The smart new ferry smelled of carpet freshener and paint. A large bellied man in uniform greeted the passengers with a smile at the end of a long ramp. ‘Welcome on board, Miss.’ My arm ached from carrying the suitcase and I barely managed a grimace in return. To my relief the luggage store was close by. I placed my heavy bag on a shelf and checked I had all I needed for the overnight crossing: Toiletries, a small towel and my purse. I placed the items into my small Marimekko holdall and went in search of the free bunk beds.
I felt like a refugee, fleeing Helsinki in the autumn of 1981. Escaping my unpaid rent and the wrath of my ex-boyfriend’s family. When my mother said on the phone, ‘Darling, come to Stockholm,’ I hadn’t hesitated. I had nothing to stay for. No money, no energy to study, no boyfriend. After the initial elation caused by the Englishman’s last letter, I’d began to doubt him again. I remembered his mother’s words about all his girlfriends and the Englishman’s own wish to remain free when he wasn’t with me. How ever much he missed me, he didn’t seem worried he might lose me. I wondered whether I should write a reply, but then, the night before I was due to leave, came a phone call.
‘To Stockholm, when?’
I told the Englishman he was lucky to have caught me. There was a silence.
‘What if I hadn’t called tonight?’
I didn’t say anything. I wanted to seem nonchalant, but his pain was hurting me. ‘I was going to write from Stockholm,’ I lied.
During the overnight crossing I slept very little. I had a prawn smörgås and a beer in the ship’s cafeteria before turning in with a large bar of Marabou chocolate. The tastes of my childhood in Sweden.
Not all the bunks in the free sleeping quarters were taken. During the middle of the night a drunk came wandering into the room and for a moment I was scared, but a large man occupying a bed opposite told him to leave. ‘I’ll call the ship’s crew,’ he said. As I lay motionless listening to the drunk’s slow, but loud, departure I wondered if I’d always be this poor. Too poor to afford a cabin, like the man opposite me.
I cried when my mother embraced me. ‘Your sister’s at work, but you can stay with her until you find a place of your own.’ I relaxed. I wasn’t alone, my family would look after me.
My sister worked at a large hotel in the middle of the city. She asked me to meet her after a late shift. ‘The staff go out together after we close. The bars and nightclubs are open till very late in Stockholm,’ she said.
She too, had fled Helsinki. Not for money, work or studies, but an unsuitable boyfriend. My sister was two years older than me. We’d always been close, and spent our teenage years going out together.
‘Just like old times,’ she now said and took hold of my arm. She smelled of perfume and her hair was done up with large bouncy blonde curls. I had no money but she told me not to worry. ‘Pay me back when you get a job,’ she said and laughed. Her job as Maitre d’Hotel paid well. I couldn’t believe how full the bar was at half past midnight. The music was playing loudly, and all the tables were taken. My sister waved at a large group at the back of the room. Two empty chairs were found for us. I was introduced as Little Sister, the name too from the old days.
From the bar we went to a disco, and for the first time since arriving in Stockholm I felt at ease. I danced with several of my sister’s friends, as well as totally unknown guys who’d just come up and asked me to the floor. Men in Sweden were so much more subdued than in Helsinki. You could talk to them without instantly being hit on
‘It’s because most of them are gay,’ my sister laughed later in her flat. She was making late night sandwiches. We were listening to a new Rod Steward LP, ‘Blondes have More Fun’. It was past three o’clock in the morning.
The loud ringing of the phone made us both jump.
‘It’s the Englishman for you,’ my sister said handing me the receiver.
‘I’ve tried your number all evening.’
‘Sorry, I was out with my sister.’
At the end of the interview, which I thought had gone very well, the Swedish woman closed the file on her lap and smiled at me.
‘Can I give you some advice?’
I was surprised. This didn’t sound like a job offer after all. ‘Yes, of course.’
‘I know you’d make a great employee here at Handelsbanken. And I could quite easily give you the job, and I know you’d be good at it. But,’ the woman hesitated for a moment and looked at me, ‘I’d do you a disservice if I didn’t turn you down and tell you to go back to Finland to finish your studies.’
I looked down at my hands.
‘This is what you wanted to hear, isn’t it?’
I didn’t know what I wanted. The past two weeks in Stockholm had been wonderful. The Englishman had phoned nearly every night. Every night he’d told me he loved me, and missed me. Every night I’d wanted to ask him why he had said what he had said in Hyde Park. But I couldn’t. I didn’t have the words to.
When I told my mother what the lady in Handelsbanken had said, she took my hand into hers. ‘You think she might be right?’
Exactly three weeks after the ferry crossing to Stockholm I was on my way back in the other direction. This time I’d decided to make the journey during the day, and together with a good book, the hours sped past. As I watched the ferry dock at Eteläsatama jetty I hoped I’d made the right decision in returning to Helsinki and my studies.