Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Olli Jalonen: 14 Knots to Greenwich - 5

[pp. 308-311]

On the morning after our arrival I was in one of the clinic’s communal kitchens. Two Korean women were cooking. One was in the last stages of pregnancy and the other had perhaps just given birth, as she had to pick her steps slowly with her legs apart. In a very large aluminium stew-pot rice was bubbling, and on the other gas ring pieces of chicken were frying in a pan. We had enough Russian in common for me to be able to ask questions and I understood that the women had lived or were still living in a camp for hired lumberjacks who had been brought from North Korea to Kamchatka. When I asked if they worked there or with their families, one of the women pursed her lips and smiled in such a way that I understood and felt embarrassed, they were slaves of the slaves, comfort women for the hard-currency lumbermen, who were sent from Kamchatka even further north to give birth to the fruit they had sold to other. I turned and looked out at the yard, where other women were piling up garbage and plastic on a pyre, sweeping shreds of cardboard into the flames and with a curved metal rod and burning their old belongings.

I saw Graham go round to the rear yard and approach the shed to which we had moved Petr in the evening as though we had been told to. One of the compartments into which the shed was divided had previously been used as a mortuary, and it had a low, narrow platform covered with pasteboard. As some of those hundreds who gave birth and having done so died, this compartment with its outdoor cold was the place they occupied before being buried in Zvezda cemetery.

I couldn't leave Petr in Chukotka. In the night I had thought about taking him back to Finland, how one arranged such things in an outlying area, whether there might be a consulate in Anadyr or Magadan or Vladivostok. The only thing I could think of at first was something I had read in a guidebook which said that in the event of a death one should telephone one’s consulate or embassy, if there was one, they would be able to help, they would be able to make arrangements and would know where one could order a zinc coffin. Why did it have to be zinc, it had kept me awake in the night, wondering whether it was just a figure of speech or did zinc stop the body from decomposing? Without that, transporting the body was impossible, it had be soldered in so that no diseases or the smell of death could spread.

As the mortuary was in the maternity clinic’s back yard, it was not necessary for the deceased to be taken there on a bier or in a silently gliding black limousine from the cold of the chapel. Through the corridor windows Graham and I were watched as we carried Petr wrapped in a sleeping bag out to the yard.

The body had stiffened almost into a foetal position, and as we carried it, it felt as though during the night it had somehow hunched up smaller. Graham carried the head end, and I the legs. The carrying was awkward, the weight was distributed unevenly. The frost had hardened even further, but as we carried the body sideways I felt so hot that I had to stop halfway and undo both the zips of my arctic jacket.

Isla walked beside us, women were watching us from above through the windows of both storeys, all young women, who were either going to give birth or had already done so, one held in her arms a bundle wrapped in white cloth. I looked around me enough to reflect that it almost felt good that everything in life passes and the days that are over just flow away.

People worry most about themselves. If they mourn, it is themselves that they are mourning for, and even though it may look as though they are mourning someone else, in a roundabout way it is for themselves, for the fact that an empty place has been left inside them.

This is not said in cold blood, I probably didn’t think like that in the Orphan Factory yard. In that sense, writing is being wise after the event. One can’t jot down the moment as it occurs, one is always too late and compares the past later on when it isn’t the same any more, but part of it exists, not all of it has evaporated and been swept away.

I remember that I went a little further to one side of the gate and looked around me. Graham was standing beside the body, Isla a few steps away. Women were still watching from the corridor windows, but there were not so many as when we had been carrying. Almost above us was the window of the communal kitchen where I had chatted with the Koreans in the morning. One of them, or perhaps just one who resembled them, was looking out, not at us and not at the yard but further away at the road and the other houses on the edge of the clearing.

I kept wondering about things like how long they stayed here before and after giving birth – Vera, the doctor, had not been very specific about any of the details, not even about the fact that the women who had given birth left the clinic but the newly born infants remained, and only because they required care and wet-nursing did some of the mothers have to stay, looking after their own infants and those of others.

Graham brought identities into it. I only understood properly later what the sheets of paper with printed rows of numbers and places and people’s names meant, the identities of those who had perhaps gone missing or died at birth, those who were given private emergency baptism, unregistered, whose identities some of the children born at the Orphan Factory received. It was easier that way, the transits and transportations went more swiftly, advance arrangements were not necessary at Russian airports, no bribes were required, and no one at Larnaca or Palermo needed to ask about visas.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff


Olli Jalonen - 14 Knots to Greenwich

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Olli Jalonen - 14 Knots to Greenwich - 3

Olli Jalonen - 14 Knots to Greenwich - 4

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