Translated by Kevin Halliwell
This article appeared in the 2013:S issue.
Kaj Korkea-aho (b. 1983) is a writer and stand-up comedian. This, his second novel, is a psychologically convincing portrayal of a group of young people trying to find their place in life. The detailed realism of his well-crafted evocation of everyday life in small-town, Swedish-speaking Finland is spiced with tense thriller aspects and intriguing supernatural elements in a society where old beliefs still linger on.
The platform was teeming with people, all meeting and greeting, backpacks and knapsacks. The train, which had been standing there humming and puffing as it waited for all its passengers to disembark, started to pull off again, slowly and with a creaking noise followed by a hiss as it gathered speed. Christoffer was lagging to one side just behind his dad, who had picked up his bag and was carrying it, even though it was the kind you could pull behind you on wheels. They zigzagged between people making their way slowly to the exit or standing there hugging each other, laughing and shaking hands excitedly. They were talking in dialect, which caught Christoffer’s attention and made all the different voices seem immediately familiar.
So ‘ow’s it gooin’ down there in Åbo then? asked a man about the same age as him of someone who may have been his brother.
Goodness me - look at’ size of ‘im! An old woman was bending down in front of a young couple with a child in a pushchair.
Valter’s never stopped mithering about when Ano’s coming! The young woman beamed from above the pushchair while her boyfriend smiled a silly smile.
The voices filled Christoffer with a sort of melancholy. It was nice to listen to, but even so he couldn’t stifle a patronising objection to how carefree their chatter sounded; so natural and confident that it somehow seemed provocative. The way everything was evidently just as it always had been; the way none of these people thought or even cared about the fact that their world was an anomaly in the bigger picture, that their everyday reality was a fragile bubble extending over a few measly kilometres.
The way they just kept gooin’, as they said in the local language. The way they just continued to do what they had always done, day after day.
Christoffer felt something crawling on his forehead and simultaneously heard a familiar whining noise. He brushed his hand across the top of his head. His father looked at him and smiled.
‘Kranka,’ said Christoffer. The Ostrobothnian word for mosquitos. ‘To think that I’d almost forgotten about them.’
His dad sounded amused: ‘Mmm, welcome to the real world.’
They had reached the car. Christoffer noticed that his anxiety had returned. His dad put the bag in the boot and took the suit bag that Christoffer was holding out to him. Christoffer watched to see where his dad was looking. He didn’t notice the ring, even though it glinted in the daylight as he took the bag from Christoffer’s hand.
His heart was pounding and his mouth felt dry. His dad spent a few moments rearranging the luggage in the boot and then closed it. Christoffer could feel the pressure building in his lungs, as if he was about to cough or say something, and it made him think of the evening he had come out to his dad. He had told his parents one at a time, starting with his dad, who he thought would be easier. He had chosen an evening when his mum was at the store, when his dad was sitting in front of the TV and Macke was out. It had felt like a completely impossible undertaking – like crossing an ocean in a paper boat – as he stood and gathered himself together in his room, faint with fear, with that same feeling of pressure in his lungs that he felt now.
Christoffer sat in the front seat and his dad started the car, drove out of the car park and waited for a gap in the line of traffic at the exit from the station area.
‘Well, how’s things?’ asked his dad.
Christoffer’s hands were on his knees, in full view. ‘Fine. The train was a bit boring.’
‘Mmm. How long does it take? Five hours?’
‘Four and a half. How are things here then?’
‘OK. My back was really bad for a while, but now it’s a bit better. I’ve been renovating the bathroom this past month. Started to retile the walls this weekend. So we’re having to shower in the sauna at the moment.’
His dad started telling him about the renovation project and, as they were driving through Bennäs, said there was a place there that sold building seconds cheap. Then they turned right and looped up onto the E8. Christoffer saw his middle school and high school pass by; white buildings and black windows, desolate as an abandoned hospital complex.
‘Want some?’ His dad was holding a packet of chewing gum and had just pushed a piece into his mouth. Almost automatically, Christoffer held out his left hand and his dad squeezed a couple of pieces into it. The white, oblong pillows of gum landed right next to the shiny silver engagement ring, and when Christoffer saw it his whole body stiffened and his mouth felt parched; surely his dad must have seen it now? But his dad put the packet back in his pocket and carried on talking about tiles and water damage.
Christoffer couldn’t believe it. Here was a man who was an accountant by profession, someone who could spot in an instant the slightest mistake in the accounts of major corporations; a man who could tell a willow warbler from a yellowhammer or a redpoll where most people only saw small birds; a man who, with a quick glance in the mirror and an almost imperceptible movement, could locate and remove the grey strands that sporadically appeared in his dark hair, but who, now that his own son was suddenly going around with an engagement ring on his left ring finger, seemed to have gone completely blind.
Christoffer pushed the chewing gum into his mouth and sat with his hands knotted tightly in his lap, looking out at the vast landscape, at the fields, the barns, the enclosures where indifferent cows had already turned the grass to a ridged, muck-coloured bog; saw the signs by the roadside that proclaimed the area to be a vibrant rural community and told motorists that they were now driving over Purmo Creek – as if a road sign could make that pint-sized stretch of water somehow more significant and more worthy of note.
‘When’s the funeral?’ His dad had now left his bathroom behind and his voice was hesitant.
Christoffer had been so wrapped up in his anxiety and brooding that he had completely forgotten the main reason he was home again. ‘Next Saturday, probably... I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask Ben.’
‘It’s terrible. You knew Sofie quite well didn’t you?’
‘Yeah, fairly well I suppose.’ Two images of Sofie came to him immediately. In the first one she was maybe eight years old, sneaking around in the trees and spying on Loke, Simon and him as they played in the woods. In the second, she was maybe sixteen or seventeen, sitting there surrounded by other girls in the den at the parish youth club in Stenbacka, laughing so hard that her mouth looked enormous. They hadn’t seen each other more than a handful of times since he moved to Åbo, but Christoffer had always liked her, never had a bad word to say about her. ‘Well, she and Ben were together a long time.’
‘Have you... spoken to him?’
‘He’s not answering.’
If Christoffer remembered rightly, Benjamin and Sofie had been together for six years. Engaged for the past two. Christoffer thought about Redas. They had been together for just over three years. The idea that Redas might suddenly die was absurd, impossible to imagine. How everything would change, every inch of every aspect of his existence, utterly and ruthlessly and all at once. How grief and loss must hang over everything like a pitch-black, suffocating blanket. What strength it must take to carry on.