Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Olli Jalonen: 14 Knots to Greenwich - 4

[pp. 306-308]

Petr died in the back seat of a six-wheeled Land Rover, somewhere near Zvezda, where there must have been a hospital, and doctors. And it's possible that he didn't die of pneumonia, as the death certificate says, but perhaps by falling, when he struck his head. And the hospital was not a hospital but a maternity clinic which the locals called The Red Star Orphan Factory, Sirotskii zavod Krasnoi Zvezdy. That was how I translated it, but of course it didn’t have an official name, and on newer maps the village isn’t called Red Star but just Zvezda. Star, the little village of the Star with its maternity clinic-cum-kindergarten, one doctor and a midwife and some porters and night staff. Almost up to that point Petr held on to life, but never managed to get to the stage of beginning medication and an intravenous drip.

We got there in the TradChannel Travels high wheeled Land Rover. It had been built on a Ural chassis, the size of a small truck on the outside, and insulated with boards and leather on the inside to make it warmer. We sat under the rollbars, held in place by four-point seatbelts, and made the final stretch of the journey as straight across the rocky, snow-sloped landscapes as Pyotr-Pavel dared to drive.

Petr must have died right at the turning-off point to the road that led to the clinic, but none of us noticed at once. I suppose that is often how a person dies, alone. Graham held Petr by the shoulders and sobbed. Isla sobbed. I turned away and looked past them, out at the universal snow. I felt hot and cold at the same time, but I couldn’t cry, there was an absence of what had been there only a short time ago.

I would not have managed it by myself. Graham showed me how to bind up Petr’s jaw in the way that this is done for dead people. I unfastened the zipper of Petr’s jacket, loosened his scarf and tied his jaw with it from below. I pressed his eyes gently, and they remained closed.

Although as he grew older Petr had increasingly come to look like my mother, I remembered my father, now almost a year ago, it had also been winter then, only with more snow, and real night.

The Zvezda maternity clinic was relatively large and clean, a two-storey section-built establishment with plaster surfaces that had remained almost white. Within its corridors and communal kitchens one could not fail to notice that the inmates were exclusively young women and very small children. There was a preponderance of Russian-looking types, and there were also more Koreans than Chukchi. The name Red Star Orphan Factory suggested that women went there to give birth but soon left it again, and without their children.

Some of the women did remain there, and they had to nurse the children of the rest for as long as their breast-milk could be made to last. Children under one year old were sent to other establishments to await adoption by wealthy Muscovites or foreigners from Asia or Europe.

I got caught up in the place, and wandered around the corridors looking and asking questions and trying to forget Petr. The doctor who wrote on the death certificate that the cause of death was pneumonia came straight to the point and replied shortly and succinctly that it was still better that the organization saw to it that the children who were born came into the world under decent conditions and that the mothers who gave birth were kept alive rather than be pricked by the needles of some charlatan and give birth to miscarried foetuses in a corner somewhere, or leave their newborn infants blue with cold at the doors of various institutions.

It was hard to think of any riposte to that. The Orphan Factory doctor, whose name was Vera, explained that the local people had produced more children only because of Russia’s history. In the large cities of Tsarist Russia there had sometimes been many enormous maternity hospitals which needed thousands of professional wet-nurses, both there and in the orphanages, divided into children's dormitories, which had grown up beside them. Those places had been needed then, and after the revolution no one had wanted to get rid of them. Some of them had begun to experiment with the educational methods of the new society, because abandoned children did not carry the burden of the erroneous prejudices of their parents but were open to the future, and their minds were a genuine tabula rasa on which it was easy to write new things.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Olli Jalonen - 14 Knots to Greenwich

Olli Jalonen - 14 Knots to Greenwich - 2

Olli Jalonen - 14 Knots to Greenwich - 3

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