Perttu needed to poop. That’s how it had been, the situation, all weekend. But nothing would come out. He stared out the train window, vaguely expressing his discomfort.
The crushingly somber pinewood landscape was suddenly broken by a looming tower, looking strangely warped against the gray-hued mat of slow-moving, rainless cloud.
“Fuck me, Näsinneula tower,” said the teenage girl sitting across the aisle. She was wearing a turquoise crop-top which exposed a spray-tanned roll of belly about the thickness of a salami. Her travel companion, similar in type but with better muscle tone, tapped the screen of her cell phone and said nothing.
“Mom, what’s fuck,” said Perttu, more of a statement than a question, as he stared with a tense and slightly forlorn expression at the structure rising from the flank of the deserted amusement park. As if a five-year-old wouldn’t already know the word. The squealing of it filled the yard of the day care every morning and afternoon, each time the boy was dropped off or picked up.
“Look, the amusement park!” I remarked with an all too transparent agenda, realizing in the same moment that the park had already slipped away.
The train slowed, the teenage girls began chatting aimlessly in rhythmic tones punctuated by robust usage of the F-word, the city of Tampere flitted past the window: its leadlike expanse of lake, multicolored maple trees, all manner of crooked hovels and bludgeoned old brick buildings, which looked as though their presence had long since become a blur on the retina of all except the window-smashing and graffiti-scrawling population.
For some reason, something about this whole mildly dilapidated landscape struck me as homey. By contrast, the rail approach to Helsinki is more like stepping into an office.
It wasn’t until Perttu started moaning again that it dawned on me it would be quite some time before we reached the capital.
“Bubble,” I said “we’re just pulling in to Tampere. We’ll go after, when there aren’t so many people near the floors, I mean the doors.”
“Don’t call me Bubble,” snapped the boy, and his new little Adidas kicked out at the seat in front. The dour, moist eye of an elderly granny flashed between the seat-backs. “My name isn’t Bubble, it’s Eddie Faasel and I need to go potty.”
I had no idea who Eddie Faasel might be. The boy had begun the weekend in Seinäjoki by announcing to his father that he had changed his name to Abraham Oikarinen. At the age of three the boy had a phase, a couple months, when he asked people if he was Jesus. Then Jesus was replaced by the Antichrist and at some point the Antichrist became Herbert von Täräjän. It was impossible to say where the names and titles sprang from, perhaps he picked them up from other children who carried them from home like contagious diseases or lice.
With brakes screeching, the train slowed to a crawl. Outside the window, the city of Tampere appeared in both landscape and letters. Despite their many different colors, the buildings somehow all managed to look gray. Trickles of rain appeared on the windowpane.
Next to us, one of the lipgloss-girls lifted her gaze from her phone long enough to say: “Fuck, ’sraining.”
“Fuck,” said Perttu.
“Don’t you start Perttu!” I barked.
The compartment was a lot quieter now that the train had slowed down, just the muffled rustling of disembarking passengers slipping into their coats and carrying their bags down the aisle. I could feel several pairs of eyes on my skin.
“Fuck,” Perttu repeated, this time in a whisper. I couldn’t decide whether to play the role of stern mother, disciplining monster, or incompetent laid-back parent. I did try and squeeze his small hand with a degree of severity, but it turned into a gesture of affection. After which there was nothing for it but to hug him. Perttu, the most important person in my life, hugged me back but his gaze was turned inward, as if to focus on the load weighing him down, and before I could register what was happening he managed to slide over me into the aisle and weave his way between the people and their belongings toward the exit.
“Perttu!” I roared and once again I could feel a swarm of eyes alighting like flies on the back of my neck. I know it’s only too easy to start imagining things in circumstances like these, but I couldn’t help feeling that between Seinäjoki and Tampere, the name Perttu and Perttu’s potty-related adversity had already become painfully familiar to my fellow passengers. As I tried to plow through the throng in the aisle, muttering my apologies and calling to Perttu as I went, I was subject to one single “by all means,” a fair amount of terseness and surliness, and a murderous look from a middle-aged handbag a few rows away, who herself was shrieking into her phone like a police siren, imparting not only train-appropriate information such as “at Tampere station” and “yes, Dad’s funeral” but also snippets of the “colon cancer” persuasion.
I reached Perttu just as the train came to a halt and the doors opened and the people started piling out, tripping over each other’s baggage. From behind a big black suitcase, the boy’s finger reached up to press the automatic button by the door of the restroom.
The pretentiously oversize, semicircular door slid sluggishly sideways. And I suppose it’s just human nature but every bumbling passenger within eyeshot turned instinctively toward the slowly recoiling doorway, beyond which lay an area of surprising spaciousness, in the corner of which stood a metal toilet bowl, upon which sat a man who, in order to maneuver himself onto the seat, had evidently been forced to open his bottom shirt button with the result that his perfectly round, hirsute white belly had burst its dam.
The poor fellow’s shocked expression quickly infected the faces of the passengers standing between the carriages and like a game of telephone, it mutated from shock to vexation, from vexation to confusion and finally to amusement, at which point it reached Perttu, and his lower lip began to tremble. The man on the toilet apologized for some reason and so did I, then I picked the boy up in my arms, and pushed my way back to our seats, this time against the current, which made our progress even more labored.
“Never mind sweetheart,” I whispered. “We can go potty soon.” At the word potty the flushed-faced cell-phone lady, whose device now lay in her lap, threw us another sour look.
Once we found our row, I clambered into the window seat with Perttu still in my arms and sat there clinging to my child and stroking his wispy, tow-colored hair. He was tearful, but he wanted to man up so he stared stony-faced and weepy-eyed at the window. Outside, the city was getting properly drenched. On the platform, the people and luggage continued to move like bumper cars. In the middle of it all, a young man with a thin mustache and a bright orange vest was weaving his way through the crowd with a leaf blower; there was no evidence of leaves or rubbish on the platform and on closer observation it appeared he was merely breaking the humdrum of daily toil by chasing a lonely brown pigeon with his sonic booster.
The platform started to empty as the train jolted forward. The gloomy station lay behind us and soon the whole town followed suit. The dreary, corrugated warehouses and other industrial buildings grew sparse and soon gave way to a wooded landscape. The sky was as gray as rock-salted ham and beneath it the pine trees sprinted northward, as we sat with our backs facing forward. I hugged Perttu even closer.
“Mom,” he said, pressing his head against my cheek. The static in his hair crackled softly. “I don’t want to see Dad anymore.”
I sat quietly for a moment thinking neither do I, but what can you do. Dirty streaks of rain blurred the window pane. “But he bought you those sneakers,” I said. “Aren’t they great.”
“But I don’t want to go to Seinäjoki.”
“You don’t have to go there by yourself, sweetie. We can go together, like this time.”
“But it’s boring there. And you fight.”
“Yeah,” I managed to sigh. I noticed that the carriage had grown oddly quiet, even the nearby teenagers were whispering now, I could pick out the rhythmic hiss of F’s and K’s.
“Let’s talk about this at home,” I whispered. “You just remember you’re the best boy in the whole world and Mommy loves you more than anything.”
“Really need to poop,” Perttu said and promptly fell asleep.
I was starting to feel sleepy myself, but I was roused by a disturbance ahead. I tore my eyes from the mind-numbing pattern of the armrest to observe the hulk Perttu had surprised in the toilet squeezing in next to the red cell phone.
“For Pete’s sake,” the man grumbled as he heaved his barrel-like frame past his spouse into the window seat. “For Pete’s sake, is all I can say. The National Railways are completely off track these days. Flaming heck.”
The old fellow didn’t elaborate further, but his wife emitted an unnecessarily robust laugh. For my part, I reflected that the old buzzard’s oaths were the mildest so far encountered on this journey. But somehow, inured as I was to the F-derivatives, “Pete’s sake” and “heck” sounded quite sacrilegious.
Then Perttu woke up. He started broadcasting his pressing urge again. I picked him up firmly in my arms and said off we go.
At the same time, a female android voice announced in three languages punctuated by a teeth-grinding pling-plong that the train was arriving in Toijala. Despair struck. This bulletin to the effect of Being Nowhere provoked an astonishing amount of activity in the entire carriage, which is probably why the fashion babes’ obscene language was rapidly pumped up to maximum volume. The elderly lady sitting in front of us also scrambled to her feet, clearly exasperated by the young girls’ profanities. She took her handbag in her sinewy hands, as well as a half-empty, tattered-looking supermarket plastic bag, then stood staring at the girls for a moment before icily declaring: “Fuck it. I’m out of here.”
I was momentarily taken aback by the old lady’s feisty adieu, but recovered by the time the train started moving, and I knew something had to be done about Perttu. I picked the boy up and headed for the restroom On the way, the hefty man from the toilet scowled at us, more tired than angry. His ruddy wife however managed to cast an evil eye in our direction, all the while once again expounding into her phone on some disturbingly graphic medical diagnosis.
This time the corridor was empty and the restroom was free. A small strip of field flashed past in the window of the train door. In the field stood a tired, grayish barn leaning over at a forty-degree angle and awaiting final collapse. Perttu already had his finger on the button and the toilet door opened.
“Do you want Mommy to come with you?” I asked.
“No I can do it.”
I assured him he could take his time and I’d be right outside. But the problem turned out to be the door. No sooner had Perttu slipped inside than the absurd, ostentatiously curving door began to play up, opening and closing, gliding and shifting back and forth slowly but steadily. It occurred to me to wonder when exactly doors stopped being doors. In trains they had become partitions that had to be controlled like an elevator.
So I parked myself in front of the ever-sliding door-contraption and tried to shield the little boy struggling on the metal seat, praying he would be allowed to complete his task in a dignified manner.
“So the kid’s taking a shit?” a gravelly male voice inquired. I turned to see a man’s flushed and swollen face, deeply furrowed like blood pudding, in which two watery, blood-shot eyes miraculously managed to stare simultaneously at Perttu moaning quietly on the toilet and my breasts.
The partition thingy continued moving back and forth: open, shut, open, shut. Without further ado the drunk boldly grabbed my arse and said how about throwing the kid overboard so we can get down to it.
“Look listen no thanks,” I managed to say.
His glazed eyes looked me over for a second before he opined: “Prick-teasing slut.”
I was about to tell him where to shove it when I heard Perttu’s voice behind the door asking are you still there. I tried to answer him but all that came out of my mouth was a primitive, defensive grunt. Once I regained the power of speech, I shouted don’t worry, Mommy’s here. My voice was so taut it hurt my ears. I suddenly recognized the wavelength: it was the same pitch I’d been using all weekend to communicate with Perttu’s dad.
I glanced back. The man focused a couple of centimeters past my eyes for a moment, but then improbably enough, he shuffled onward. He mustered the energy to hiss something about a cow at me as he left.
I stood still. When the curved metal panel had repeated its back-and-forth motion four times, Perttu was once again forced to accept that nothing was forthcoming. He rose from the bowl, red as a beet from his efforts, pulled up his trousers and clambered into the corridor and his mother’s arms. I held on to him. Right then the same old geezer reappeared, he squeezed himself past us into the toilet, taking a swig from a bottle with no label.
“Mom it hurts,” Perttu moaned.
I cuddled him, I didn’t know what else to do, didn’t even think of heading back to our seats. Outside, some nameless burb flashed past. In the restroom, the curtain parted jerkily on the fellow tilting back his drinking receptacle as he wavered by the toilet bowl. His jeans had dropped to his knees and exposed his wan, sorry-looking backside, which luckily soon disappeared as the faulty mechanism drew closed once more.
The train braked. I wasn’t holding on to anything so we went flying, mother and child, arse over elbow. Before registering that the compartment’s front-row seats had a clear view of the corridor, I heard a bump accompanied by much swearing, and I couldn’t resist the lime-green satisfaction of picturing the old bugger both doing his business and taking a swig as he fell.
Then my attention was drawn to my fellow passengers, who were staring. We were both fine, but embarrassed. Best to get to our feet quickly. As I endeavored to draw our two-person modern family upright with some semblance of dignity, the loudspeaker announced in an irritatingly lazy drawl that we would have to wait for a passing train.
After being knocked off our feet, having our train standing at a halt just seemed to add insult to injury. I took Perttu by the hand and led him back to our seats. The air was thicker than ever with the effings of the teenyboppers. When we walked past the ex-restroom tub of lard and his wife, there was a fetid gloating in their glance.
I collapsed into the aisle seat next to a tearful Perttu, who sat stiffly staring at the rain-streaked window. I could feel my own eyes welling up and so there we sat, sniffing as we watched the little towns steeped in autumn flitting past.
I was distracted by a scream from across the aisle: “Fuck, look a field!”
And I must have caught the foul-mouth bug in the air, because I found myself whispering to Perttu, whose eyes were dry now, this is the shittiest day ever. I was immediately sorry I said it. It was growing dark outside, the landscape seemed to consist of nothing but the neon signs flashing past, and even they remained unfathomable. They were just rows of red, orange, green, and blue signs that didn’t mean anything and simply hurt your eyes and your head.
The ever-thickening darkness made it hard to say who and where we were. This last question soon found an answer from the neighboring seat: “Fuck Hyvinkää is a shithole.”
“Fuck I really need to shit,” said Perttu.
I almost gave him a slap, but my forehead broke out in cold droplets which reminded me that I was the one who had started the round of expletives. I was so tired all I could do was stare at my child, who suddenly seemed like some strange alien life form, but then this wonderful little life form said in a hoarse, unfamiliar voice, did you hear me, silly poo-poo Mommy, and I took his hand and off we went again to the restroom.
This time I thought of taking him to the next carriage but when I saw our regular facility all empty and open-sesamed, I led him in. Perttu pushed the button on the inside of the toilet and the door slid shut obediently.
I stood in the corridor. Outside night had fallen over the earth, but artificial lights flashed past with increasing frequency. It was difficult to say how long I’d been standing there but when I finally noticed the whine emanating from inside, which included actual child’s speech—Mom, he was calling—I realized the door had been closed for some time.
“It’s OK sweetie!” I cried. “Mommy’s here! Did you manage to go potty?”
The intercom announced our arrival in Tikkurila. I continued clamoring did you manage to go potty, repeating it three times like some bizarre rite; only then did I think to look around. The whole corridor was full of clearly fascinated listeners, some bemused, others embarrassed, first and foremost among them being grouchy Fatso and his red-faced missus.
“Hello,” I called, unable to think of anything else.
“Hello,” called Perttu from somewhere inside.
“Hello,” called the infamous alcohol abuser, who had just turned up again, grinning in a bad-smell kind of way. He was swinging a red sports bag which seemed small for his size, and he was apparently about to get off the train. I turned away from him and continued shouting to Perttu and pressing the button on the door. The thickening crowd felt like it was pressing on my brain.
At last the train pulled in to the station, and jerked to a halt. The people started their usual bumping around. Someone caught me on the ankle with their trolley bag. I didn’t turn to see which of my newly acquainted fellow-travelers it was.
“Mom!” called Perttu.
I blurted back something along the lines of Mommy’s here, don’t worry, the door will open any minute now.
And open it did.
There he was, little Perttu, his jeans misbuttoned and suspenders hanging down, still pressing the switch on the open door. I rushed in to give him a hug and pull his clothes together, even though the crowd had already dissolved into the Tikkurila gloom.
“I was just about to go,” Perttu’s bottom lip trembled and he looked down at the floor. I didn’t know what to say apart from aw darn, darn ‘n’ drat, cruddy old crap. This mixture of consolatory and naughty words gave rise to a spark of childish glee in Perttu’s tired eyes. I washed his hands and picked him up and made my way into the corridor mumbling that we’d soon be in Helsinki and home again.
Through the corridor window I caught sight of Ilmala station bathed in pale light, before the view was shielded by a generously built conductor crooning in some unfamiliar dialect. My first thought was that he too was here to pass judgment, throw us off the train, shout some rude rebuke, or grope me with his big hairy paws.
But no. “Excuse me,” he said in plain Finnish, “something not quite right in our Comfort Vehicle today.”
I looked up at the guard not quite knowing how to take this affable, spudlike figure . The man started searching the pockets of his uniform and dug out a little pad, from which he tore off two slips, one for me and one for Perttu.
“Coupons for the restaurant car: roll and juice box.”
“Thanks,” said Perttu in a small voice.
“Thank you very much,” I said.
“F . . . fanks a lot,” said Perttu, managing to resist the temptation of voicing one particularly inviting F-word.
The conductor resumed his official stance and wished us a pleasant journey. Having completed his mission to salvage customer satisfaction, he carried on toward the rear of the train.
It wasn’t worth sitting down anymore. We could see the playing field and then the bay, beyond which stood Finlandia Hall, all lit up. It looked like a giant piece of feta cheese, crumbling at the corners. On the other side of the train I spotted the Roundhouse building before we pulled in to platform seven and came to a halt. I started gathering up all our goods and chattels, rather too many for what had been a weekend trip, and in the process I managed to knock over someone’s sports bag but as no one seemed to pay any attention, I simply took Perttu firmly by the hand and headed off toward the end of the compartment once again.
Most of the travelers had evaporated along the way, so this time there was no real crush at the doors. People and luggage drifted along the platform toward the station building, some droning forklift contraption weaving its way between the pedestrians. High above us, the rain was drumming against the glass roof.
We went with the flow to the exit. That’s when I started to buckle.
Out of sheer stinginess, I had originally intended to take the bus home. Suddenly I thought, flaming heck I don’t have the strength. So without further ado I marched Perttu through a short dry passageway out into the pouring rain to the taxi rank, where there were rows of cars waiting. There weren’t many people out on a Sunday in this godforsaken weather. Yellow lights quivered in rain splashing against metal, like little shimmering beasts.
We sat on the back seat with all our belongings. Perttu fell fast asleep, the driver was silent. My thoughts surrendered to an unspecific sorrow and I stared out of the window at the desolate, useless-looking city. The Long Bridge offered, despite its name, only the briefest cheer, then my eyelids also began to droop. I pulled Perttu closer to me. He groaned and smacked his lips for a second before drifting back into a peaceful snuffle.
I was roused by the taxi braking suddenly to avoid a bus pulling out from its stop. Perttu also awoke with a start and a groan. I couldn’t quite read the melancholy, somewhat apologetic look in his eyes and the shadow of a smile on his lips, but my nose told me the whole story. Through the thinning cloud cover shone a wet, full moon.
“Toimii kuin junan vessa” © Mikko Rimminen. By arrangement with Teos. Translation © 2014 by Eva Buchwald. All rights reserved.