I spent the last few days I had left in Helsinki in February 1984 arranging the practical details of a move to another country.
On the Thursday I had an oral examination in Methodology with my Professor at the Swedish School of Economics. I was ill-prepared for the exam. The old man with his untidy grey hair and small round glasses had to prompt me several times to extract the correct answer. At the end of the session, I was surprised when he told me I’d passed. He shook my hand warmly as I left his stuffy office on the uppermost floor of the School of Economics building. ‘Don’t be a stranger,’ he said and smiled.
Closing the door behind me, I stood for a moment in the wide, empty hall. It was suddenly flooded with bright sunshine through the large windows to one side of the Sixties’ style building. There was a lump in my throat when I realised this could be the last time I’d stand here. Four years ago when I first stepped inside this building, I was proud to have got a place to study here, but scared I’d not be accepted by the other students. I knew nothing about the Swedish-speaking community in Finland and was full of prejudices. That my life would be turned upside down during my time here never occurred to me, nor that it was the start of the end of my life in Finland. How much older and wiser I felt now, yet as I stood there in the empty space, listening to the familiar echoing sounds from the stairwell of students milling about on the floors below me, I was more unsure of my future than I’d ever been in my life.
I glanced at my watch and saw I was running late. For old times’ sake my friend and I were going to go to the University Disco that evening, even though we rarely went there these days. I was due to be at her flat in five minutes’ time. When my friend had suggested that I stay the night I hadn’t hesitated. I didn’t want to spend any more nights in my Father’s house than I had to.
I ran down the stairs, taking two at the time and headed out of the glazed double doors of the School of Economics building. I just made the tram approaching the stop on the other side of the street. The yellow and green vehicle screeched as it took the sharp corner of from Arkadiankatu to Runeberginkatu and headed downhill towards Töölö.
My friend and I both laughed and cried that evening.
‘This is not goodbye. I’ll see you in June before the wedding!’ I said. I’d be back for at least two weeks, to allow for the fitting of the wedding gown and a hen party, which my old school friends had already started planning.
‘Of course,’ my friend said and put her arm around my shoulders. ‘But you promise to write, yes?’ she said and turned to face me. She’d stopped walking. We were on our way up the windy Arkadiankatu from the tram stop to the disco. I was freezing in my tight-fitting winter white velvet jeans and satin blouse. My suede coat had never been the same after enduring six weeks of rainy weather in Edinburgh. I looked at my friend’s serious face.
‘I promise.’ I took her arm and we hurried to the warmth of the disco.
When I entered the haberdashery department at Stockmann’s on Friday evening, my last day working day, and saw the familiar faces, I again felt a lump in my throat. I’d been wishing for so long to be away from Helsinki and Finland, but to finally do it, was harder than I’d imagined. The doubts hovering in my mind about the seriousness of my decision didn’t help. All the older ladies’ questions about what I was going to do in England, when I was going to get married, or where we were going to live exhausted me and I wished the evening would speed along. Half an hour before closing time, the floor manager gave me a card and a present of a pinnie made out of blue and white checked fabric. The colours of the Finnish flag. I cried and hugged them all in turn before returning my name badge, uniform and discount card to the personnel department on the top floor.
When I returned home later that evening my legs ached. The house was dark and quiet. I was relieved, my Father would not be home tonight either. I sat in front of the TV and put my feet up on the settee. The phone rang.
‘What’s up?’ the Englishman said when he heard my voice.
I couldn’t explain how I felt to him. We’d been talking about this day, the day I’d finally move to England for so long, I wasn’t able to explain to him that I felt sad now that much-awaited day was here. Instead I talked about the wedding arrangements. My sister telephoned me daily with updates and questions on guest lists or table placements.
‘Oh,’ the Englishman said absent-mindedly. ‘Where did you say this was again?’
I was silent. I’d told him on several occasions about the changed venue, why it had happened and how upset I was with my Father.
‘Yes. Look, I’ll call you from Stockholm on Sunday, OK?’
I put the receiver down with tears running down my face. I felt stupid for getting upset over such a small thing and was glad I hadn’t actually had a fight with the Englishman. What was the matter with me?
Later the same night, I heard the front door go and my Father walk into the house. He kicked off his boots, rattled the clothes hangers in the hall and used the lavatory. Then all went quiet. I looked at the time, it was well past twelve o’clock. I wondered if he was drunk. His movements had seemed controlled, perhaps he was sober and had come by car from his girlfriend’s place. I tossed and turned in my bed for hours. I didn’t want to see my Father ever again. I’d managed to avoid him since he refused to invite my Mother to the wedding. On the Monday before, rather than ask for his help with the car, I’d taken a taxi to transport the two cardboard boxes of my belongings to the railway station. They would take a month or so to arrive in Portsmouth, but the cost was included in my train ticket through Europe to Harwich. The taxi journey to Helsinki station cost more than the transport to England, but it was worth it if I didn’t have to see my Father. But here he was now, at home. And tomorrow would be Saturday and he’d be free from work. How in this small house was I going to avoid saying goodbye to him?
Suddenly I remembered the stolen books. While living in his house, I’d occasionally referred to two expensive volumes of Finnish/English dictionaries my Father had. In my fury at his betrayal I’d packed both volumes in one of my cardboard boxes. They were in a container ship somewhere in the middle of the Baltic now. What if he noticed the large gap in his book shelf where the dictionaries normally stood and asked me where they were?
I finally fell asleep around two o’clock in the morning. I dreamt I hit my Father with a large ice-hockey stick and drew blood. He’d been trying to lead me into a darkened room. I woke with a start and heard movements in the kitchen. My alarm clock showed it was five to seven in the morning. There was a strip of light under the door to my bedroom.
Make Do Style says
Gosh what a drama (in the truest sense not in the hyperbole use of today!). I have to say I think it would make a great film!
I have had dreams like that… I wont say about who 🙂
Leaving a place is like that isn't it, you know its what you want to do, but, you suddenly appreciate the everyday normality and the friends you are leaving behind xx