Translated and introduced by Sarah Death
This article appeared in the 2013:S issue.
It is 1938, and Hitler’s expansionist policies are causing alarm around Europe, not least among the members of the debating and drinking fraternity known as the Wednesday Club. One of its members, Claes Thune, is losing interest in both his social life and his legal practice in Helsinki. Recently divorced, he feels he is at a crossroads in his life. His outwardly efficient new secretary Matilda Wiik is tormented by memories of the 1918 civil war and terrible things she experienced as a sixteen-year-old girl in an internment camp. If she is to find any stability in her new life, she must suppress the more unruly and unstable side of herself that she calls ‘Milja’. But events are destined to make this a very hard resolution to keep.
By half an hour after lunch, Matilda had typed the outgoing letters, put them in envelopes and stuck on the stamps. She raised her eyes and looked out over Kaserntorget: the mist had thickened over the square and she could scarcely make out Broadcasting House on the other side.
She got up, intending to knock on Thune’s door and ask if she could leave early, at three o’clock. Several clients had been to see the lawyer that morning; she had shown them in but had scarcely seen him otherwise, apart from when he dictated the two letters. The letters were short and reserved in tone, bordering on the brusque. Thune had eaten his lunch in his office, liver paste and pickled gherkin sandwiches, clumsily wrapped in greaseproof paper; she had seen him take them out of his briefcase earlier that morning. The sandwiches looked dry and shrivelled and she wondered to herself what he would have to drink with them. Small beer, perhaps; there was a cupboard for keeping things cool on the wall by the window and she had seen brown bottles inside it. She knew Thune was recently divorced and he did not seem to have got into a routine at home yet.
The door opened and the lawyer’s long head, virtually bald, appeared round it. Matilda hastily resumed her seat and waited for him to address her. Thune looked a bit like Stan Laurel, she had noticed it the first time they met, for her interview. Now, as he stood there with his shoulder propped against the doorpost and his hands in his trouser pockets, there was something almost snake-like about him. This snaky impression was an optical illusion, thought Matilda, a Milja thought, a mirage in her head. Thune’s suit was as ill-fitting as always; today’s colour was crumpled blue.
She quite liked Thune. He could be a bit conceited at times, though he did not seem aware that he was doing it, his clothes were a mess and he occasionally said peculiar things. But he was kind, too, and seemed fair. Intelligent and kind, it wasn’t a combination you found very often. Not among the clients who came to Thune’s office, at any rate. Loud and artificially genial, that was Matilda’s impression. Some of them looked straight through her as if she didn’t exist, while others eyed her up impudently.
‘Mrs Leimu’s got a nasty cold,’ said Thune, sounding harassed as he went on: ‘She’s at home in bed. Grönroos will be here for his appointment in a few minutes and the Wednesday Club is meeting at the office this evening. I wonder if you could see your way to going down the Covered Market to pick up the last few things, Mrs Wiik?’
Mrs Leimu was Thune’s housekeeper and, since the divorce, his general factotum. Without her, practical concerns would have overwhelmed him. And Leopold Grönroos was one of the members of the Wednesday Club, perhaps the wealthiest. Landlord, rentier, speculator, miser, rake, they were all names she had heard applied to Grönroos, even though she had only been at Thune’s for six weeks.
Grönroos: the same time every week, Wednesday afternoon at two-thirty sharp. Presumably he and Thune would go and sit in the little room again,the Inner Chamber, for a long, thorough discussion of Grönroos’s capital investments. Grönroos would punctuate the discussion with gestures of irritation; his fleshy fingers would drum nervously on the table. Each time Thune calmly indicated some risk of reduced dividends, Grönroos would wrinkle his nose. When they had talked for an hour or so, Thune would call Matilda in and ask her to bring the port and whisky from the drinks cabinet in his room. He would suggest ‘a snifter’ and Gröonros would initially decline, citing his gout, which was getting worse with every passing year.But Grönroos would then change his mind and before long, he and Thune would be enjoying their second or third snifter. By then they were no longer talking about money but had moved on to long-distance runners and classical composers, and eventually, by the fourth or fifth snifter, they would no longer be sober. All this Matilda had observed as she brought them files and account books and served them drinks. The Inner Chamber was always quite dimly lit, with firelight from the tiled stove and just one small lamp; that was how Thune wanted it. But if the room had been brighter she would still have been able to observe them unseen; they were so engrossed in their conversation that they were all but oblivious to her coming and going.
She was disappointed at the way the day was going, but hid her feelings as best she could. The Wednesday Club was Thune’s drinking fraternity, which gathered at the home of one of the members on the third Wednesday of the month; that was pretty much all Matilda knew about it. But she realised that if Mrs Leimu was ill and the March meeting was to be held here at the office, she would not be able to get away early.
‘What do you want me to get from the Covered Market, sir?’ she asked.
‘Farmhouse paté, something good and substantial,’ said Thune. ‘A couple of cheeses, well-matured. Salted biscuits, get the British ones. And green olives, stoned. The Italian sort, not the Spanish. Get two jars.’
Thune pulled his spectacles down to the tip of his nose and gave her a kindly look: ‘And haven’t I told you there’s no need to sir me and Mr Thune me, all the time? We can be less formal.’
He fished his wallet out of the pocket of his crumpled jacket, flicked through the bundle of paper money and extracted a fifty-mark note. Thought better of it, thrust it back in and took out a hundred-mark note instead:
‘Could you drop in at the off-licence as well, Mrs Wiik? Two bottles of port and two of whisky. Ask for the manager, Lehtonen. He took the order; they didn’t have them on the shelf.’
Matilda took the banknote and glanced at it. In the foreground there was a picture of a group of naked, athletic-looking people, while in the background, several factory chimneys were belching out thick smoke. Had Thune noticed that the woman on the far left had a very shapely bottom? Of course he had, thought Matilda, silently answering her own question.
Later, she would remember that there was a smoky, almost benevolent quality to the mist that day. Not the usual March greyness, bare and grim, with floes and little blocks of ice tossed in the inner basins of the harbour where the water was still entirely black. In its place a milder grey, a quilt to wrap yourself in. Rather like September, when the heatwaves had abated and the last thunderstorms had passed over.
An atmosphere of unreality hung over the city. Life like a dream, a blurry mirage. There was that word again; she wondered why it kept popping into her mind. Then she remembered Konni. He had written to her in February from Åbo, where he lived, and where Arizona had been engaged to play at the Hamburger Börs Hotel for the whole winter. He had told her about the new songs he’d written, among them one called exactly that, Mirage.
Konni had said he wanted to record Mirage with Arizona, but he was short of money and was wondering whether to sell it to Dallapé or The Ramblers. He had sold songs before, when Arizona’s records were doing badly. Her dear little brother Konni. They hadn’t seen each other for almost a year now, and Matilda missed him. They had lived apart for many years when Matilda was growing into a young woman and Konni was still a child, neither of them knowing what had happened to the other. They were close, even so, and wrote each other letters when they couldn’t meet in person. But Konni very rarely wrote about his feelings or anything serious that was on his mind. He and Tuulikki had had another baby in November, which meant they now had three, and they had been short of money in the first place. Matilda sometimes wondered if Konni was really all right.
She brushed aside all thoughts of her brother and ran her errands mechanically. She was not fretting about having to abandon her own plans. That was life, things seldom turned out the way you expected. She was used to fitting in with other people and that was one reason why she was so good at her job. And anyway, it didn’t look as though the evening would have been as much fun as she’d planned. She had felt a dull ache in her midriff and groin as she hurried across Kaserngatan. The bleeding would start soon, probably this evening, and her stomach usually hurt for the first twenty-four hours.
It started to rain and suddenly there were queues everywhere; her purchases took longer than she had expected and by the time she got back to the office, Thune and Grönroos were no longer alone. The Wednesday Club had arrived; she could hear the chuckling male voices as soon as she started up the stairs, a lively buzz of activity. The office was in a block built at the start of the century and had no lift, so she toiled up the stairs with Mrs Leimu’s splint basket in one hand and the net bag full of bottles in the other. She could hear the voices plainly now; the men were presumably gathered in the outer room, with the door to the landing open. She could hear Thune’s voice, and Grönroos’s, and several she didn’t know; they were talking in that loud, exaggeratedly jovial way men do when they haven’t seen each other for a while.
Among the unfamiliar voices there was one she recognised. At first she couldn’t place it, but it made her feel uneasy and she soon began to remember whose it was. And when she heard the man say something humorous – she could not make out what it was, or who it was addressed to – and laugh at his own words, then she knew. The voice had perhaps deepened a little, but the laugh was still exactly the same.
The male voices echoed in the stairwell, came gushing down towards her in an unstoppable torrent. She was transported to another time. An open window. Summer. Outside the window a flat area of sand, a wide, sundrenched, dusty training ground. A single, tall tree, an ancient pine, broke the monotony. She had heard them call the place The Sahara. She felt unwell and longed to be out there. Longed for it, even though she knew that someone died every day as they worked, of hunger and weakness. She could hear voices, people in the same room as her, speaking several different languages.
Her eyes resolutely directed out of the window, the seat sticking to her thighs, her cold, bare feet.
She waited, partway down the staircase. She heard rapid footsteps and then the door closed up above. The voices subsided into a low murmur, and receded still further as the men moved from the reception room into Thune’s office. Matilda stood immobile as the silence descended, stifling and roaring. She was cold all over and her legs felt unsteady and weak, as if they would never be able to carry her again.
Then she pulled herself together, took a firm grip on the net bag and the basket of cheese and other groceries, and continued up the stairs.