Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Dark Paradise

From: Dark Paradise, by Rosa Liksom

I was thirty-six when I went to serve my sentence up there in Hämenlinna. I stuffed my Yankee bag full of thick flannel underwear, so I wouldn’t freeze to death. I’d more or less prepared myself for the fact that the bedrooms there are incredibly damp, cold and horrible, but it wasn’t cold there. The rooms are okay, better than I had at home at that time. I’d really imagined it would be a damned labour camp with guards that whipped you while shouting horribly. But they weren’t like that, they were all quiet types who kept themselves to themselves. The work was just a bit of this and that, and nobody threatened you with a rifle if you sat on the john a bit longer than usual, the way people do in a factory. Actually, I’d say now looking back on it that it was better working there than in a factory. There you had a damned bourgeois pig hanging over your ass all the time, and if you took a breather once too often the pig would soon be giving you your notice. Up there in Hämenlinna you could have a cigarette, and even two, and the guards just yawned. I also had some very lazy guards or guardesses or whatever they’re called. There was one of them had this great round belly, and when she had to climb a few stairs she puffed and panted like a walrus. The other one had dropped out of college and gone to work in the prison instead. My god she looked depressed, as if she was going to call it quits any day now. The other women explained that this woman had said she wanted to finish her studies, get her degree and all that. But I don’t believe it. She was there when I arrived, and she’ll be there until she dies, mark my words. She’d probably never opened a book, was just putting a smart one over on us. I was there for nine years. You could get leave, but I never took any. Where would I have gone. There was hot food on the table every day. and on Sundays we were allowed to lie in until eight. I didn’t go on leave, though they tried to throw me out by force. I told them I’m not going anywhere and they couldn’t force me to go. They didn’t understand, but I was too shy to tell them that it was a question of principle for me. I’d decided long before anything happened that I was going to serve out the sentence I got, every single day of it, and even if they tried to chuck me out only halfway through, I wouldn’t go. And I stuck to my guns. I was there for exactly nine years, that makes 3,285 days plus two leap year days , and I was so precise that I waited at the door for exactly one hour and five minutes before I would agree to go out of it. I remember that the guy who was guarding that door looked at me as though I was a complete idiot, but just sat there and let the guy stare. So the matter was cleared up and I have never given it a moment’s thought since. I have made restitution to the state and my conscience and since the day they closed the door after me I have walked with a clear conscience and lived a new life. I began everything all over again from scratch. I was forty-five then, and in good shape. I was given a rail ticket to my home village and I took the first train early in the morning. Nothing much had changed there in nine years, it was all just the same. I trudged up to my old cottage, but it was hellishly cold and the windows were broken. It was early spring when I was released, and I thought, well, the house will manage over the summer. I nailed up planks over the windows, and lit the kitchen range. I’m one of those ladies who knows how to cope with life. I tore down the outside loo and used it as firewood, and then all I had to do was light the stove. It’s true that the villagers were a bit surprised. But nobody came to see who it was who’d lit the stove, they knew enough to be wary of me. The kitchen had gone to pot, everything upside down. The kids had been into it and made a mess, they’d tried to burn the rocking chair and smashed the crockery. I cleared it all up. I heated the place, chopped firewood and cleaned, and it wasn’t so bad. The first night I slept in the hay shed, there was just enough hay in it so I could manage. From time to time I went in and put more planks in the stove. Next morning the kitchen was warm. I could undo the zip on my thermal underwear a bit and sit down for a while. Then gradually the spring arrived and by then I’d moved the windows of the cowshed to the kitchen and my cottage was just like any other house. It was just that the villagers didn’t come to visit me. I didn’t get any help, and I only just managed to get food from the store. I got food money from the social security office when they wouldn’t take me back at the damned factory. Then when the summer was over and I’d sold the berries I’d picked I thought there’s no way in hell this is going to work out. I’d go crazy unless I was able to talk to someone. Up there in Hämenlinna there were always people around you chatting, but in my home village no one even said hello to me on the bus or spoke to me at all. So I thought that this way of life was just not going to work out for me. I went to the social security office and told the woman there to write me a ticket to the south and she did. I set the cottage on fire and left. It felt damn good to let it burn, and now I’d never need to go there again. I hopped off the train in Tampere and marched into a cleaning firm. I told the guy in a suit, he was probably the boss, to give a good woman a job. And he did. I went to a night hostel for women and stayed there for several months, cleaning. Cleaning was something I was good at before, and I’ve always been used to working. I’m not afraid of hard work. Then when winter came along I got a little cubby-hole of a place behind the railway station, and I lived there for nearly three years. I cleaned and saved and put my own house in order. I have always got long really well here in Tampere. Here I’ve always been treated like a human being and by workmates and neighbours talk to me normally and they don’t know anything about me. They don’t know and they don’t need to know that things were once so bad for me that I killed a man, even though I’m a just a slender little female. I went on cleaning for that firm for such a long time that last year I retired on a pension. For twenty years I cleaned, and lived like a human being. The I was turned out of that cubby-hole, and I got one of those one-roomed flats from the council, they really had to give me it. After all, I couldn’t live in a snowdrift and go to work as well. It was probably my boss who pulled a string or two there. I was the best cleaner in the whole firm, and he wasn’t exactly unaware of that. He probably called the city fathers on the phone and told them to give this woman a flat, or maybe he didn’t, who the hell knows. I got this flat, and I’ve made it really nice. I really liked being here on a pension, and now that I’ve brought the cat here as well, the time just flies by. I have a sofa and armchairs, a portable TV and a radio. I have everything and more. Plastic flowers and glass horses and god knows how many lace tablecloths. And no one even remembers that I was once in Hämenlinna prison and that I once stabbed that pig in the belly with a knife. Who wants to remember things like that when you have a flat like this and time to make yourself look nice and go out dancing.

Translated from Finnish by David McDuff

1 comment:

Eric Dickens said...

A very bleak sort of story. Deprimerande, liksom, så att säga. Anything to do with that town was, for me, bleak. I lived there for a year before moving to Österbotten in the late 1970s, and frankly, I felt imprisoned there without ever having seen the real prison. But living in the two-room cellar flat provided by the Finnish-British Society was somewhat lonely, so like the protagonist of this story, I fled - to Åbo every weekend, when I could get away and where I had friends from my sojourn at Åbo Akademi some years earlier. Somehow, this story brings it all back.