Fernström would remember later that he had been thinking back to his own playing career while driving through the city that morning. He had felt restless all autumn, but without understanding why. The previous evening, after an early dinner, he told Marjut and Jere that he needed a breath of fresh air, and then he got into the old dark blue Escort, even though he had drunk several glasses of wine with the fish. He had driven from their home in Alppila down to the beach between Merisatama and Munkkisaari, where he stood for a long time by the monument to those lost at sea, watched the eternal flame flickering in the wind, and squinted in the darkness trying to read the text on the marble tablet: it gave the names of the men and women who had gone down with the SS Malmi in the Baltic on December 7, 1979, nearly a quarter of a century earlier. Fernström stood in the chill of the November evening and looked at the blazing sky out to sea as it lost its color and darkened; he watched the angry waves as they turned black, felt the wind bite his cheeks, and thought of the terror the seamen must have felt as they fought in vain for their lives. But now, on this Saturday morning, the clear sky and icy cold wind of the previous day had been replaced by fog and calm, and while Fernström drove along the empty Mannerheimintie toward the covered football pitch in Tali, he thought about the God-forsaken suburban football pitches where he had rounded off his career: he heard the wind whine through the moth-eaten goal nets, he heard the dry, creaking sound when the ball hit a rickety crossbar after a well-struck shot, and he remembered how the holes in the net had sometimes been so big that the ball had flown straight through, and how that had ignited heated debates and sometimes downright fights between the teams: had the ball gone straight through the net or had the shot missed? And once Fernström got going, he remembered more and more; he remembered the tinder—dry, yellow grass pitches that were crisscrossed by paths that the dog-owners and teenagers had trampled, and he remembered the dog turds he sometimes slipped on when he had been forced to play left- or right-back and to keep close to the touchlines. He remembered the sand pitches that hadn’t thawed properly in the spring, were pitted and dusty in the summer, and then in the autumn they either became clingy and smelly or froze hard again. He pictured the rotting wooden terracing at the pitches in the suburbs, with room for about a hundred people; he thought of the handful of relations and wives and girlfriends who came to watch the matches, and then he remembered the friendly side he’d played for in his final season—how there were never more than seven or eight of them when the match was due to start, and they had to ask some passing dog owner to stand inside the left touchline for the first fifteen minutes so that the game could get going, and after the first quarter of an hour the dog owner went and the team collected its habitual eight-goal defeat. And he also remembered the times when the referee or the opposition’s goalkeeper or he himself—in his case it was in the first year after the divorce, when Sabina and Jesse had moved to Turku—had turned up to the match drunk, and suddenly he realized that his playing career and his civilian life mirrored each other: a lot of shortcomings and the occasional warming glimpse of what might have been, and when that thought struck him, he turned to glance at the drowsing Jere in the back seat and suddenly felt restless again, just as restless as you can feel on a deserted beach beneath a rapidly darkening sky.
* * *
The changing rooms were in a corridor behind the café, and the first adult Fernström caught sight of that morning was Tony Lihr. Lihr was sitting in the empty café; he was wearing a black overcoat that looked expensive, he had unbuttoned the coat and laid his scarf carelessly on the table in front of him, and where the left sleeve of the overcoat ended there was the glitter of an expensive wristwatch with a thick silver bracelet. Lihr was drinking tea and leafing absentmindedly through a football magazine, and just at the moment Fernström and Jere went past he looked up and scanned the room. A light of recognition dawned in his eyes.
“Hey, Mikko—hell man, it’s been ages!”
Jere mumbled a quick “bye” and disappeared into the corridor. Fernström waved to his son and went with hesitant steps over to Lihr’s table. They shook hands, and Lihr pointed assertively to one of the empty seats at the table.
“Sit down, for Chrissake! Who does your lad play for? What group year’s he in?”
“HPS. He’s a 93.”
“Brilliant!” said Lihr energetically. “The green destroyers. Nine national golds! Some time back, of course, but then most of the old Helsinki clubs are on the slide. My lad’s a 92. Plays for Westend Wolves. It’s a newly formed club. We were called Espoon Hukat at first, but you know what the kids are like today—it had to be translated so it sounded like something from the Bronx or Toxteth . . . ”
He fell silent for a few seconds. Fernström assumed that the torrent of words had left him breathless and opened his own mouth to speak, but Lihr got there first:
“And what about you . . . are you still playing?”
Fernström laughed, but the laugh was short and dry, almost rattling. He hadn’t met or even thought of Tony Lihr for nearly fifteen years, but now he immediately remembered how Lihr had always been: a person with seemingly boundless energy, a person who could be both tiresome and pushy. Fernström felt as if his dry, rattling laugh was still there, echoing round the room: it sounded like someone trying to start an old, worn out car on a freezing cold winter’s day.
“Nah,” he said eventually, “I’ve finished. But I’ve got my referee’s badge. We have clear roles, Jere and I. He plays and I ref. ‘Scuse me a minute, I need something to wake me up.”
Fernström got up, went to the counter, and bought a mug of black coffee and a bun. As he went back to the table, he focussed on the back of Lihr’s neck and tried to hold his hand steady, but it didn’t help; he’d filled the paper mug to the brim, and the coffee spilt, burning the back of his hand and then spilling onto the floor. A voice inside him told him to clean up after himself, but he dismissed it and sat down.
“Now you mention it, I remember I heard about it a few years ago,” said Lihr. “That you’d started reffing, I mean. Must have been some mutual acquaintance . . . I assume you only ref little boys? You old perv . . . ”
“Lihr, shut your face for once in your life,” said Fernström, cutting him off, but couldn’t help smiling. Lihr was still boorish and tasteless, but at the same time his grin was just as wide and disarming as before, and Fernström felt himself reacting exactly the same way as thirty years before: he was being charmed. “So how are you?” he continued. “Still at Nokia?”
“Where else?” said Lihr with emphasis. “And you? Still managing to turn out your plays and articles? Is it going well? Can you make a packet doing that?”
“It has its ups and downs, and it’s not exactly a way of getting rich,” Fernström replied, as laconically as he could. Lihr’s hair was just as blond and thick as ever, he was slim and looked well-cared-for and affluent in every way. The dark rings under his eyes did admittedly indicate that Lihr worked hard and didn’t get enough sleep, but Fernström was under no illusions: he knew that Lihr had registered his own receding hairline, his paunch, and his worn and outmoded cowboy boots. Lihr had never been interested in art and culture, and was hardly likely to know that the Helsinki theaters had been turning down Fernström’s plays for the last few years, but you didn’t need that information, Fernström thought gloomily, to work out which of them had been more successful in life.
“Yep, competition’s hard on all fronts nowadays,” said Lihr absentmindedly. “Is your lad a good player, by the way?”
“Not particularly,” Fernström replied. “One of the crowd. He comes along because his mates do. The whole team’s pretty poor, to be honest.”
He didn’t ask Lihr about his son, because he already had a fair idea what the answer would be. And the information came quickly, just as he had feared.
“My Sebastian’s bloody good,” said Lihr without embarrassment. “I’ve been training him since he was two. Now I train the whole team. If you ref any of the Wolves’ matches, you’ll have to make sure the opposition don’t kick lumps out of him. He wears number nine and he’s too good—you know?—he should be playing with the 90s or 91s: the defenders in his own age group always bring him down from behind or pull his shirt when they can’t keep up with his moves.”
“As it happens, it’s the 92 matches that I’ll be reffing,” said Fernström as he emptied his coffee cup and got up. “I’d better get changed—it’s quarter to eight already.”
He gave a parting nod and started to go, but then turned round and added:
“I’m always fair, Lihr. Rough with roughnecks but scrupulously fair. Old jungle saying, if you remember.”
He saw that Lihr smiled: in a previous life they had both subscribed to the Phantom magazine, belonged to the Phantom Fan Club, and worn skull rings. But as Fernström went toward the corridor, he reflected that he had actually meant the last thing he’d said. He felt that a Spartan beauty was generated when he managed to referee a football match with strictness and precision. It was a beauty that grew out of the game itself, from the ritual, and that beauty then achieved its strictest and most beautiful expression in the scores that were set in stone and made eternal at the moment that he, the law keeper, blew his whistle to indicate that the match had finished.
* * *
The changing room was silent and empty apart from a small pile of clothes on the bench right next to the shower room. A gray hooded jacket was hanging on a hook above the pile of clothes, and under the bench was a pair of black and orange trainers with extremely thick soles. The tournament started with two matches at eight o’clock, and judging by the clothes, Fernström guessed that the colleague who had already gone out into the hall was very young. Fernström took his referee’s kit out of his sports bag and started to get changed. Garment by garment he transformed himself from a pathetic rock ‘n’ roll throwback with a dark brown leather jacket and worn-out boots to Footballing Justice personified, his black outfit with its yellow trimmings commanding respect; and while he underwent this metamorphosis he thought about Anton Lihr.
They had met when they were eight years old. They then grew up together, went to the same Swedish speaking school and lived in the same neighbourhood. Every spring, they and dozens of other boys used to practice shooting against house-walls and garage doors, because the asphalt courtyards were where the snow melted. Some time in May they would move to the parks and grassy areas behind the flats, and then evening after evening they would tear back and forth over the delicate spring grass, so that the entire areas had already turned grayish yellow and started smelling like mud by the beginning of June. The cursing of the caretakers and council park keepers didn’t bother them at all, and anyway several of the caretakers in their suburb were ex-players who had played at a high level: when they chased off the gang of boys, it was with a smile at the corner of their mouth and the knowledge that the brats would come back as soon as their back was turned.
Lihr had been called Tony or Toni right from the start. Fernström, whose real name was Mikael, got called Mikko. Tony Lihr was a well-liked boy, a strongly built and freckly blond kid who had a sunny outlook on life. He got his other nickname, Liru, at high school when his classmates realized that he wasn’t just talented, but took football deadly seriously. The nickname was a joke and a paradox, because liru is Finnish and means a miskick that barely has enough power to roll all the way up to the goal, whereas Lihr had a blistering shot and was known for his rocket-like free kicks that bent goalkeepers’ fingers back and stung the palms of their hands even though they were protected by thick gloves.
Lihr was a better player than Fernström. That’s how it was right from the beginning, but it took some time before Fernström accepted the fact. When they were small there wasn’t a great difference, but over the years it increased and by the time they were about to join the adult world they belonged to quite different categories of players. Lihr was a strong runner and decisive, and mentally strong, so he hardly ever had a bad match. Fernström was inconsistent, and as the years went by he was more and more often hit by indecision out on the pitch. Some days he could be firm in the tackle and inventive with his passing, but then in the next match he might stand and hesitate with the ball and get dispossessed time after time, which made him completely lose his temper and start to moan and blame his teammates. On top of that, they had different temperaments: Lihr was outgoing whereas Fernström was a reserved observer, a strategist who constantly tried to foresee how events would turn out and be one step ahead of everybody else; he wasn’t particularly well-liked by his mates. In spite of their differences, they played together for many years, they were teammates both at HJK—the Helsinki Football Club—and on the school team, and they complemented each other well. Lihr played as a striker or on the wings and ripped opposing defences apart with constant sprints and breaks, while Fernström occupied central defence, where he broke down opposition attacks and sent long passes up to his friend. Because they had played together since they were eight, they had a well-developed sense of the lines the other one would run and how they would react in different situations; their play together was effortless, and at its best almost telepathic. Over the years, HJK’s 59 team brought home bucketloads of tournament medals, and Fernström and Lihr’s suburban school reached the national final every year, first for middle schools and then for high schools; nobody involved denied that a large part of the glory was due to Fernström and, above all, Lihr.
In PE lessons, the teacher always put them on opposing teams. In the spring they were due to leave middle school and move up to high school, Fernström had started to realize that he could no longer deal with Lihr, that his mate had grown far too quick and strong. But just then, on a sunny and chilly morning in May, Fernström happened to have one of those rare, God-given days that most ball players will recognize, one of those days when absolutely everything goes right, when you can shoot from any angle you like and try the most ankle-twisting tricks without there being the slightest risk of anything going wrong; the defender’s feet part at just the right moment for your dribble to end in a humiliating nutmeg, the goalkeeper dives for the wrong corner, the shot takes a perfect arc and the ball goes in off the bar or post; nothing can go wrong, the sun is shining from a cloudless sky and you’re king of the imaginary country inside the white lines—in fact you’re king of the whole world.
Fernström pulled on his thin black referee’s shirt, remembering that distant May morning, and trying not to spare himself anything. Perhaps it was because even when he was young he was cool and arrogant, or perhaps because he had been plagued by the thought that Lihr was becoming superior to him, but for whatever reason he had revelled in his good fortune and done everything he could to demean and humiliate Lihr. He had scored goal after goal, his team had built up an unassailable lead and he himself had goaded Lihr the whole time. Toward the end of the PE lesson, he had made a dummy and gently rolled the ball between Lihr’s legs, then run past him on the left, turned the ball back with the outside of his foot, and nutmegged him again; Lihr was furious but had his weight on the wrong foot and couldn’t do anything about it. “You’re a bit bloody bowlegged today, aren’t you?” Fernström had said to Lihr and grinned, then ran over the midfield into the penalty area, and slotted the ball in the back of the net. Then he had jogged back toward the halfway line and his own half. On the way he had met Lihr, and been so triumphant that he hadn’t noticed the look in the other’s eyes. So the heavy punch had come like an ambush, and Fernström didn’t have time to react at all; he just felt his head being knocked back by the force of the blow and that something started running out of his mouth, at the same time as his top lip started to swell up and become fat and tender. Then he didn’t remember anything except that half of his classmates were hanging onto him like a bunch of grapes, trying to stop him getting to Lihr, while the other half were hanging onto Lihr, who was still boiling angry and wanted to continue fighting even though he had vented part of his pent-up rage with that first, well-aimed punch.
But most clearly of all, Fernström remembered what happened in the afternoon when he got back to school from the outpatient clinic, with eight stitches in his top lip. He had arrived during the break between the last two lessons, and Lihr had immediately come up to him, looking contrite, and said, “Sorry, Mikko. I don’t know what happened, I just saw red.” “No problem, it’s OK now,” Fernström had mumbled in reply, the words coming indistinctly from his lacerated mouth. “I’m a fucking idiot,” Lihr had continued, looking more and more unhappy, “You should punch me in the face and then we’re even.” “I mean it, it’s not a problem. I’m perfectly OK,” Fernström had repeated, and it struck him that there was something about Lihr that meant that you couldn’t stay angry at him for long. Then they shook hands, gave each other a quick hug and were friends again; they continued playing together till the final school year, when Fernström was dropped by the manager of HJK’s juniors and started smoking strong Armiro cigarettes, a packet a day. In that last year at school, their school had been knocked out of the national competition in one of the early rounds after playing badly against a Finnish-speaking school from Riihimäki, and Fernström had then ended up playing fifteen seasons in the lower divisions, while Lihr made it all the way to HJK’s senior team and sat on the substitutes’ bench for a few years, before moving to Kiffen and from there to Kontulan Urheilijat; while he was there, he helped lift them from the recreational leagues to mid-table in the national Second Division.
* * *
When Fernström came out into the hall at a couple of minutes to eight, all four teams were already lined up in their own halves. He jogged calmly past pitch one and arrived at pitch two, where he was going to referee. He waved to Jere, who was standing on the sidelines in full gear, even though he wasn’t playing till half past nine. A few meters from Jere, Lihr was standing, surrounded by his substitutes, a collection of short guys in orange football shirts with a wolf’s face, grinning and confident of victory, on the breast. The starting six, most of them tall for their age but skinny, stood doing hip circles or quick sprints on the spot, like they had seen Raúl, Zidane, and the others do on television.
Fernström had seen many football matches in his life, and within a few minutes he knew how the tournament for players born in 1992 would turn out. Westend Wolves had several players who were very good for their age, and their playing style had Tony Lihr’s hallmark; it was energetic, fluid, and optimistic. Lihr Junior was just as good as his father had said, and Fernström would have recognized him even without the number nine on his back: the blond fringe, the broad mouth, the muscular build, the speed and the ability to take chances when they presented themselves.
The first Wolves’ match was a pure exhibition. Fernström saw out of the corner of his eye that Jere was still standing on the touchline; motionless, with his Mitre ball under his arm, he was standing admiring Sebastian Lihr, who shot, headed, and dribbled in four goals during the first quarter of an hour.
During the course of the match, Fernström discovered that Tony Lihr was a junior trainer of the most trying sort. Lihr didn’t keep quiet for a second, but shouted and yelled and ran up and down the touchline as if his entire honor as a man and a person depended on the game. During the short halftime break—with Westend Wolves leading 5–1—he bawled out several of the players, pointed across the pitch at the opposing team, a set of thin and indolent eleven-year-olds in checkerboard shirts, and called them “the enemy.” Fernström stood a short distance away with a feeling of distaste, but realized that he couldn’t afford to cast the first stone. When Fernström’s elder son, Jesse, had been eight years old, they had lived on Lauttasaari—Jesse’s mother, Sabina, Jesse, and him. Jesse had played football for a newly-founded team and Fernström, who was still playing in Division 4, had trained the team. He had been a fiery trainer. One Sunday in August, Jesse’s team had played in a semi-final; the match was close and undecided, and in the last minute of the game Jesse had broken into the opponents’ penalty area and been brought down by a slow defender. The referee had had the whistle in his mouth but refused to blow; he had just waved his arms to signal play on and that Jesse should get up, and then the other team had made a quick counterattack and decided the match. Fernström had lost control, screamed at the referee, called him a bastard and a twat and gave him the finger. The lads watched Fernström with a mixture of shock and delight, but several of his own players’ parents had looked at the ground in embarrassment, including Sabina. The same evening, she had told him that his problem was that he had a victor’s mentality but a born loser’s lack of talent. Fernström hadn’t dared ask her if she was referring to football or to life in general. A few weeks later, he had received an official warning from the disciplinary committee of the district football association, and the following summer Sabina left him and took Jesse with her; afterward, Fernström had thought that her departure was perhaps the answer to the question he hadn’t dared to ask.
* * *
The short, late autumn day crept past unnoticed. Outside the hall, the fog lay damp and thick, and day never really dawned; for a few hours, a gray light held sway and then the darkness took over again. Occasionally, Fernström would sneak out to the parking lot for a smoke; it was a habit he hadn’t succeeded in giving up despite dozens of attempts.
The match results were as monotonous as the November weather. Fernström refereed another Westend Wolves match; it ended 7–0, which meant that Wolves had picked up the full nine points from their three matches, scored twenty-one goals and let in two. Sebastian Lihr had scored eleven goals and laid on eight. In between his refereeing duties, Fernström had time to stand on the touchline and cheer Jere on in the 93’s tournament. Things were not going quite as well there. Jere was playing left back and was hopelessly slow; the goals were pouring in and after three matches HPS had no points, had conceded fourteen goals and scored just three.
Around four, when the darkness had already descended and Fernström sat in the Escort with the motor humming quietly as he let the car radio scan for Radio Nova, Tony Lihr came walking across the car park with Sebastian in tow. Lihr gestured to Fernström to wind down the window and Fernström complied.
Well reffed, Mikko,” said Lihr encouragingly. “How did your lad and his team get on?”
“Not too well, I’m afraid,” said Fernström. “But they did their best.”
“We only lost the last match 3–1,” Jere piped up from the front seat next to his father. Then, eagerly, “And I made our goal.”
Lihr Senior nodded benevolently toward Jere and said, “That’s great. Congratulations.”
Sebastian stood a little way from them, juggling with a ball and looking uninterested. He let the ball bounce on his left thigh a few times, then put it up high in the air, caught the ball on his forehead and coiled himself up like a panther while he let the ball roll over his crown, the back of his neck, then down his back, after which he straightened up and flicked the ball with his heel to his father, who caught it without a second glance, as if his son’s display had been perfectly everyday and normal, business as usual. Then Tony Lihr turned to Fernström and said calmly and with just a hint of deliberation, “Pretty good technique for an eleven-year-old, eh? And he knows how to use it too—he’s not one of those trick merchants who keep the ball too long and then lose it.”
“He’s certainly talented—” Fernström began, but was interrupted by Lihr: “I’m going to make him into a pro. In ten years he’ll be making big bucks down in Europe. Then you’ll remember what you saw this weekend!”
Fernström glanced at Jere, who was sitting watching Sebastian with admiration, his eyes as big as saucers.
“If he stays fit . . . ” said Fernström. “But make sure you help him keep his feet on the ground when the junior team managers and agents start trying to get a piece of him.” He nodded good-bye to Lihr, then wound up the window and drove off.
They drove in toward the city. Jere sat and looked out of the window, out into the black November darkness, which was made even deeper by the warm and inviting light in the hundreds of tower block windows that lined their route as they drove through Haaga, Pikku-Huopalahti and Meilahti. The car radio’s scanner had found Radio Nova at last; a phonily jovial presenter said a few words about an aging rock hero’s impending visit to Helsinki, then played Abba’s old hit, “The Winner Takes It All.” Fernström hummed along with the song in a thin voice, and suddenly remembered how in his teens he used to masturbate to a picture of Agnetha Fältskog in purple satin trousers with silver stars, even though in front of his mates and girlfriends he always haughtily declared his contempt for Abba. He suppressed the memory resolutely and started to think instead about Jere and why he seemed to lack any competitive instinct, in spite of the fact that his half-brother Jesse had always been spiky and performed when it really mattered. It must have something to do with Marjut, thought Fernström uneasily, he must have inherited her mildness and tolerance; how on earth is he going to manage out there in the human jungle when the time comes? Jere sat in silence next to him; he had stopped looking out of the window and had his eyes closed so that Fernström thought he was asleep, until they turned off Mannerheimintie and onto Urheilukatu, when the boy turned to his father and said:
“He’s a brilliant player, that Sebu. Do you know his dad?”
“Yes, I do,” Fernström replied. “We were best friends when we were kids.”
“Was he a footballer too?” Jere asked.
“Yes, he was. We played on the same team.”
“Was he a good player?”
Fernström could feel the irritation gradually growing and realized that he had absolutely no desire to answer questions about Lihr. But Jere was curious: “As good as Sebu?”
“Better than you was?”
Fernström took an involuntary breath.
“Better than you were,” he muttered, but realized that he was being ridiculous and continued, “Yes, he was better than me. He even played a few games in the Tips League. It wasn’t called that in those days, mind you, it was the League Championship.” He tried to keep his tone of voice short and his answers brief so that Jere would lose interest and stop asking questions. But the boy wouldn’t give up: “What happened then?”
“What do you mean?” Fernström asked brusquely.
“Between you two, I mean,” Jere explained. “Why did you stop being friends? Did you become enemies?”
“No, it wasn’t . . . ” Fernström restarted, tentatively, with a friendlier tone of voice now. “We just . . . people develop different interests and start to do different things. You get new friends and lose the old ones. That’s what happens when you grow up: you don’t fall out, you just stop meeting.”
* * *
After Saturday dinner, Fernström tried to sit on the sofa with Jere and Marjut and watch a couple of game shows. But there was a deep unrest in his body and his thoughts, and when he noticed that he was losing the thread time after time and couldn’t answer Jere’s questions about the programs, he took his glass of wine, went out onto the balcony, lit a cigarette, then sat absolutely still, looked out into the fog, and reminisced.
Tony Lihr had repeated the fifth year of middle school. Fernström on the other hand had had good results and moved up to high school: so there was a year when they had played in different school teams.
There in high school, Fernström had fallen deeply in love. The girl was from another town; she was intelligent, independent, and pretty; she was the girl that all the boys in high school were after. She was called Susanna, and Fernström was in love with her for years. He couldn’t stop thinking about her: he talked to other girls and thought about her eyes and her long, fair hair; he kissed other girls but thought about her mouth and her neck, which he had sneaked looks at during countless lessons; he slept with other girls but thought about her breasts—which he had only been able to see as curves hidden by jumpers, sweaters, and shirts—and he thought constantly about things she had said as they stood smoking during breaks; even though they always stood in big groups down near the supermarket and let desperate teenage cynicism drip out of the left corner of their mouths while their cigarettes waggled in the right corner, Fernström still turned over Susanna’s words in his mind, in a vain hunt for coded messages aimed at him and no one else.
Susanna was not confused, and she wasn’t loose either. She always had a steady boyfriend to whom she was totally faithful, and her relationships lasted for a long time. She changed boyfriends once a year, sometimes twice, and her relationships usually finished at the start of the autumn term, when there was still a vague scent of summer in the air that made the already rapidly darkening autumn evenings feel highly charged and exotic, and made for new encounters. The final school year was no different: Susanna became free in September, and immediately ten or so final year boys were queuing up to ask her out.
Fernström was not one of them, because he was remarkably shy with Susanna and hesitated the whole of the autumn. He didn’t understand it at the time, but in fact it was safer to just stand and watch Susanna as she smoked her menthol cigarettes down by the supermarket, and it was safer to sit at the desk behind her and enjoy the smell of her perfume in his nostrils. He could still, more than a quarter of a century later, smell that perfume. It was called Charlie and popular with teenage girls at that time; it was a sweet and tantalizing smell, with more than a hint of hamburger bar and catch me if you can pink in it, and it was laced with an OK-I-give-in-but-if-you-touch-me-I-might-start-screaming-anyway signal that would have seemed cheap and out of place if it had been sprayed on a grown woman’s skin. And Fernström, who had already gotten used to a life in which he wandered round daydreaming of Susanna, waited and waited and waited, because deep down he was scared: he was scared of the risk that arises every time one takes possession of the ball and starts to take it toward goal; he was scared that his resolute run might still meet a cool, implacable goalkeeper who would deal with his shot without the slightest difficulty.
At the beginning of December, he finally plucked up courage and asked Susanna out to Rivoli’s Pizzeria one Sunday afternoon. It was an early winter day with church bells and wet snow; the city was deserted, and large, damp snowflakes drifted down from a dark gray sky and melted when they landed on the glittering asphalt of the streets. Fernström and Susanna ate their pizzas in embarrassed silence; his palms were sweaty and he had no appetite, while Susanna positively devoured her Capricciosa. When she had finished eating, he cleared his throat at last and started to speak: “Well . . . erm . . . I’ve been thinking . . . maybe we could . . . maybe we could kind of start to . . . ”
He couldn’t get the words out, but anyway Susanna understood what he was trying to say. While he was talking and the words were falling over each other, she had sat looking at her empty plate, but now she met Fernström’s gaze, smiled a little sadly and said:
“But why haven’t you . . . this is all happening so late.”
“What do you mean, late?”
“I was in love with you in Year 1 and at the start of Year 2,” said Susanna, “but now . . . ”
She fell silent and Fernström felt his cheeks turning red.
“What do you mean?” he asked heatedly. “Have you already started going out with somebody new?”
“I’m not sure,” said Susanna carefully and pointed to Fernström’s plate. “Aren’t you going to eat any more than that?”
When they had paid, they wandered through the city center to the railway station, where Susanna was going to get the commuter train to the Vantaa suburb where she lived. It was still snowing, and neither of them said much. The department stores and Alexanterinkatu were already decorated for Christmas, and as they went through the City Passage, which was lit up for the evening, there was music coming from the loudspeakers. Fernström recognized the music: it was one of the choruses from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, ethereal music that seemed to drift down from the sky with the same rhythm and tempo the snowflakes had as they slowly fell to the ground, and he knew immediately that from that evening onward he would always think of Susanna when he heard that piece.
And then, just before the Christmas holiday, a rumor started spreading round the school that Susanna was going out with Tony Lihr, who was then in the second year of high school. Fernström received the news with composure, and the first time he saw Lihr and Susanna kiss in public—it was on the steps up to the classrooms, a few minutes after the Christmas party—he felt just as calm and forgiving inside as on the spring afternoon some years earlier when he had returned to school with eight stitches in his top lip, and shaken hands with Lihr and realized that for some reason it wasn’t possible to be angry with him.
The following summer, Fernström and Susanna had already taken their exams and got their white student caps, and Fernström stopped daydreaming and got himself a girlfriend. Her name was Aline, and Fernström like her a lot. They spent that summer at her parents’ terraced house in Jollas: Aline’s mother had recently died and her father had resigned from his well-paid job and set off at the end of May to sail round the world. Fernström and Aline put two mattresses next to each other on the floor in the big, echoing living room; that was where they slept and had sex, and Fernström told Aline that she was wonderful and that she wasn’t some kind of surrogate Susanna, definitely not a surrogate Susanna.
One warm evening in August that summer, Fernström and Lihr went to the Olympic Stadium to watch League Championship football. They were nineteen years old and Lihr was quite close to the top level nationally; he was well known in footballing circles, and at halftime, while he and Fernström were standing drinking coffee in the corridor of the A stand, he shook hands with countless teammates, trainers, and sports journalists.
It happened to be one of those evenings; it happened to be one of those rare and priceless moments that you can never foresee, but can only hope to stumble upon. It might for example be some time around 1910 and you happen to be on a work assignment in Los Angeles, which is already growing rapidly, and you are out for a walk on the outskirts of the city and happen to witness the location shooting of a Keystone film in which a short, mustached, recent arrival from London is creating magic with a bowler hat, a suit that’s far too big for him, and a walking stick. Or perhaps you’re living it up in 1930s Paris, and one afternoon you’re wandering round Pigalle with a hell of a hangover, and there singing on a street corner is a woman barely five feet tall, whom a cabaret owner will soon christen the Little Sparrow. Or else you’re a man of dubious morals, it’s the early 1960s and you’re in Hamburg, where you’ve gone to the red-light district to buy a prostitute, and you stumble upon a gang of young British lads who play rock ‘n’ roll with unusual energy and call themselves the Beetles but spell the name wrong. Or perhaps, for some unfathomable reason, you’ve ended up in a Buenos Aires suburb some time in the early 1970s, and you go past a dusty gravel pitch and happen to see a left-footed ten-year-old with curly black hair and an ability to do things with a football that is not granted to ordinary mortals.
That evening at the Olympic Stadium belonged to a Helsinki boy of just twenty by the name of Ismail. Ismail had a few magical years as a footballer with Kiffen and HJK before the pull of Helsinki’s nightclubs and his friendship with musicians in the revered rock ‘n’ roll band, the Hurriganes, brought a premature end to his career; that evening he scored five goals and made the stiff-legged defenders from TPS in Turku look like slalom poles. Occasionally, Ismail quite simply climbed up onto the ball and then stood motionless and pretended to look for his teammates, like a sailor keeping watch for strange ships on the horizon. When the Turku players bore down on him, they were humiliated and angry, and after his blood; but Ismail calmly slipped down from the ball, flicked it up into the air and sent it on its way with a beautifully weighted pass, or dribbled past the onrushing defenders. Lihr and Fernström and seven thousand others sat on the terraces and exulted in the artistry, and toward the end of the match Fernström looked across at Lihr, who was laughing and whistling, and thought how remarkable it was that they had managed to stay such good friends after everything that had happened.
At the end of the match, Fernström took the tram into the center, because he had arranged to meet Aline under the Stockmann department store’s clock. Lihr took a yellow Vantaa bus, which went out along Mannerheimintie and then toward the high-rise suburbs alongside the motorway toward Hämeenlinna and Tampere. Fernström knew that Lihr was going to Susanna’s but repressed the thought. Aline suggested to Fernström that they should take refuge from the oppressive heat by going to the cinema, so they walked up toward Erottaja and went to the Diana, where they saw a French classic: a war film in which Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim play two officers who attempt, in the midst of the First World War, to cling to the gentlemanly ideals of a bygone era, in a world that is being transformed into a slaughterhouse. Enemies, but at the same time friends. Fernström sat in the dark cinema, holding Aline’s warm hand in his, and thought about Lihr and himself, that they had always been antagonists but were still never been able to deny the warmth that existed between them.
After the film, Aline and Fernström went out to the empty brick house in Jollas, and there they made love as two people can do in the rare moments when they have succeeded in jointly summoning up the illusion that the world is good and boundless and free. And Fernström knew that that evening and night would stay in his memory. The affirmation. The sudden obviousness of everything. The feeling that touched him for the first time, the feeling that he would strive for many long years to keep hold of, but in vain: that if you just made sure that the soul was kept alive and free, then you didn’t need any false hierarchies, and you didn’t need to cling onto society’s accepted truths or long for its rewards, nor to be afraid of the punishments that society and people meted out for disobedience. Everything was part of a single whole that night: Ismail’s artistry with the ball, the beauty and seriousness of the black-and-white film, Fernström’s longing for freedom and his friendship with Lihr, Aline’s tanned skin that tasted of sun and sand and salt, everything melted together; all these things existed independently but at the same time were part of Life, and all these parts were of equal value, because only people who were scared of life and impotent forced love and art and football apart, and made sure they were put in separate pigeonholes.
But at the same time as Fernström felt himself thinking freely and independently for the first time in his life, there was also a pain inside him. Not much, and not in any black-as-night way, but still. Because of course he knew that at the same time as Aline and he were exploring each other on that warm August night, Lihr and Susanna were lying in another part of the city, exploring each other in the same way. So that night the city and life in general spread themselves in front of Fernström’s inner vision in a manner that contained equal parts of comedy and tragedy, and one day many years later he would understand that that night had been decisive, that it was then that something had been born in him, something that had not been there earlier and which it was impossible to name, but which from then on would follow him for the rest of his life.
* * *
Fernström sat outside in the raw chill of the evening for nearly half an hour, and managed to smoke three cigarettes during that time. When he came in, he was shivering and coughing and in a bad mood besides. He hadn’t thought about them for years, not about Lihr nor about Susanna or Aline, but now he suddenly remembered them, and when he thought about them he also remembered other friends he had lost. The meeting with Tony Lihr and his talented son suddenly seemed like a bad omen, and for a few moments Fernström was tempted to offload the Sunday matches onto a refereeing colleague who owed him a favor.
Just after eleven, Jere went to bed and fell asleep immediately. Fernström and Marjut lounged on the sofa and watched television. Channel Four was showing an old Bond film, the bad one where a wooden and clinically humor-free George Lazenby completely embarrasses himself as 007.
Lazenby’s monumental lack of talent only deepened Fernström’s melancholy; in a sudden vision, he saw himself performing his life story in front of the jury who selected the students for the national theatrical college’s acting course—Fernström had been a member of the jury several times—and the verdict was the same for both the material and the performance, “a total failure.” Fernström turned to Marjut and said: “I miss Jesse.”
“Well call him then,” said Marjut in a flat voice and without taking her eyes off the TV screen. Fernström glanced at her in surprise. Marjut was a level-headed person; she was doing research in the phonetics of the Finnish language, and was working for her doctorate. Human language, its structure and sounds were her great passion, but she often pointed out that it was a passion that required enormous patience. Fernström, who had been out at sea in his stormy, youthful marriage to Sabina the actress, thought that Marjut displayed the same patience in her private life, and he was glad that was how she was. During the ten years they had been living together, she had only raised her voice once, and that had been in the early days when Jere was a few months old. At that time, Fernström was still drinking, and one night he staggered into their bedroom at four in the morning. Jere had woken up and started screaming the place down, and afterward Marjut had snapped at Fernström that he wouldn’t get any inner peace until he realized that there were extremely few people who accomplished great deeds, and that no historic task, no grandiose public success was waiting for him around the corner of a night’s intoxication.
“Do you really think I can ring him? This late?” asked Fernström.
“Of course you can, you’re his father,” said Marjut reassuringly.
Fernström went out onto the balcony and lit a cigarette. He felt relieved, but when he had got his mobile out of his pocket and stood weighing the little phone in his hand, he started to feel uneasy again. He screwed up courage for a long time, then took a deep breath, brought up the phone book, pressed “search” and selected Jesse’s number. He let it ring and ring and ring, but there was no answer. The call wasn’t connected to Jesse’s voicemail either; instead, the normal signal was suddenly replaced by an aggressive engaged tone. Fernström ended the call and then selected, after even more consideration, a Turku number that he had had in his phone book for years without using once.
“Is that you? At this hour . . . ” said a surprised Sabina.
“It’s such a long time since I’ve spoken to Jesse. Is he . . . ?”
“And you think you’ll get hold of him at my place on a Saturday night!” Sabina laughed. “He doesn’t even live here any longer, he’s moved in with his girlfriend.”
Fernström felt lost. He stood in the protective darkness of the balcony and looked over the courtyard and in through a window; a young girl and a young boy were sitting, kissing across a kitchen table that was crammed full of wine bottles and glasses. They were both leaning forward; it looked uncomfortable, and Fernström wondered which of them would dare to leave their seat and go round the table to sit in the other’s lap. The girl did. Fernström had no idea what he should say to Sabina, and remained quiet so long that she asked:
“Hello? Are you still there?”
“Yeah . . . Where does he live? And who with?”
“Hello there, Mikko!” said Sabina with pretend cheerfulness. “He and Elina have been going out for three years now, and you have actually met her! They’ve been renting a two-room flat out in Saint Karin’s since the beginning of September.”
“Isn’t it a bit soon . . . ?” said Fernström doubtfully.
“Soon!” snorted Sabina. “Jesse’s nineteen, he’s a grown man, and I don’t want him kicking around at home!”
Fernström couldn’t stop himself, the poisoned dart left his mouth as soon as his brain had made it and got it ready to fly: “No, I can understand that. If the rumors are true, then your latest toy boy is about the same age.”
Sabina’s voice became frosty as a December night on Spitsbergen.
“Sami is twenty-eight, Mikko. And how dare you?”
Fernström already regretted saying it, but it was too late.
“I’m sorry, Saba,” he said. “It was a director I met who . . . ”
“That bastard Viljamaa!” Sabina interrupted him. “He’s been trying to get in my pants ever since I was in college. He does that with all the actresses, and when you turn him down he starts spreading lies about you. The impotent bastard!”
“It doesn’t matter who it was,” said Fernström quickly. “I apologize; your life is really none of my business. I just wanted to talk to Jesse.”
“You’ll see each other at Christmas.”
“Yes, but that’s over a month away. Er . . . ”
“Does he still play football?”
“No, he stopped. He couldn’t get into the Tepsis Juniors’ A team, and Inter didn’t want him either. I suggested he should try IFK or . . . what are they called again?”
“Do you mean TPK?”
“That’s right, TPK,” said Sabina gratefully. “But he says that he wants to play for one of the top teams or not at all. So at the moment he’s just waiting for the snow to come; he got really keen on moguls last winter.”
“Is he good at that?” crept out of Fernström. “I mean, does he seem to have any talent?”
Sabina suddenly sounded tired and irritated.
“I have no idea, Mikko. And do you think it really matters?”
“No, of course not,” said Fernström quickly. “Give him my love. And can you ask him to give me a ring? Tomorrow evening or early next week. Good night.”
“I will. Good night, Mikko. Say hello to Marjut.”
When he came in from the balcony, the film had finished. Marjut had taken out her papers and books, and was sitting at the kitchen table making notes; the research grant ran until April, and her intention was to present her thesis in May. Fernström stood for a while in the doorway and looked at her slim back and her unkempt hair, with a few gray strands already starting to appear among the coal black. A wave of warmth went through him and he went up behind her, put his arms around her and kissed her on the top of her head. She looked up and smiled up at him.
“Are you OK, Mikko?”
Fernström hesitated for a moment, then made up his mind and said:
“I ran into Tony Lihr today. Do you remember him?”
Marjut had grown up in the same suburb as Fernström and Lihr, and had gone to the Finnish co‑ed school. She was five years younger than them, but Fernström knew that the younger ones sometimes remember the older ones even if there was a big age difference.
“Toni Lihr? Didn’t he go out with Taru Juselius for a few years?”
“Taru Juselius?” repeated Fernström, feeling stupid. “Had a brother who played basketball for ToPo . . . Taavi?”
“That’s right,” said Marjut. “And that Lihr went to the Swedish Commercial College. A tall, blond guy who laughed a lot.”
“I do remember him. And I have actually heard people talking about him occasionally. His second wife, Ritu, is best friends with Suvi, who teaches in our department.”
“His second wife?” Fernström interrupted. “I didn’t even know he’d got divorced.”
“I think they’ve split up too,” said Marjut. “Now you mention him, I remember that Suvi told me about him and Ritu just a few months ago. A pretty awful situation. Where did you meet him, at Jere’s tournament?”
“Yes. He trains a team of 92s. Westend Wolves—what a bloody name! His own lad plays center-forward. Star of the team, of course,” said Fernström dryly. “What did Suvi know about him?”
“It was really tragic,” said Marjut. “First he was made redundant from Nokia when they were cutting back, then their marriage fell apart and he and Ritu separated. And that’s exactly when they found out that he had cancer. I think he had an operation last summer.”
Fernström went weak at the knees, but kept the mask up.
“Redundant, eh?” he murmured. Then he asked with a louder voice: “Where did he have cancer?”
“I don’t know,” said Marjut, “Suvi didn’t say. But I think the prognosis was quite good.”
Marjut stayed up, bent over her papers and books. Fernström went into the bedroom, undressed and got ready for bed, but when he pulled the duvet to one side and was about to get into the bed, he felt a bit dizzy. He left the half-read Viivi and Wagner comic book on the bedside table, turned off the light immediately, and decisively closed his eyes instead. But the dizziness just got worse. He opened his eyes again and let the ghosts invade the room. There was Jesse, whom he hadn’t seen since the summer, Jesse who was now living with a girl in Saint Karin’s outside Turku and skied down hills that looked like camels’ burial grounds. There was Sabina, just as fiery as ever, who was playing Olga Knipper in a play about Chekhov’s life at the Turku City Theatre and had got sparkling reviews after the recent première. There was Susanna, whom he hadn’t seen for twenty years but who he knew was married to a Swedish architect and living in a residential district north of Stockholm. And there was Aline, who had become a potter and moved to Holland, where she was living with a woman; it had been twenty-three years since they had gone their separate ways, but Fernström still got a Christmas card every year. And standing out clearest of all was Lihr, dominating the room as usual and outshining the others; suddenly Fernström had a flashback to when he and Lihr had bumped into each other at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport when they were around thirty, and at the same moment he realized that that incident—which felt like yesterday—was fifteen years in the past, and that Lihr, Susanna, Aline, and he were fast approaching fifty. “Redundant, eh,” mumbled Fernström as he lay in the double bed and stared out into the darkness. “Made redundant . . . ”
* * *
Sunday morning was just as fogbound as Saturday had been. It was nearly half past eight and it was already light, or as light as it was going to get. Jere was asleep in the back seat, in spite of the fact that Fernström had found NRJ on the car radio, just for the boy’s sake. The radio played one rap song after another, but Fernström couldn’t tell one from the other. He sat and thought about the time he and Lihr had walked straight into each other out at the airport.
It must have been 1988 or 1989. Fernström didn’t know all that much about Lihr’s comings and goings at that time either; he had heard rumors that Lihr had got a job at Nokia and married a girl whose surname reeked of share portfolio, but that was all.
They had shaken hands. They hadn’t talked about either football or women. And neither of them had said a word about Susanna. Why would they have?
Instead they had talked about their jobs. Lihr had introduced his colleague to Fernström. The colleague was very young and showily dressed; he and Lihr were going round Europe together on business. Lihr was dressed in a gray turtleneck sweater and a jacket with small checks, and looked like a traveling vacuum cleaner salesman. Fernström was on his way to Malmö to meet a theater director. He knew the director slightly and intended to offer him a newly written play for production even though the play was poor, which Fernström knew very well. Fernström had long hair, a black, studded leather jacket, black jeans, and pointed black shoes with worn down and uneven heels; he saw that he looked like a parody of his own generation of artists.
Even then, at the age of thirty, both Fernström’s and Lihr’s bodies had become heavy and solid. Their necks had become thicker—and redder, as the sharp-tongued Sabina had added when Fernström had told her about their meeting—their shoulders had become broader, and their waistlines displayed the beginnings of a certain roundness. They had said bye, look after yourself, see you, and then each climbed into a DC9. The planes had taken off simultaneously from different runways. In Malmö, Fernström’s director friend had been extremely busy and stressed, and immediately started talking about a huge production, a Dürrenmatt thriller that would unfortunately swallow up most of the following season’s resources. Fernström realized that his business journey would be unsuccessful, and had thought of Lihr and wondered how he was getting on with his trip. Presumably better, because Lihr had been just as relaxed and likeable as always; his charm seemed more and more timeless, it was not influenced by exterior factors, it appeared quite simply to be in-built. Lihr didn’t need to look fit, or dress nicely or carry himself well, Fernström had thought; Lihr could be confident that potential customers would enjoy his company and sign a sales contract simply because the atmosphere during the negotiations had been so good.
“Aren’t we there yet?” said a drowsy Jere, and roused him from his thoughts.
“Just about,” replied Fernström and drove onto the Pitäjänmäki roundabout, beating time on the steering-wheel as he did so. “Is this Outkast?”
“No, it’s Outlandish,” said Jere deliberately, and rolled his eyes heavenward to indicate that it had been a crass mistake. “Outlandish indeed,” muttered Fernström and drove on toward Tali.
* * *
The Sunday too went according to script to start with. Fernström refereed the Westend Wolves’ quarterfinal: it finished 6–1 and Sebastian Lihr scored three of the goals. Jere’s team won the first match of the day, which led to great rejoicing, but they lost the next match 5–0, so the team would finish up playing off for eleventh and twelfth places; for some reason, that match was played at the same time as the A-final for boys a year older was being played on the next pitch.
When the refereeing roster was drawn up, Fernström had asked to be excused from the final round of medal and placing matches; he wanted to stand on the sidelines and watch Jere’s last match. But now, late on this Sunday afternoon, fate stepped in. The tournament’s youngest referee, the one with the hooded jacket and the thick-soled sneakers, had been given the honor of refereeing the older boys’ final. But he sprained his ankle when he was refereeing the semi-final, and since a couple of the referees had already gone home, there was nobody but Fernström who could step in.
The younger boys’ match for eleventh and twelfth places was being played on pitch two, and it managed to kick off several minutes before the teams for the one-year-older boys’ final were lined up in their own halves of pitch one and were ready to go. Fernström was distracted and refereed badly for the first few minutes of the final. The reason was that Jere was in goal for HPS in the match on the next pitch; the opposing team attacked in wave after wave, they scored one goal then another and then a third, and Fernström felt unhappy on his son’s behalf; he would have liked to rush onto the next pitch, he would have like to have saved Jere, to take him to a safe, different world where you never competed and never suffered stinging defeats.
Gradually pride in his work overcame paternal feelings, and Fernström started to concentrate on his own match. And the final was close. Westend Wolves were red-hot favorites; they had already played against their final opponents in the group games and outclassed them by seven goals to nil. But their opponents, a team from Vantaa who played in red-and-black striped AC Milan shirts, took everybody by surprise. They took the lead after just a few minutes—a long shot that caught the Wolves’ goalkeeper unawares—and then fought as if their lives depended on the match. Sebastian Lihr and his teammates could not get past the well-organized and frantically tackling Vantaa defense, and the longer the match lasted, the more often Lihr Junior committed the star player’s cardinal sin: trying to do everything himself, trying to go all the way on his own. Sebastian hit the bar toward the end of the first half, but that was all; and soon the match was heading toward a close and Lihr Senior was running up and down the touchline, shouting and roaring and groaning, and Fernström could now see that his former teammate was marked by his illness: even though he was 100% involved in the match, Tony Lihr was not red in the face like Alex Ferguson and every other fiery football manager, but remained hollow-eyed and pale.
There were only three minutes of the match left when it happened. The Wolves goalkeeper caught a harmless high ball and threw it to Sebastian Lihr, who was waiting on the edge of his own penalty area. Sebastian saw that for the first time in the match the opposing team were out of position, and he sped off and went out onto the wing. He went past one opponent, then another, and another. He was over the halfway line now and lengthened his stride a little, turning back inside as he did so. An opposing defender came rushing from one side, but an elegant double-touch took Sebastian past him. Fernström, who was running a few meters behind him, saw the gap in the middle and knew that that was where Sebastian would try to get through. He tried, and he succeeded, because suddenly there was only fifteen meters of artificial turf in front of him, then the opposition goalkeeper and behind him—the goal, the target. Sebastian Lihr slowed down a touch, went into the penalty area with the ball seemingly glued to his feet and looked up to choose which corner he would shoot for. The goalie was standing on the goal line as if he were petrified; he was no threat, but Sebastian hadn’t expected that the last Vantaa player he had gone past would be such a determined fighter: the short center-back hadn’t given up, but had turned and chased after Sebastian, and he now launched a desperate slide-tackle, and careered into Sebastian from behind just as he was pulling his right foot back to shoot.
The foul was almost painfully obvious—it was the type that gets adult professionals a straight red card; the Vantaa player’s stubby legs closed like scissors round Sebastian Lihr’s left foot, the one he was standing on, and Lihr Junior fell flat on his face with an indignant cry. Later, Fernström would remember how strange that moment was. He saw everything with such clarity, both the present and the past. He saw Sebastian Lihr roll over and lie half on his stomach and half on his side, looking up at him imploringly. He saw a furious Tony Lihr shaking his fists in the air as he shouted, “That’s a penalty! A blatant penalty! Hey, come on Mikko! That’s got to be a penalty, for God’s sake.” But Fernström didn’t put the whistle to his mouth: he couldn’t. He saw in front of him the clear, cool spring day long ago, he saw himself jogging back to the center circle with his arm raised in a goal celebration and how Lihr’s punch came from nowhere and hit his top lip, which was transformed in a fraction of a second into a bloody mess. He saw in front of him how he and Susanna walked through the City Passage almost as long ago, and he heard that music that sounded just like the snowflakes drifting down, and he also heard Susanna’s voice saying, “I’m not sure. Aren’t you going to eat any more than that?” And he also heard Tony Lihr’s voice; it was a completely fresh voice, barely twenty-four hours old, and it said, “I’m going to make him into a pro. In ten years he’ll be making big bucks down in Europe.”
Afterward, he didn’t know how many seconds he had stood there in the middle of the pitch, motionless, as if he had been in a different world, a different reality. He saw Sebastian Lihr scrambling up without taking his eyes off him, he saw Lihr Senior staring at him with an expression that started as rage but then started to change to surprise, as if he had sensed what was going on inside Fernström. But Fernström saw without seeing; he wasn’t there, because he was everywhere and nowhere. And then, just as Tony Lihr’s expression started to change from astonishment and incredulity to certainty and dread, Fernström saw for a thousandth of a second a lightning vision of how short life is: he saw how one day we walk under a high, cold winter sky with our breath coming out of our mouth like a plume of smoke and our heart thumping, because there beside us is the girl or boy we have just realized we love and will love for the rest of our life; but the next moment, thirty or sixty years have passed and that girl or boy is long gone and there are so many other people one remembers, and the cold winter sky hasn’t been high and liberating for a long time, it’s just a black, frosty, suffocating lid.
And in that fleeting thousandth of a second, he also saw that it was like that for everybody.
And then it was as if someone inside him had shaken him by the shoulders.
Then he blew the whistle and pointed decisively to the penalty spot.
Sebastian Lihr scored the penalty, and a minute and a half later he scored another goal.
After the presentations, Tony Lihr came up to Fernström and said: “That turned into one hell of a thriller!”
“It was a good final,” said Fernström.
“The Vantaa lads played a blinder,” said Lihr. “But you’ve got to admit that he’s a winner, my Sebu . . . he’d chew tacks to avoid losing!”
Fernström didn’t say a thing, he just nodded. Lihr held out his hand and Fernström took it; when they shook hands, it felt solemn, as if they had just finished a religious ceremony, not a football match for eleven-year-olds.
When Fernström was on his way to the changing rooms, Jere ran up to him and asked if he could come with him.
“Aren’t you going to have a shower?” asked Fernström.
“Can’t I have a shower in your changing room? There aren’t any other refs left,” said Jere.
“You should really be with the team,” said Fernström.
“I asked the coach and he said it was OK,” said Jere.
“Well, in that case . . . Go and get your bag,” said Fernström.
Fernström went into the changing-room, took off his referee’s gear, and got his shampoo and towel out of his bag. When he was standing rinsing his hair, Jere came into the shower room and started to soap himself, humming a rap song in a squeaky voice: hang it up, hang it up. Fernström turned his shower off and wrapped his towel round his waist, then went and stood in front of the mirror and did something he hadn’t done for many years. He pulled his top lip tight so that it slid over his top row of teeth; he did it several times, and each time he did it he could feel the little bit of resistance that had been there for nearly thirty years. He leaned nearer to the mirror and pulled his top lip tight once more, and then he saw the scar: a small, pale mark.
“What are you doing, Dad?” asked Jere.
“Nothing,” said Fernström.
© Kjell Westö. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2008 by Roy Hodson. All rights reserved.