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Authors: Johanna Sinisalo

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Contemporary

Birdbrain (3 page)

BOOK: Birdbrain
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And in the bush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.

Joseph Conrad,
Heart of Darkness


Levi, the Rabid Reindeer
Sunday, April 2006





It was a bizarre-looking concoction to say the least, with layers of clear and red liquid.

I wanted to ask what the hell was in the glass but decided instead just to knock it back in one.


At first my taste buds didn’t know quite how to react, then a split second later my mouth was filled with a most extraordinary sensation and my arms were covered in goosebumps.

'What the . .. ?’

‘Sambuca and tomato juice.’

Well, I suppose I had asked him to come up with something to help alleviate my acute symptoms of fatigue, irritation and of being far too sober.

reached into my handbag and dug out my wallet. ‘Let’s not put this on the company card. Our accountant’s really anal about this kind of stuff. A bloke in our office once ordered a packet of peanuts in a club, and the accountant made him list exactly which clients had eaten them — all that for some pointless expenses clause.’

He put his finger on my wallet and pushed it back towards me. ‘On the house.’

‘Can you do that?’

‘That’s what the write-off book is for.’

I started to laugh. It felt as though the weird and wonderful drink had taken the lift from my palate right up to my brain, where it had come to rest and was now giving off a soothing, numbing glow.

‘Thanks . . .’ I paused, meaningfully.


‘Thanks, Jyrki.’ I reached my hand across the counter and watched and above all
the way his enormous fist swallowed it up. ‘Heidi.’

‘And is Heidi having another one?’

‘She certainly is.’



It’s normally fun closing up the bar. You can play God for a moment and flick the lights for last orders. Then you turn from Jekyll into Hyde: just a minute ago I was smiling, joking, genially pouring fresh drinks, then in a flash I transform into a humourless, monosyllabic tightarse. In seconds the generous provider, everyone’s best friend, the life and soul of the party, is transformed into a cold-hearted thrower-outer.

Still, the last-orders bell doesn’t mean your shift’s over. There are still glasses, drinks measures and beer trays to rinse out. You have to make an inventory of the day’s takings, reset the credit-card machine, then clear up all the shards of broken glass and pieces of lemon rind on the floor behind the counter.

But on that one occasion I allowed the bar to remain open a little longer. The shift manager had told me to use my common sense when it came to closing time, so long as we stayed within the letter of the law. I made a judgement call: I was only too happy to carry on looking at that black fountain of hair and the glinting expression behind that thick even fringe — a look that was a mixture of exhaustion and mischief, caution and seduction, sweet and savoury. It wasn’t for nothing I’d given her that sambuca-and-tomato-juice shot: it was barman’s instinct.

I poured her anodier one every time she emptied her glass.



The coffee filter was rinsed out, the bottles counted, and the whirring cash register was busy churning out an endless stream of receipts. Jyrki’s movements seemed minimal, but everything happened as if by magic. Every now and then he would stop to exchange a few words and didn’t seem to want to encourage me to drink up the last in a seemingly continuous line of shots that had appeared in front of me — although many of the other customers nodding off in their chairs were told politely but firmly that perhaps it was time to hit the hay.

Jyrki was quite a catch, I thought as my brain turned gradually softer and softer.

I learnt that he was originally from Ostrobothnia and now lived in Tampere—or at least that was where his official address was — but that his flat was a small, cheap rented bedsit which he only really used to store his stuff.

Jyrki was on the books of some staffing agency that hired him out and sent him off all over Finland. There was always a need for experienced bar staff: holiday cover, summer festivals, city festivals, rock festivals, new bars opening up that wanted to get things off the ground with staff that knew what they were doing. There was plenty of work, and he was often able to pick and choose between offers. The local employer generally sorted him out with accommodation, usually a shared flat or some other modest place suitable for a free spirit with no wife or kids.

‘The winter season is the best round here. The summer’s grim. You should see those slopes when there’s no snow.’

I ’d never thought of that.

'So you’ve been here in the summer, too?’

'In the autumn. Been hiking a bit out in the fells.’

A barman with a rucksack? Wow.

‘We’re like modern-day lumber jacks. We’ll go wherever there’s work. Winter in Lapland, summer at the Seinajoki Tango Festival, the Hanko Regatta, Kaustinen or wherever . . . And, besides, during the summer you always need staff to serve in all the beer gardens.’

‘I’m a lumberjack
and I’m OK
. . .’ I burst into song.

Jyrki gave a laugh.

‘I had a different song in mind.’Then, in a voice—a grave, profound, vibrating voice:
‘Gladly we rushed there, where the common calling rang.

I was in raptures.

‘Our steps have the same echo!

‘All the way from Hanko to Petsamo!’

Our old Second World War march was brusquely interrupted by someone who was apparently Jyrki’s boss. He scowled at us, said something tight-lipped about closing up the bar and washing out some blender or other. Jyrki smiled
me and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, What can I do? From the other end of the counter, his dexterous hands taking some machine apart, he turned to me and raised his eyebrows in a look that really got my juices flowing.

I downed the last drops of tomato and aniseed.


‘And a very good, night to you, too,’ the puffed-up boss said, from behind the bar, looking meaningfully right at me.

I slammed the glass on the counter and walked towards the door, doubtless staggering more than a bit.The sub-zero air outside was bracing and fresh, and the blue-black sky seemed oppressively beautiful.

Someone was standing by the stairwell having a cigarette — a member of staff at the Rabid Reindeer, to judge by the shirt.

‘Sorry, do you know a barman called Jyrki?’ I asked in passing.

The man looked at me suspiciously.

All of its own accord, the story started bubbling convincingly from my mouth. Such excellent service, blah blah blah, then before we knew it the bar had closed, Jyrki had disappeared, and my boss Riitta had wanted to give him a special tip, a personal one, a big one. She’d told me to give it to him. In person.



It was half past four in the morning. I’d just got back to my room when someone started hammering on the door.

I furrowed my brow in confusion but went to open it.

It was the girl from the bar. Her dark hair was a bit tousled. You could tell from her eyes that all those sambuca shots had finally hit her bloodstream.

She wanted to talk. Because we’d only just got started.

I asked her how she knew where I lived.

She said she’d worked it out.

I told her I was about to go to bed.

She said she’d be more than happy to come to bed, too, and ducked under my arm and into the room. She sat down on the edge of the bed and started unbuttoning her blouse, although she still had her shoes on.

She was endearingly tipsy.

I let her undress to see just how serious she was.

She was deadly serious.

Without her clothes on, her body was worthy of more serious attention.

I folded her clothes and laid them on a chair. I sat next to her on the bed and tried to focus on her hopeful, slightly blurry eyes, although my own kept scanning downwards almost by force. I gently pushed her shoulders and lowered her on to her back. Her lips were set in a pout, waiting expectantly to be kissed.

I took the bedspread and pulled it over her.

I told her it wasn’t really my style to screw anyone who wasn’t a hundred per cent sure what they were doing, but that if she felt the same way in the morning we could renegotiate.

The next morning she felt exactly the same way. Still.



I left Jyrki’s room with only a few minutes to spare before our brunch appointment with the clients.

Jyrki had told me he had the day off.

At brunch I was bubbly and euphoric, and although I’d had a shower — my hair was still damp, a detail Riitta surely didn’t fail to pick up on — I was certain that I must have given off the pungent scent of multiple satiation.

Erkki twice pointed out that a client was speaking to me. I giggled, flicked my hair, pouted and laughed it off.

But beneath the surface I was seething. Christ alive. I’d wanted a one-night stand. I’d had a one-night stand.

I’d had an
exceptionally high-quality
one-night stand.

And not only that: I’d met a man with principles.

What’s more, on the way I’d succeeded in painting myself into a corner.

The rules of interaction between man and woman, between hunter and prey, are eternal. If the hunter is interested, the prey calls the shots.

When I decided to turn from prey into hunter, I turned control of the situation over to Jyrki.

I craved for a resumption of our little fling so much that my heart ached, and my body seemed to be splitting itself into two climatic regions, one of which was rather tropical. But what sort of woman goes and throws herself at the same guy twice? Say no more . . .

What if I just swallowed my pride and risked rejection?

This was such a painful possibility that I didn’t even want to entertain the idea — a matter that wasn’t remotely entertaining. The choice would be his. That’s the way it is.

As I sat in the women’s loo during our brunch, which had extended well into the afternoon, I had to dig into my handbag, take out my wallet and stuff it between my teeth to make sure my miserable, frustrated whimpering couldn’t be heard in the adjacent cubicle, leaving a series of deep crescents impressed into the brown nappa leather.

At dinner later that evening, it was barely ten o’clock when I complained of a headache, made my apologies and left the table, my glass of cognac untouched.

I went back to my room and switched on the television.

I had to keep my resolve.

Still, I wasn’t entirely surprised when, half an hour later, there came a knock at the door.

And no, it wasn’t Riitta bringing me a Nurofen.






The doorbell rang. Might have been Tuesday.

Didn’t answer. Probably the Jehovahs or something. If somebody wants me they can call, and if someone calls it’s up to me whether I answer.

It doesn’t matter what time you open your eyes. The air's the same: grey and grainy. From the light you can tell day from night, if you want to.

It’s night when the streetlamps shine a stain on the floor.

It’s day when the stain isn’t there.

It’s summer when there’s a stain there all the time.

The quilt’s sticky and too hot. If I throw it off, soon I’m too cold as the sweat chills against m
skin. Crappy quilt, too thick. Could sleep with just a sheet if I had one. I think there’s one in the bathroom, in a heap in a corner. So many stains on it that it’s stiff in places. Blood and cum; some mine, some other people’s. Or maybe the blood's not mine. Or maybe it is. I get nose-bleeds.

The grainy air is fizzing in front of my eyes. It could be any time of day.

The good thing about winter is you can sleep whenever you like for as long as you like.


South Cape Rivulet to Surprise Bay
Tuesday, March 2007





It might be too late by the time we leave South Cape Bay, or so I’ve already heard Jyrki mention several times as he glances at his chunky multifunction watch. Clearing out the camp took much longer than setting it up, and the moment we step out of the camp and on to the sands along the beach I realize that we’re late. Crucially late.

South Cape Rivulet is shallow, sometimes nothing more than a creek. It was from the side next to the beach, flowing out from the depths of the impenetrable thicket, that we had collected our drinking water the previous evening. As it flows towards the sea the current cuts across the sands at the bottom of the bay, forming a channel a couple of metres wide. Hikers normally just wade right through it, no problem, to reach the other side where South Coast Track — or Southy, as Jyrki has already started to call it affectionately — continues on its way towards Granite Beach. The water reaches up to your knees.

At low tide.

By now the rivulet is wide and deep, although through the brown water you can’t see quite how deep. To me it almost seems like the work of some malevolent magic. I can understand how the rivers flood in Ostrobothnia when the snow melts in the spring or during the monsoon season in tropical regions, but how a river can widen and deepen so dramatically twice a day is beyond my comprehension. It’s almost as though it’s breathing in horrifically slow motion.

Jyrki looks out at the strengthening current and sighs.

‘We’ll never get across,’ I hear myself say, my voice shaking, perhaps even with something approaching relief.

Jyrki puts his rucksack down on the sands, secures his hiking poles beneath the side straps, and in a single uninterrupted motion proceeds to untie the laces of his hiking boots, take off his socks, stuff them inside the boots and tie the laces together in an overband knot. Then he strips off his shorts, his T-shirt and. even his underwear without batting an eyelid.

I can’t help but look back towards the edge of the camp, but the border of eucalyptus trees is like a green botanic wall.

A similar wall faces us on the other side of the rivulet. No, that one’s far darker and thicker, rising up along the high green rocky embankment.

The woods were unmoved, like a mask

heavy, like the closed door of a prison — they looked with their air of hidden knowledge, of patient expectation,
unapproachable silence.

Oh, Joseph, Joseph.

‘They’ve seen naked men before, and if they haven’t it’s about time they did,’ Jyrki says. He stuffs his clothes beneath the strap of his rucksack and tightens the buckle to form a secure bundle. He hangs his boots around his neck so that they are dangling across his chest, one on each side, picks his rucksack up from the sand and places it on his head. The naked man then steps into the current.

The channel deepens so suddenly that after only two steps Jyrki is up to his waist in water. Another step and the water almost reaches up to his chest; the soles of the boots dangling around his neck skim the surface of the rivulet. A step further and the water is once again at his waist, then his thighs, his shins. Jyrki throws his rucksack and boots on to the sand on the opposite shore and without a moment’s hesitation gets back into the water.

‘Strip off if you don’t want to trudge around in wet clothes for the rest of the day.’

‘The water’ll be up to my neck.’

‘Swim. Head diagonally into the current. It’s pretty strong; you can feel it in your legs.’

‘How strong?’

My clothes fall on to the sand; my hands are trembling. Jyrki crosses the rivulet in an instant and stands there naked in front of me, water dripping on to the ground. He takes my boots, which I haven’t had time to tie together, and throws them one at a time across the water. I hear a dull thud as they hit the sand. Jyrki snatches up my clothes and hiking poles, stuffs them under the straps around my rucksack, and with a single graceful pull he has the whole heavy load perfecdy balanced on his head as though he were a robust native woman of some exotic country. He wades out into the brown water, reaches the opposite shore before I can take more than a few tentative steps and throws my rucksack on to the sand. Then he turns around and holds out his hand, a living bridge, and I don’t even need to see whether my feet can touch the bottom as he’s already pulling me towards the other side, steering me along the surface like a child.


Tasmania shows us its true colours the minute we cross the rivulet, as if it knew that after all that dressing and undressing and wallowing around in the potentially life-threatening current we wouldn’t be turning back any time soon.

This is the point of no return, it seems to be telling us.

Just climbing up the muddy, stony embankment from South Cape Bay is worse than anything we’ve seen in Tasmania so far. After that we head straight into a thick, damp forest, every now and then reaching clearings dotted with clumps of buttongrass that we have to negotiate. From there we descend creeks fed by networks of brown streams into the tangle of shadowy copses, then up again, this time to a series of rocky ridges. After that we are engulfed by steep stony inclines, the thicket and the darkness of the rainforest.

The path is nothing but a zigzagging trail of sloppy, shitty sludge. Up and down, then down and up we go — mostly up, of course, clambering up infuriatingly steep slippery banks. For a bit of variety sometimes we have to slide down the hillside or some tree roots on our arses, simply because our legs aren’t long enough or the path has no steps, all the while wrenching our rucksacks free of the bush and scrub, hauling our boots out of the smacking mud and prying our hiking poles from between the rocks with all our strength. Endlessly.

If Australia is mostly bone dry, this part of Tasmania seems to be nothing but a thin layer of land above a deep heaving quagmire. The
crème brûlée
of terrains, I’ll bloody tell you. And over the years hundreds of hiking boots have cracked the surface, opening up
like black greedy mouths for kilometres ahead.

At the highest point of South Cape Range, about 450 metres up — Jyrki makes a point of mentioning the specific height, as though it were of some special significance — we start our descent towards Granite Beach. Despite the effort, it’s impossible not to notice the sheer grandeur of the landscape spreading out before us. Some way off, far down the hillside, I can see an overgrown peninsula that we still have to cross, and the sandy, rocky coves extending in an endless series of crescents into the distance. Prion Beach, the place Jyrki keeps mentioning, can apparently just be made out — maybe it’s that dull-golden cuticle-shaped strip on the horizon. I can see the lines of foaming waves : hitting the beach, the turquoise water, and I’d like to think how beautiful it is.

You can’t argue with that.

Even though every part of my body is aching, I have to admit that Tasmania is in some unfathomable way both age-old and fresh as the day it was born. Old and experienced enough that it knows how to touche a nerve but at the same time so young that it almost feels as though we are depriving a newborn creature of the peace is has just discovered and needs.

The bushes rustle and crackle — always to the left, always behind us, incessantly — as though Tasmania itself were following us, invisible, smart enough constantly to devise little pranks and childish enough to carry them out.



The three guys that left Cockle Creek at the same time as us have decided to spend the night at Granite Beach. They’ve already put their tents up. Their sweaty T-shirts are flapping in the trees. I look at my watch.

She’s about to take her rucksack off when I show her the map. It’s less than two hours to Surprise Bay. Half of the journey is along Granite Beach. I mean, a
for God’s sake — what could be nicer than that? Then all we have to do is cross that peninsula and we’ll be there — Surprise, Surprise — just in time for dinner.

She asks what’s wrong with this place.

There’s nothing wrong with it, I say, but we’d have to make up the ground tomorrow. It’s only another four or five kilometres. We’ve got ten behind us, so that will make fifteen for the day. If we stay here it’ll be another twenty-one kilometres to Deadman’s Bay. And we have to factor in crossing the river. This’ll even out our daily stretches.

I don’t tell her that according to the guidebook it should be a twenty-one-kilometre leg split in two with an overnight stay at Osmidirium Beach. But that would mean one of the legs would be only three or four hours long. A complete waste of a day, in other words.

Another group of travel writers that hasn’t bothered thinking things through properly.



Ten kilometres?

Ten kilometres behind us?

You’re having a laugh. Ten kilometres in
seven hours.
Seven hours of unrelenting hellish, desperate trudging and scrambling, and it’s got us only
ten kilometres'!
In New Zealand we were doing almost thirty kilometres in the same time.

another four 0r five kilometers?

When we reach the place where we're supposed to descend towards the beach I find it hard to contain my desire to scream.

Beneath us is an almost sheer drop, ten metres high. Attached to a gnarled tree and the rocks is a frayed-looking blue-and-green nylon rope dangling down the jagged cliff face.

‘No.’ I hear my hollow voice rising from the bottom of my lungs.

Jyrki either doesn’t hear me or pretends not to hear me.

‘Are you going first or shall I?’ he asks.

It’s a rhetorical question; he’s already let go of his hiking poles, which are now dangling on the end of his arms by their wrist straps, and tugs at the rope to check that it’ll hold.

‘It’ll be easier for you to come down when I’m there to help you.’

Jyrki takes hold of the rope, wraps it around his right arm for added support, then starts lowering himself backwards down the slope. OK, it’s not exactly a sheer drop — now that he’s started moving downwards you can see it slopes a bit — but it’s still bloody steep.

Jyrki only occasionally looks down at his feet — choosing instead to rely more on the rope itself and wedge the points of his boots into the small fissures in the rock — and descends the slope as nimbly as a monkey, jumping the last, couple of feet to the ground. His rucksack yanks him backwards, forcing him to take a few steps to steady his balance.

‘Right then.’

I take two deep breaths and pick up the rope as gingerly as if it were a venomous snake. I decide to copy Jyrki and wrap it around my arm for extra security and grip the nylon rope so tightly that I can feel it digging into my fingers. I back up towards the edge of the cliff and, with my right leg fumbling around, start to make my descent.

‘Over there, there. One centimetre to your left.’ I can hear Jyrki’s voice from below. I move my foot slightly to the left and find that there is, after all, a small tongue of rock beneath my foot to take my weight. ‘Right, and another, straight down, a bit more. There you go.’ And with that the grooves on the bottom of my left boot find something to latch on to. ‘Then the next one, a bit further to the right, good. Now move your hands down the rope. You’re doing fine.’

I’m soaked with sweat by the time I feel someone taking hold of my hips — those strong arms, their firm grip on both sides of my hipbone.


I release the rope and land on Granite Beach. It’s almost as if I’d arrived on the surface of the moon, Jyrki’s hands helping me to defy gravity for a brief moment. I look up, and the slope I have just come down seems to rise halfway up into the sky.



Granite Beach. A beach, for God’s sake. What could be nicer than that? Yeah, rigbt.

This ‘beach’ consists of boulders, eroded by the sea into more or less

spherical blocks varying from the size of a child’s head to that of a widescreen television.

The path forces you to balance on and between the rocks because there is simply no alternative: on one side there is the ocean; on the other the steep cliff face. And because the tide flushes and moves these boulders on a daily basis they’re not firmly fixed in one place, so they constantly wobble, rolling and clunking beneath your boots. The tide is coming in now, too, the waves washing against the shore, slamming the rocks against one anodier only a few metres away from us. Our poles are no use either, as they just skim across the curved surfaces of the boulders with a grating screech and end up stuck in between them. It would be suicide to rely on your poles here; at best they are only a half-decent indicator of how wobbly the next stone is.

The rucksack’s centre of balance somehow always feels wrong; the stone that looks stable wavers the most. I look between the boulders and think of them as giant meat mincers.That’s what they are: if your leg slips down there and your own weight comes crashing down on to the rock, your shin and thigh bones would be smashed with a convincing crunch.

If your leg gets stuck down there, the next thing to contend with would be the tide.

Every muscle in your body has to be alert. Every fraction of every second you have to be aware of all the possible vectors and trajectories that the fine balance between your rucksack and your leg, the stone and your weight, might draw through the air, as you balance there between your body and the surface ol the rock.

BOOK: Birdbrain
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