Thirty years ago, I spent a happy year in Jakobstad, a small town on the coast of Ostrobothnia. Now, decades later, Hanna Klingenberg, a native of that town, has written a short story about the feel of the town. Little has changed in the three decades:
The first days back in Jakobstad were always the worst. When I had been living for longer periods in larger cities I tended to forget how people behaved here. Where every street corner was charged with a sensitive memory. And where I couldn’t just glide past and wander about in my own thoughts but would be interrupted by some old figure of authority. The district nurse. My former classmate’s strict stepfather. My ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. They would pop up everywhere, in doorways, on viaducts, waving madly.
I preferred to drive through the centre first. Then I could whizz along the pedestrian precinct on a bicycle, towards somewhere far out of town. After that, I would perhaps dare to take a walk around.
In the library I caught sight of my old gym teacher. She was standing some stacks away and I immediately rushed up to her and gave her a long, heartfelt hug.
"Hej!" I said.
"Hej!" she replied.
"Long time no see!" I said.
"That’s for sure!" she said.
"How are you getting on?" I asked.
"Great!" she replied. "Nice it’s now summer."
Then we somehow slid apart. I walked along the stacks, studied the spines of books and gradually remembered that I never got more than seven out of ten in gymnastics. I had skived, not bothered to shower, been careless with dropping catches, letting the ball fly past me. And had I made a habit of hugging teachers? Even before, when I was a pupil? I can only remember hugging a teacher on one occasion, and it wasn’t me that hugged the teacher, but he hugged me. I was in the eighth form at the time, and my grandfather had just died. My physics teacher came up to me and lay his arm on my shoulder and offered his condolences. But went I think back to that hug I think mostly of the jumper which I happened to be wearing at the time. And this was in fact a man’s vest that I had bought at a jumble sale for one mark, and on which there was a rather strange text, criss-crossed right under the open neck. For men only was what it said. I remember all my sorrow about granddad disappearing for a short while, because I was wondering whether my physics teacher was really hugging me to console me. Or whether he had first spotted the text printed on my jumper.
Now my gym teacher and me bumped into each other again, by the art shelf. We looked kindly at each other and smiled slightly. I fixed my gaze on a book and read "Ernst Brillgren".
"Oh!" I exclaimed.
"What is it?" asked my gym teacher.
"Nå, I thought I read Brillgren, with and ‘r’," I laughed. "But it said Billgren, nonetheless. I’d read it wrong."
We slid apart again and I walked rapidly and determinedly towards the reading room. I sat down there and took out my green rough book. "Jakobstad is my pearl", is what I wrote in it.
"Pearls can be compared to myths spun / around crass truths. / Because the mussel spins its pearl / around something as tiny and insignificant as a grain of sand! / Am I the mussel that spins the myth around my Jakobstad? / Is the town really an insignificant grain of sand when it comes to it."
It ended up a crappy little poem. I wanted to stop writing immediately, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do so, as I felt there was a man standing and staring at me. I had to carry on, though it was dreadful to be stared at when you were being creative.
"When I dreamt feverish nightmares in the Jakobstad of my childhood / I always dreamt about grains of sand. / It would all start when I took up something that was so big I didn’t understand how big it really was. / And if I did understand it, I would only get giddy. / When I realised that the big thing I’d got myself involved in was in fact very tiny - when I realised that I was in fact inside a very tiny grain of sand that was light brown and hexagonal - well, then I would always get a panic attack. / What was huge was in fact very tiny. / That’s what my Jakobstad feels like too. / Little and big at one and the same time."
I wrote till my cheeks glowed. In the corner of my eye I could see the man standing and staring at me, uninterruptedly, intensively. Now it no longer mattered what I’d written in my rough-book. All that was important now was to be seen to be writing.
"Jakobstad, you are my pearl. But if I am to wear pearls they shall be in the shape of earrings. And the earring will only hang from one ear. / If it were a necklace it would have to be broken in some way. Otherwise it would become too / ladylike and frumpish / for me. / When I was little I used to chew on a necklace when I was doing my homework. It helped my concentration."
The sentences grew too long to be poetry. And I wrote the last sentence so carelessly that my pen slipped beyond the rough-book. The last word ended up on the desk surface. I blushed when I noticed. Now, you could bet your life that the man in the corner of my eye would be standing there laughing. That was the end of our flirtation. I just had to look up, and when I did I noticed that there hadn’t been a man standing and staring at all. It was a rack of brochures!
In Jakobstad anything can gawp at you.
I left the reading room immediately and mooched about, wandering past everyone I met on the street. Deeply absorbed in my own thoughts. One of the boys I passed was one I had slept with. We merely greeted each other. I remembered a simile that the clergymen would make during confirmation classes. "If you share out all your slices of cake right, left and centre, you’ll have no cake left for your wedding night!" Mum had come up with something similar. This was about pearls, as it happened: "Every boy you sleep with gets one of your pearls. It’s no fun standing there with a broken necklace on your wedding night, later on." She had no doubt forgotten that I used to chew on pearl necklaces.
Things were beginning to get better now. On the town square I passed the boy who had spread the story that I had driven through the centre one evening with the handbrake on, so that you could hear the squealing and screeching all over town. All I actually did was sit at the steering wheel, look surprised, and wonder what was making the screeching noise. We had never greeted each other before, so we didn’t this time either.
The story first appeared in the Finland-Swedish literary periodical Horisont 1/2009.
Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens