telepathically waiting for my point of no return, they told me. Father was the one who broke the news in his old-fashioned, formal way: “Anne, we have thought about you. We didn’t forget. While you are still in our charge, we are responsible for you…”
Here we go. Can’t, mustn’t, not allowed, no money, no way…
“…And we have come to what we think is a solution that will suit everyone. As you know, we have family in Finland. Your mother and I have been in correspondence with my cousin, your aunt Eeva, who would love to receive you in her home for as long as you both like the arrangement. She is no longer young but still runs the factory and would love someone to keep her company. She would also be delighted if you were to cook for her. We know you’ll be safe, you won’t have to make a decision yet regarding your future and could just enjoy a year out.
“I have spoken often enough about the wonderful time I had in Finland. I promise you that you’ll enjoy it, too. You’ll have some pocket money. I give you my Rolleiflex to take with you, and if you like this idea, we suggest you leave in April, when the worst of the Nordic winter is over. You’ll fly via Hamburg, probably in one of the new Air France Caravelles.
This I had not expected. Of course I’d go to Finland. Excitement filled and words failed me. Father suddenly smiled, love pouring from his eyes. Mother looked tired, defeated. I couldn’t believe this. Wow! And flying! Wild thoughts were ping-ponging in my head.
I couldn’t wait to tell everyone. I’d be flying. To Finland. And in the new Caravelle. This plane had been in the news, had featured in the ‘who’s who and who does what’ pages. I had seen glamorous people waving from its steps at the back. Oh, boy. Not even Ruth had been in a plane.
According to Father – who naturally was forever up-to-date on the latest in aviation development, production and design – the Caravelle, first produced in 1955 by the French company Sud Aviation, was the first successful short / medium-range twin-engine jet plane. He got all enthusiastic when he said that there had been an earlier jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet, but that had been withdrawn from service for some years now because of design problems. He said that the aft-mounted engine of the Caravelle was a completely new airplane engineering concept, and was sure to be copied by aircraft manufacturers everywhere.
Alright, I am not only interested, I am ecstatic. Of course I am. But, hang on a minute, did Father say ‘cooking’? I can’t cook! Well, on second thought, I can read, can’t I? I’ll take a big recipe book and do as it tells me. I’ll love that. Mother never allows me in the kitchen. “Be off with you. I’ll do it much quicker and don’t make a mess.”
What’s Aunt Eeva like? Father says she’s no longer young, and she is his generation. Must be well over 60. Have to ask. Hope she isn’t as stuffy as Mother. Father says she speaks German. I can’t wait. I give in my notice to the brothers Austerlitz, shall finish with them end of March. Flying to Finland in April. Hurrah!
Once the decision had been taken, the time left passed almost too quickly. Mother fussed a lot, especially about what I would take with me, and Father and I went to the travel agency to buy the ticket. Only when I held it in my hand did I begin to believe that this was not a dream but that I would fly to Helsinki. The ticket consisted of many hand-written pages. Air France to Helsinki via Hamburg.
Ruthie, dearest Ruthie, I am not only out of here, I am going to Finland!!! To Helsinki!!! Can you believe it? Can’t write much, loads of things to do. I am sooo excited! I can stay as long as my aunt will have me (I’ll be at my best behaviour)… I think they agreed I’d stay for about a year. So the two of us are finally on our way. You to Berlin, and I to Helsinki. Only pity is I can’t come and visit you in Berlin. At least not right away.
And how will I get to Helsinki, I hear you ask – I am going to FLY! Just imagine, Ruthie. I promise to write to you regularly and tell you EVERYTHING! You’ll be my secret diary! I wish you could come with me…I’ll write soon with my address in Helsinki and don’t forget to send me your address in Berlin. Love you. Byeeee, your over-the-moon friend Anne.
Mother had never flown except done a few ‘spins’ with Father – long before I was born. She and I had occasionally visited Düsseldorf Airport and watched the planes take off and land, our noses pressed against the big observation windows, both of us desperately wishing we’d be on one of them. Anyone. Anywhere. These had been moments when Mother and I were close and ‘conspiratorial’. And now I would experience the magic for real.
The day of my journey, Father and Mother took me to the airport, splashing out on a taxi. I was carrying my new wide-collared dark-blue winter coat. It was no longer cold. A Hannah cast-off, my tight-fitting red corduroy suit was very elegant indeed, the skirt reaching just below the knees. On my legs the obligatory nylons with black seams, on my feet black suede pumps with three-inch heels. A black clutch bag (containing my ticket, money, a powder puff, lipstick and a thin blue packet of oval orient-blend Nil cigarettes which I had successfully managed to ‘smuggle’ into my bag away from Mother’s eagle eyes) completed the picture of ‘sophisticated young important female flying regularly to far-flung places’.
Once I had waved a happy good-bye to two very emotional parents, once I had climbed up those steps at the back of the plane, once I had been shown to my seat (the stewardess – whom I envied terribly – put my coat into the overhead compartment and helped me fasten my seatbelt, and once I had settled in, I looked back at the airport building where I thought I could just make out Mother and Father at the observation windows. I suddenly realised the enormity of my undertaking as well as the enormity of their generosity and sacrifice. There was Mother, watching me do what she longed to be able to do, and Father whose lifelong passion was air planes and flying and who would never fly again: and here was I, all of a sudden cut loose from everything that had so far been my reality, determined to re-invent myself, my ambitions and my relationships. I didn’t feel fear, but it did make me thoughtful for a brief moment, that thoughtfulness soon to be forgotten when the plane rolled away from its parking space, gathering such speed that I was pressed back into my seat. Then came the heart-stopping take-off and the wonder of a world which, in a matter of seconds, fell away below me to be replaced by toy towns, toy woods, toy railway lines and, before I could let out my breath, by a grey-whitish soup which soon became clouds, the same clouds on which, as a child, I had wanted to sail above the world, hoping they’d take me away from reality.
In Hamburg I had a few hours to kill and used the opportunity to do some sightseeing. Of course I remembered my geography lessons and what Father had insisted we’d look up before I travelled (whenever I had a question, he’d roll out the encyclopaedia): the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, once a member of the medieval Hanseatic League, now a modern city state and one of Germanys Federal States. Hamburg is on the southern tip of the Jutland Peninsula, right between Continental Europe, Scandinavia, the North Sea and the Baltic; and in Hamburg meet three rivers, the Elbe, the Alster and the Bille. Two lakes are formed by the Alster and give Hamburg a very special feel. Then there was its history: a bishopric in 834; Ansgar, first bishop and Apostle of the North; the Vikings who destroyed the place around 845 … as always fascinating stuff for me, but not right now.
I made nervously sure I knew exactly at what time I had to be back for take-off to Helsinki and took a bus to the City Centre, delighted that nobody in Hamburg had ever seen me before – or would see me again most likely. The town had never registered my existence, I had made no psychic imprint, here I had no past, no future. I was conscious of living in the ‘Now’ for the very first time, and, without being able to express it in words, not even to myself, I felt truly unshackled, responsible to no-one, burdened with nothing, a slate wiped clean, ready to be filled with wonder, beauty, love, awe, poetry, laughter and blessings – at least that’s how I saw it then.
I admired the villas that spoke of old money, happily ambled along the Aussenalster (the ‘Outer Alster’, one of Hamburg’s lakes formed by the river Alster), went into one of the cafés when my feet hurt from walking too much and when I noticed the cold. Then, all woman of the world, I asked the waiter whether he could call me a taxi and went back to the airport for my final leg to Helsinki. By now it was late afternoon.
The flight to Helsinki turned into a nightmare. The twin-propelled Corvair Metropolitan had nothing of the smoothness of the Caravelle and, once over the Baltic Sea, was soon buffeted by winds and fell into deep air pockets which left me more than once suspended in mid-air over my seat, until the warning lights came on and the stewardess asked us all to strap in. While serving coffee was stopped, the Vodka flowed freely and, from what I could make out, it wasn’t served by the stewardesses, but magiced from hipflasks in trouser pockets and bottles bought duty free. Apart from the stewardesses I was the only female. Most of the passengers, judging from the language, where Russians, even though there were some Finns on board. And these men were becoming drunker and rowdier as time wore on. The stewardesses tried their best, but despite the plane’s lurching, the drunken men were beginning to ignore all pleas from the girls to sit down and belt up. They staggered through the small cabin, trying to catch the stewardesses. Some memory deep within me dragged up the feeling of extreme danger. One of the Russians sat down in the free seat next to me but, or rather, he fell into the seat but, before he could reach for my thigh, which he’d aimed for, he leaned over into the aisle, vomited, and disappeared. The stink of vodka and vomit made me grab for the paper bag, but I didn’t have time to get sick because my attention was riveted on the door to the pilot’s cabin from which emerged a big man in crew uniform and, with the voice of God himself, gave his passengers ‘what for’. I have no idea what was said, but the effect was, if not instantaneous, quite startling and relatively swift. Everyone went back to their seats, faces stupid, like scolded boys. One of the poor stewardesses cleaned up the mess next to me, and I felt ‘saved again in the nick of time’.
After what seemed hours, days, we got ready to land. I looked out of the window and saw some lights and snow, snow and more snow as well as some flat, barrack-type buildings which must be Helsinki airport. Even though it was night by now, things were just about visible as though lit by some indirect and weak light source. When we had come to a standstill and the door opened, I carefully walked down the metal steps, feeling a right twit in my suede high-heeled shoes and my thin nylons. At least I had a decent winter coat, but it didn’t offer me much protection when we walked towards those barracks through at least two inches of snow. Temperatures must have been below zero, a nasty wind was freezing my ears and nose, and my gloves were where they’d do most good: in the suitcase.
Father had told me that Cousin Magnus would pick me up. How would we recognise each other? There was only one man standing by the airport entrance, fur coat, Russian-style fur hat, gloves and galoshes who was quite obviously waiting for someone. I couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else, and I soon heard my first Swedish words: “Hej, Annemarie, välkommen to Helsinki. I am Magnus.” He shook my frozen hand. He told me later that he had found it difficult to believe that my father hadn’t know better and that they had let me travel ‘with nothing on’.
Magnus took me to what would be ‘home’ for about a year – a large flat in the heart of Helsinki, very near the St. John’s Church. But all that I’d find out tomorrow. There was Aunt Eeva who not only shook my hand but embraced me and kissed my cheek. We liked each other immediately, and I soon learned to love and respect an independent spirit who would confirm that a woman can carve out a life for herself in a man’s world.
At first sight, Auntie Eeva was ugly. I found out that she was 69. Her hair was almost white and loosely gathered into a messy bun at the base of her neck. While Mother’s hair was always pulled back tightly (with never a lose hair anywhere), her face, uncompromisingly ‘naked’ and unadorned in any way, her chignon small and neat, Auntie Eeva’s appeared to be simply a sloppy solution to keeping her hair out of her face – more or less. The shorter strands curled freely and soften her features. She wore silver-rimmed, oval glasses on a prominent nose, and when she wasn’t reading she carried them around her neck on a string. Mother was forever looking for hers, never remembering where she last left them, often finding them in her apron pockets. Auntie Eeva never wore aprons. She was taller than I, laughed easily and had intelligent, teasing, friendly eyes. When she laughed she was beautiful.
My room was enormous and I could lock it if I so wished. At first I got lost in the huge flat, but it soon became home. Auntie Eeva was an engineer and, in spite of her age, was still actively running the paper-machine factory Uncle Martin had left her on his death. She’d be there at least three days per week and often more. But when I arrived she took a couple of weeks off and concentrated on me, as well as presenting me to other members of the Finnish tribe. There were other aunts – most of them unmarried and well over 70 but every one of them incredibly independent and lively, speaking several languages with ease and travelling through Europe at least once a year. There were uncles with nameless wives, and there were two cousins, Heikki and Magnus (who still laughed when I told him that I had wondered how he’d pick me out of the passengers who arrived that night), and a very pretty Brita. All of them had children, my nieces and nephews – what a discovery – one of whom, Pekka, was a slightly fat and unremarkable young man about a year older than I, his aunt. Even though I understood the logic of the way the generations worked, this fact never ceased to amaze me.
Ruth, my dearest,
This is going to be a looooooooooong letter. I don’t know where to begin. I promised you a travel report, and a travel report you shall have. But I think I’ll wait until I get back, and when we look at the photos, I’ll tell you all about the places where I have taken them. I’ll keep a kind of diary so I won’t forget.
I forgive you for not having written in response to my eulogy on flying and the final leg of the journey with all those drunken idiots because I just realised that I forgot to add my new address on the back of the envelope.
Please keep all these letters as we agreed.
Yesterday, Auntie Eeva took me on a sightseeing trip around Helsinki. It’s a beauty. Since the flat is right in the centre, we mostly walked and only once took the tram. For lunch she invited me to a smörgåsbord place in the centre. Well, how could I know.
Smörgåsbord is a cold buffet with all sort of unimaginable northern delights, and people go around and around, filling their plates – you can eat as much as you like for the price given on the menu. I could see a lot of people heaping their plates full, shamelessly, and many going twice. Auntie Eeva doesn’t eat much, so I didn’t use her as example, but I was very careful, even though I was hungry, resisting some of the most inviting dishes because we were going to eat chicken as a main course, didn’t we… Didn’t want to fill myself with all the befores! Auntie Eeva told me later she ‘hadn’t been thinking’. She was going to tell me to go ahead and fill my plate well, but then figured that perhaps, this being my first smörgåsbord, I wasn’t the adventurous sort (food-wise speaking) and perhaps didn’t dare to try some unknown dishes. I felt so stupid when the chicken came: as small as a frog’s leg, with half an unpeeled potato and a lettuce leaf! And I still had soooo much space in my stomach! I threw out an eye on a stalk to look at the buffet again and couldn’t believe how silly I’d been. But Auntie Eeva was firm: “After the main course you can’t go back! Never mind, we go again soon. Don’t fret.” Then she laughed and patted my hand.
Ruth, I miss you. What fun we could have here together. And the place is gorgeous! Later I saw much more of it all of course, and it became kind of ‘normal’, but that first time with Auntie Eeva left me kind of ‘drunk’ with excitement and wonder. It’s so, so different from our towns (I suppose you felt the same in Switzerland when you arrived)… we went to the Senate Square, an amazing place! I’ve never seen anything like it before – well, I haven’t seen much before, have I now – but it’s huge, and all the buildings around it are, well, immense and making you feel small and insignificant. Auntie Eeva explained that the architect was a C.L. Engel who built the Cathedral, the Council of State and Helsinki University in the mid nineteenth century. Neo-classical. Whatever. It’s awesome.
Then we went to the Market Square; Auntie Eeva showed me the statue of the Finnish mermaid, ‘Havis Amanda’; then we took the ferry to the Suomenlinna sea fortress just outside of Helsinki. Taking the ferry back to the Market Square, I saw the splendour of Helsinki spread out before me and knew I’d soon be out on my own with the camera. I can’t believe the huge orthodox church, the Uspenski Cathedral. It’s got golden cupolas against a redbrick facade and those ‘drunken’ orthodox crosses – must be quite a reminder for the Finns of their past as a ‘Russian colony’ in the nineteenth century. Auntie Eeva said that the Finns never stopped hating the Russians and mentioned the Winter War. So much to find out about!
She showed me where I’ll soon have to go shopping: for fish from the little boats bobbing up and down in the little ‘harbour’ and for meat, veggies etc to the stalls in the square. Got quite scared at the thought! Have to learn some Finnish soon! When I told her my misgivings, she only laughed. “Don’t be impressed with my Finnish, it’s terrible. I’ve been brought up to speak Swedish (we all have) and Finnish is awfully difficult for me, I am not very good at languages. Give me mathematics any time!” Apparently Finnish is not really a Scandinavian language at all, got something in common with Hungarian – they kind of separated thousands of years ago. Anyway, I can’t possible live here without speaking some of it… Soon there’ll be more letters. Have to go and take this one to the post office or you never have any news from me. Write!
Loads of love. Your excited and renewed friend.
Before Auntie Eeva ‘shoved’ me out to fend for myself, she took me out a few more times to show me more of her beloved city, allowing me to begin to find my way around, to understand the layout and geographically relate places to where we lived. I soon felt ready to go on discovery trips on my own, always accompanied by my Finnish pocket dictionary and a mini phrase book. Auntie Eeva taught me the names of what I had to buy, translating the shopping lists from German to Finnish.
I learned that Finland was ‘dry’, that they’d opted for prohibition like they did in the US in the early 20s and 30s, that you had a little ‘passport’ for your monthly alcohol rations, given out by the state-owned OY Alkoholiliike ABs, the only places where one could buy any form of alcohol, and that this alcohol ‘passport’ was occasionally accepted by the police as replacement for a left-at-home identity card. However, a very weak beer, perhaps the first (almost) non-alcoholic beer every brewed, could be bought together with the daily milk. I also learned that all my uncles had their cellars full of the best wines, whiskeys, brandies and liqueurs, and that most of them were alcoholics. So the lesson was quickly taught: there was, as always, one law for the poor and one for the rich and all bad laws are there to be broken.
Very soon I found my way around town without a second thought, but still marvelled every day at the ‘differentness’ of it all. A feeling of being a new person in a new world with new futures, with doors opening to new universes took hold of me, filling me with promise and touching me like a wind coming in from the sea, laden with the secrets of the places where it’s been, telling unheard stories in whispers, offering endless possibilities.
For a while I lived in some form of isolation, cut off from ordinary conversations. I began to learn some Swedish, polished my English and made some brave inroads into Finnish – but that soon left me frustrated, and I never got beyond the most essential Finnish, even though I just had a weird, almost telepathic understanding of the topics people talked about, or the topics I saw on the front pages of the newspapers. So, unless someone deliberately and generously addressed me in either German or English, I lived in conversational no-man’s land. All the members of my family (as most Finns) spoke at least Swedish, English and German fluently and were always too polite not to address me in my mother tongue. By comparison to such accomplishments I felt again like the little country cousin but on my way to address that problem.
“My dear, I forgot you smoke. I brought you an ashtray.” What a difference to my mother sniffing me disapprovingly whenever I got home. “By the way, I came to tell you about Vapunaatto. Your nephew, Pekka, has called and invited you to join him and his friends. They are all students at Helsinki University, and Vappu is being celebrated on the night from 30th April to 1 May. Pekka thought you’d enjoy that.”
“Oh, yes, Vapunaatto is the day when the Finnish students put on their white caps again. They get stored away in the winter. Well, I suppose any old excuse to get drunk.”
“Drunk, Auntie Eeva? I thought Finland is ‘dry’?”
She throws her head back and laughs which makes her look very young. “Never fear, they have their ways. We always did. You’ll see. So, will you go?”
“Of course I’ll go, Auntie Eeva. How nice of Pekka to think of me… I thought he had forgotten all about his young aunt!”
“No such luck, my dear. You are quite the celebrity here. And the old guard all knew and loved Julius, your father… we remember him often when we gather. And here you are now to remind us how the years have passed. We all were young then.” She sighs, and smiles. “I tell Pekka that you’re happy to join him on Vappu night. He’ll come and pick you up. It’s only two days from today.”
It had been cold, but the streets were free of snow. By now I had acquired the right gear for the weathe; and for going out ‘dressed up’ I’d learned to wear normal shoes together with galoshes (a partly see-through plastic ‘over-shoe’ which one took off just after entering the restaurant or the home to which on was invited). But I clearly needed a dress for the occasion. Auntie Eeva didn’t hesitate. “Let’s go and buy one immediately,” she said with such energy and joy it seemed it was she who was Cinderella going to the ball. “Haven’t had such fun for a long time…” We put on our woollies, our warm coats, scarves, ear muffs and boots and went off to buy me a party dress. Wow! It wasn’t so much the dress that threw me, it was her attitude. Remembering Mum and her puritan ways, I couldn’t believe this wonderful woman actually looked forward to the evening on my behalf.
“And, Annemarie, darling, be prepared… you have to survive the night because at eight in the morning, everyone goes to the centre of town to sing the traditional songs.”
“Auntie Eeva, you mean we are going to stay out all night?”
“Of course, my dear. Vappu is Vappu. From 12.00 o’clock on 30th April to 12.00 on 1st May. Why? If you feel tired during the night or just have had enough of the festivities, you just come home. I am sure Pekka will take you. I’ll talk to him when he comes to pick you up. You’ll have the key, just take off your shoes and tip-toe so you don’t wake me. Remember, I am an oldie and need my beauty sleep!”
So, things could be different. I was still a bit shocked but exhilarated. I felt as though I had arrived at the gates of a place where I’d been imprisoned for as long as I could remember, and some kind soul had just handed me the key to the door where I had spent years contemplating what it would be like to pass through it to the outside and walk free.
I understood that it wasn’t any longer a question of where I was – in Germany, Finland, Russia, the North Pole or deepest, darkest Africa. Yes, it helped to leave one’s tribe as it were, not to be remembered, not to be reminded of one’s childhood ‘sins’, of one’s embarrassments and the various unfortunate steps taken in wrong directions for sheer lack of experience; but this was the true freedom: the gift of being considered a responsible adult, a human being who can be trusted to survive. Cut loose. Go on, swim. Everyone does it.
Pekka was early.
“Hej, hello Auntie!” He grinned. He bent over Auntie Eeva’s hand and looked up.
“Hej.” “Hej, Pekka.” He checked me out with his eyes. “Not bad for an old aunt, I’d say!” and grinned again. Perhaps he wasn’t so bad. Just because he looked boring, had that white, white skin and was a bit on the fat side, didn’t mean we couldn’t have a good night out. I was pulling on my galoshes.
“Never mind those. I have a taxi waiting. But take them with you, you never know. They promised snow for the morning. You’ll come singing, won’t you?”
We were on our way. We’d rave the night away in ‘Kalastajatorppa’ which I understood to be a posh restaurant and bar, a place where weddings and other celebrations took place and, of course, the big Vappu party. I saw a beautiful, large, round reception area, with part of its walls covered in ivy, in the middle of what seemed to be a park. Inside, wherever I looked, there were large groups of noisy young people. Pekka took my hand, threw out some “Hejs!” as fleeting greetings on the way to finding the table where his friends were waiting for him and his aunt.
I am Alice and this surely is Wonderland. There are many Swedish and Finnish-speaking White Rabbits and definitely a whole lot of Mad Hatters. During the night I keep eating from both types of mushrooms and shrink and grow in turn. We dance, we drink, we sing – they love “My Bonnie is over the ocean…” That’s fine by me, at least I can join in. I don’t understand a word unless they address me in either German or English, which is becoming more and more sporadic as the night wears on. Pekka explains that we are drinking sima, alcohol of often very creative origins, and in this case liquor made from wood – potent stuff. Made for the occasion by some of the students. Finnish ‘moonshine’.
Midnight. A shout goes up from hundreds of throats. They throw their white caps into the air before putting them on their heads. From now on everyone is wearing one – more or less. More drinks, more songs, more madness. I am also getting drunk and begin to feel ill. I stop drinking, and thankfully Pekka doesn’t notice. He’s been urging me on all night. “Here, drink, auntie,” (he keeps calling me ‘auntie’, it seems to give him some kind of thrill) “Vappu night’s for celebrating. Go on…”
Everyone is sweating, moving, kissing… now we are going upstairs, why we do this I don’t remember… and as I look back I see a couple making love in a recess. The other revellers just ignore them. Someone has thrown up on the stairs.
Pekka and I are in another part of the building. Here a group of musicians play traditional Finnish dances; this is the foot-tapping sort, and I prepare to listen and watch the dancers who clearly know what they are doing and move beautifully – almost in formation – when Pekka pulls me onto the dance floor, “Go on, just do as I do, look at the others. It’s not difficult. Great fun!” and he whirls me about, we stomp and sway. He is sweating profusely now. “Come on, auntie, I have to go outside for a moment.” Outside he pulls me close and tries to kiss me. I turn away trying to avoid his sweaty face; so he kisses my neck instead, like a vampire. Suddenly he turns away, throws up, wipes his mouth and checks his shoes. He looks like a white, fat slug, glistening wet in the lights that reach him from the inside of the restaurant and touch his face. We turn to go back inside.
It’s getting light. I’d swear it’s an army of ghosts that moves out in private cars and taxis, on foot, on bicycles. All in coats, scarves, galoshes and white caps. It’s gently snowing now. Our taxi stops at the Market Place, where the Finnish mermaid, Havis Amanda, is surrounded by crowds of young people, on her head a white cap. “Shit, we got here too late,” says Pekka, almost sober again. “They’ve capped her already. And that’s what I wanted you to see more than anything else!” The crowd of students gets bigger. Some have umbrellas; many don’t and don’t seem to mind. The faces I see turned up to look at the manta (the short Finnish nickname for their mermaid), are sober now, some smiling, most are serious; snow rests lightly on some beards and coat collars before becoming just another drop of moisture: they sing loud and lustily – often rather melancholic tunes – and of course I don’t understand a word and, sadly, can’t join in. But in their eyes, instead of massive hangovers, I see hope and great expectations.
It’s a moving finale to a night of excesses – it’s Finland, it’s prohibition and it’ll be another year until the next Vapunaatto.
Thank you for your last letter. I apologise for the delay in answering, but there is just so much to do (and to see) and to take in. Then ( I knew you’d understand) I had to write all those cards “wish you were here”. Lies, all lies. I am so happy that nobody is here with me. Well, not quite, it would be absolutely fabulous to share this adventure with you.
God, Ruthie, you’ve fallen in love with a professional roller skater? Max is going to have kittens! This is so exciting … and he skates in a circus. I can’t take it!
And here’s your old friend getting kissed by a slug… well, it’s my – can you believe it – nephew, Pekka. The Finns have this custom: the students wear these white caps in spring and summer and put them into mothballs during the winter. So they have something called ‘Vappu’ which takes place on the night from 30 April to 1 May (it seems that ‘Vapunaatto’ is the translation of what we call Walpurgis Night, the witches sabbath of old, and is just an excuse to go completely off the rails,) and Pekka took me to this supposedly rather posh party. He got terribly drunk (I too got pissed but stopped drinking because I wasn’t feeling terribly well with it) and he tried to kiss me when we took a breather outside. Then he threw up. He only got to my neck with the kissing bit (not the throwing up!) but, Ruthie, that’s another thing you didn’t tell me about: I got home with those huge great dark blotches on my neck. I didn’t know what it was. Can you believe it was Auntie Eeva who told me they were ‘hickeys? And then she shrugged, saying, “Part of the battle…” and laughed when she saw my face. “Just put on a little neck scarf for a few days. They’ll disappear in a week or so. Never happened before? You are lucky!” And the woman is almost seventy. When I think of Mother (with a capital M, of course), I can’t believe the difference. Auntie Eeva has brought up three kids, my cousins. They don’t know how lucky they are.
Then Cousin Brita and her fiancé (that’s another thing: they are not married and nobody bats an eyelid about them going away together – I like it here) took me on a camping trip. They brought everything – and an extra sleeping bag for me. The night before we left I could barely shut my eyes.
Ruth, this country is so beautiful. We went from Helsinki to Porvoo, Lappeenranta, the Punkahrju, Ilomantsi, Oinaansalmi, Joensuu, Tohmajärvi, Kitee, Kerimäki and back through the Punkaharju, Savonlinna, Mikkeli, Heinola, Lahti, Mäntsälä, Tuusula and Helsinki. There were more places in between, of course. And those I mentioned, just look them up. Go on, I dare you! Ha! (And that’s what the language is like… help!)
It was an unforgettable trip in many ways and I’ve taken a shitload of photos. At one point I ran out of film and was desperate because I thought I’d see all this wonderful sights and couldn’t take another picture. But Brita and Olli asked around in one of the villages and were told that a photographer lived in the next village, and that he’d probably have some film to sell. When we got there and asked someone, they insisted we’d first sit down and eat and then go looking for the man. Brita explained to me that hospitality was virtually law in the North because the distances are such that, especially in the old days (and especially on the cold days!), travellers would not have survived without hospitality generously given and shelter offered to spend the night. She also told me that in the old days the farmers used a frog suspended by a string tied to one of its legs to keep the buttermilk stirred and therefore fresh, not having fridges. By struggling to get out, the frog kept the milk moving. Yuk!
We often had to wade through water up to our crotches when we were moving from island to island. Brita and Olli had miscalculated a bit. The frost had lasted longer this year and the water was a meter higher than it would have been at the same time in other years. Well, we just took off our shoes, socks and pants and hoped the knickers would stay dry. In some cases we found big, long logs and balanced on them. Uff!
But the piece de resistance was the bear. What, I hear you ask? Well, I have to have something to counter your roller skater! You can’t be the only one with screwball news! One night, in the tent (I couldn’t sleep right away) I heard some of the tins we’d left there from supper clank against each other. There were snuffling noises and some serious rustling. I slept nearest the tent flap, so I just had to sit up (careful not to make a noise) and move the flap aside a bit. When I looked out, I wasn’t sure whether I should freak or just shut up and enjoy the spectacle. Decided in favour of the latter and had the good fortune to observe a big bear in the moonlight. It rolled the tins around with its paws and tried to lick some clean, sniffed around some more, probably decided it wasn’t worth it, took a swing at the log on which we’d been sitting, looked once in the direction of the tent (my heart was beating to loud I thought the bear would hear it and make for me), and waddled off into the wood. That’s when Brita and Olli woke up and I told them about what I’d just seen. They were a bit miffed at having missed the excitement, but Olli said that spring is not the season when you want to mess with bears. They are either rutting or having their young or whatever, I don’t remember, but I am happy it only took one evil look at the tent before deciding to shuffle off.
Somewhere near the Russian border (the Russians kept the Eastern part of Finnish Karelia after the Winter War) we found an empty farmhouse. It looked as though the owners had left in a hurry. Nothing had been cleared away. Plates and cups on the tables as though only just used, the beds were unmade – everything full of a thick layer of old dust – and a calendar from 1949, with a glamour photo of Ingrid Bergman on the title page, had remained on the wall. Not far from the farmhouse we’d nearly fallen into one of the old trenches. I found a bayonet and shall bring it home to show you.
Olli got the sauna going. When I went to have a look, smoke was filling the small wooden room. He explained that it was a very old ‘smoke sauna’ (he said ‘savusauna’) and that it was the very best sauna and nowadays quite rare. The smoke from the fire was allowed to fill the room until the sauna was hot and ready (I think there were some small openings just under the roof where some of the smoke could escape). Then Olli cleaned out the embers and opened the door for a moment to get rid of the worst smoke. When we went in the air was still thick and, with the heat, the smell of old wood smoke was seeping out of the wooden benches.
My first sauna. Brita and Olli both took their clothes off without a second thought and laughed at me when I hesitated. I felt stupid and vulnerable, but forgot my physical shyness soon with the novelty of it all. Brita told me to start at the bottom bench and slowly move up. The heat took my breath away – for a moment I was grabbed by something close to claustrophobia – and the wood smoke stung my throat a bit. Soon my skin was wet with sweat and glistened in the candle light. I moved up one bench feeling very brave. But Brita was relaxing at the top, and Olli had just slipped down to pour a ladle of water over the hot stones. When the steam hit my skin and my face, the heat became unbearable. Even though I moved down a level and as far away from the stones as possible I felt very uncomfortable. Didn’t want to be chicken and run out too soon and, after holding on for a while longer, I was still hot but feeling better. Soon the three of us longed for a dip in the ice-cold water of the little lake only a few steps away. We slowly immersed ourselves in the black water using the primitive ladder attached to a rickety little jetty; my body was longing for cold. We stayed perhaps three minutes before we surfaced, climbed up on the jetty and picked up our towels. And then we noticed that we were black with soot wherever our skin had touched the dirty, smoky old benches.
On the way back to Helsinki we stopped somewhere by the sea and Brita suggested we’d have a swim. Even Olli wasn’t convinced, but she bullied us into it. Without the heat of the sauna to help resist the cold, the water was freezing. I swam a bit and was sure I was going blue and stiff within seconds. How could they bear it? They clearly couldn’t either. Olli soon clambered out and Brita followed, offering me her hand to pull me up onto the rocks were we sat for a while, wrapped into our towels, expecting too much of a still weak sun. “That’s not more than four degrees perhaps,” said Olli and looked accusingly at Brita.
In the evening, it was already dark and Olli was still driving – he wanted to get us to Helsinki that same night – we passed a signpost that said Järvenpä. “That’s it,” said Olli. We have to make one last stop. And, Ruth, we got to a cottage which Olli called ‘Ainola’ which belongs to Jean Sibelius! There was a gravel path on which we, quietly as mice – well, it’s a bit difficult on a gravel path, but we tried – feeling like thieves, walked closer to the cottage to look in through one of the lit windows. We saw no-one and, just before getting really close, our courage left us and we walked no further.
Oh, dearest Ruthie, I am having such a good time! Last week of June we’ll be off to my cousin Helvi. She’s inherited this island from her dad, my uncle, near this town called Tammissari where she runs a little farm and where apparently Auntie Eeva and I will spend the summer. But Auntie Eeva told me that she’ll take me on a trip to the North-West of Finland before then and that Magnus has invited me to join them for one of the concerts during Sibelius week. I’ll write. You have no idea how excited I am and how happy.
I love you forever.
Your exceedingly happy friend,
The final part of book 3, the conclusion of Rose’s novel, will be published here next Sunday. The rest of the ‘adventures of Annie’ can be read in THE TELLING.
If you’d like your novel to be considered, please see https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/novel-nights-in.
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