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Authors: Johanna Sinisalo

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

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BOOK: Birdbrain
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Hop! Jump over! Don’t fall! Leap as soon as you feel yourself stumbling! Anticipate that feeling of ‘Oh my God, I’m going to lose my balance’ . . .Then hop again!

When a more level stretch of sand comes into view and every muscle is reeling from the constant exertion, there comes an almost religious sense of relief upon finding a real, glorious pathway. And it's only once that path is finally underfoot that the knowledge that this means well over two hours of trudging through the undulating valley-hill-creek-lowland terrain slowly begins to seep up to your brain. That and the fact that the setting sun will be relentlessly and malevolently beating down on you every step of the way.

Dripping with sweat, I crouch down in one of the relatively few brooks here that are shaded by the overhanging bushes; I’m beyond caring about getting my arse wet — so long as there’s shade and water. Water. I scoop it right into my mouth without giving a flying fuck about its colour.

The air is buzzing with enormous flies, so large and fleshy that you wouldn’t want to swat them: you can just imagine their insides oozing something nameless and disgusting.

Thankfully our final uphill stretch before arriving at Surprise Beach is almost shady, and the sun is already so low in the sky that it doesn’t burn directly down upon us.

Once the tent’s been put up, the beds laid out and we’ve had a wash, it’s already dusk, and I want nothing more than to consume something and to collapse.

 

 

 

 

He desired to have kings meet him at railway'-stations on his return from some ghastly Nowhere, where he intended to accomplish great things.

— Joseph Conrad,
Heart of Darkness

 

 

 

HELSINKI
September 2006

 

 

 

Heidi

Jyrki had taken a temporary job helping to set up a trendy new nightclub for the rich and famous in Helsinki. He had the day off, and we were sitting in the Bruuveri Bar sipping local microbrewery ale when he dropped his bombshell.

‘Six months, give or take. Departure around Christmas time when it’s the height of summer down under, then back here before the beer gardens open for the season. January in New Zealand, then on to the hiking routes along the Australian coast and maybe even Tasmania; then in March, when it starts getting cooler, back to mainland Australia for some bushwalking in the outback. Then in April maybe fly to the States, go to the Appalachians and trek until the summer. You’ll only need a tourist visa for the couple of months there.’

‘Six months?’

‘When you travel that far, you might as well go round the world. For some fucked-up reason it works out cheaper that way.’

Bloody hell, the man was deadly serious.

‘And spend the whole time in the bush?’

Jyrki nodded. ‘Of course, you have to move from one place to the next and work out public-transport connections to the different tracks and all the rest of it, so spending the odd day in town is unavoidable. But there are plenty of backpackers in New Zealand and Australia; cheap accommodation is an industry all of its own. You can get a berth in a hostel for twenty bucks or so.’

He described the typical backpackers' hostel: dormitories with shared kitchen and facilities. If you wanted to throw some money around you could book into a private double room, and lfor real luxury some places even had en-suite rooms, but they cost almost as much as a cheap hotel. Jyrki would be happy with the dormitory.

He had been saving up for two years. Even with the skiing season in Lapland there was always less work during the winter. If he wanted to take a take a long holiday, it made perfect sense to do it over the winter months.

The solution to the winter-hiking dilemma was simple: although the thought of the carbon emissions from a flight to the other side of the world was cause for serious concern, he had always wanted to visit the Antipodes. He had asked his staffing agency some cautious questions to test the water and to determine whether his taking for six months off would cause them a headache of astronomical proportions, but apparently he would always be welcome back on their list.

Operation Down Under, he’d started to call it.

There was something about his distinctly uncharacteristic display of garrulousness that gave me the feeling something unpleasant was just around the corner. And, believe me, it was.

He offered to give me back my freedom.

It sounded like a line from a Victorian novel. A man and a woman have entered into a hasty engagement, it will be years before they can get married — not before the groom has been ordained or the bride received her family inheritance. More to the point, one or both of them realizes that they have made a terrible mistake, and, even though it would be rather scandalous in the eyes of society at large, the only way to avoid the marriage would be to offer to give the bride back her ‘freedom’.

Didn’t he want to keep me waiting for six months?

Either this was a way of showing you really cared about someone, or it was the complete opposite.

Paranoia set in straight away: could someone really come up with such a farfetched scheme as nothing but a smokescreen, a seemingly honourable way out of a relationship that had started to bore him?

Jyrki had said he enjoyed being with me specifically because I hadn’t tried to tie him down or restrict him too much. I hadn’t insisted on him settling down, let alone suggested moving in together.

On my part it hadn’t even been a tactical move. It suited me just fine that we saw each other when we could and when we felt like it. Or so I’d thought.

In any case, clinging on to someone out of a sense of duty was never my idea of a functional relationship; I’d seen enough of that at home before my mother finally upped and left.

There couldn’t be someone else, could there? Bloody hell.

It wouldn’t have surprised me. Jyrki met legions of women every day, most of them dressed up to the nines, out looking for company — and drunk. He had told me he never took advantage of that particular perk of the job and that I’d been the exception that proved the rule. Of course, he could just have been spinning me a line.

I had to know, and there was only one way to find out.

I looked at him coyly from behind my eyelashes.

‘You haven’t even asked if I want go with you,’ I heard myself saying.

 

Jyrki

I had to laugh. It wasn’t exactly polite of me.

Her lower eyelids rose up across her eyes, the lashes almost catching on one another. I remembered some of the stories she had told me, how she’d had to fight at work not to be seen as the girl who makes the coffee or the girl who does the photocopying just because she was the young and pretty new recruit; how she had to prove that she had brains, too.

Brains, yes — but guts and stamina? The idea of her coming along hadn’t even crossed my mind. But when I gave it a moment’s consideration, it didn’t seem all that crazy after all.

Travelling the world in pairs has its advantages. You don’t have to carry all your stuff with you every time you go anywhere; the other one can stay behind and keep an eye on things. Dividing the load means having to carrying much less: we would sleep in the same tent, share the same cooking equipment, the same toiletries and first-aid kit and the hefty guidebooks and maps.

We’d known each other for a couple of months. We hadn’t exactly practised living together, if you don’t count spending the odd night at one another’s flat. Because I didn’t know where I’d be working from one day to the next, the idea of settling into a traditional relationship took some getting used to. Perhaps I was more a ‘girl in every port’ kind of guy.

But as I started getting more and more work in the capital and around southern Finland, before we knew it we’d started acting like a couple. A few times I’d even deliberately chosen a gig down this way instead of somewhere in Mikkeli or Joensuu. After all, why not? On the face of it she had all the right credentials: she was smart enough and quite a tiger between the sheets. But how would we get along shoulder to shoulder, quite literally, twenty-four-seven?

She flicked her thick dark hair, and I tried to imagine her ponytail stuffed beneath a baseball cap. I wasn’t convinced she knew quite what she was getting herself into. Women normally have a fit at the idea of not having an opportunity to wash their hair for a week.

 

Heidi

I had learnt long ago that there was more to Jyrki than met the eye — an everso slightly arrogant, exceptionally good-looking cocktail waiter. He had spent several years studying art and media in Tampere. He’d taken a summer job at a pub owned by a friend of a friend and decided that he liked being face to face with a random flow of people. When the friend’s pub closed down he had registered with a staffing agency and started working across the country. It was then that he discovered his inner nomad, as he put it, and realized that working as a barman was the perfect way to combine a life on the move with practical social psychology — his words, not mine.

Jyrki’s days as a student had given him a very wide general knowledge, and he was frighteningly well read.

I waited, my pulse on overdrive, my hands cold.

Hands. Jyrki’s enormous, warm hands that with such magical dexterity and intoxicating assurance knew just how to touch every part of me. Soon those hands would be on the other side of the globe.

So would that shaven head, that forehead behind which there lurked a momentary understanding of me; that and his astonishing ability to read people, something that caught me off-guard time after time.

Suddenly a chunk of my life would be left completely empty. A gap that I thought I’d already filled.

The thought of that loss gnawed at me, pained me; I knew that beneath Jyrki’s cool, statuesque exterior there was a fire burning that could rival Yellowstone. It was Jyrki who had first told me about it, the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone, which sooner or later would destroy the planet, smothering it in fire and ash — if we humans hadn’t managed to do it first, that is.

And as I sat there, my hands trembling, pretending to blow the froth on my microbrewery pint, I wondered what the hell I’d do if he said yes.

I’d already talked to Erkki and Riitta about my input at the PR company, and they’d both said that I’d done really well and that if I did another few supplementary courses at the marketing institute I could start taking on clients of my own. There was no question that I’d be able to continue working for the oil-company team. ‘We’ve had some very good feedback about you,’ Erkki had said in passing, and I couldn’t help but wince when I thought of who had given him that feedback: the brand manager Antti-Pekka; it must have been him, the one with a face as round as the full moon and a pair of paws that he found very hard to keep to himself.

I could forget all about this if I told them I’d be disappearing for six months. I could probably forget about my job, too. I’d done really well, but I still had a long way to go before I would be considered indispensible.

Then an icy avalanche flowed into my stomach.

Dad.

I tried to imagine his voice roaring like a lion down the telephone when he heard. And he would hear about it straight away. Dad was a friend of one of our bosses from the Lions Club, the same boss he’d done his best to sweeten up before I was offered an internship.

He’d kill me. I mean, really kill me.

And the flat. There was no way I’d have enough money to keep it empty. And, besides, for a trip like that you need money, shit loads of money. The last time I’d borrowed money from Daddy Dearest was for the deposit on the flat, and it had been so humiliating that I’d sworn it would be the last time. The moment he heard about me leaving my job the family coffers would be locked shut for ever.

A banker’s draft? A loan? And who would guarantee it?

I understood immediately that there was no point mentioning any of these problems to Jyrki. Discussion of the matter would be shut down straight away.

But I really wanted to see this through. This was a chance to do something for once. By myself. For myself. Well, almost by myself but without Dad’s helping hand in my face everywhere I went — in more ways than one.

When Mum left and we stayed with Dad, the words I heard most frequently from his mouth went something along the lines of ‘A spoilt little brat like you will never make anything of yourself in the world.’

Makes you wonder who did the spoiling.

If I did this, nobody would be able to order me around or tell me what to do ever again.

And just then, with the inevitable logic of a dream, part of everything that I wanted to put behind me materialized righl before my eyes.

 

Jyrki

A guy in his early twenties approached our table. Not washing his hair for a week was clearly not a problem for him. He was dressed in provocative baggy trousers, and the smile on his face was probably supposed to be one of friendly condescension but succeeded in looking as grim as framed rictus of agony.

She noticed the approaching kid straight away and tried to avoid contact by pretending to look around but soon realized that he was walking towards us with all the determination and tact of an oncoming tram.

He parked himself by our table, leaning backwards with mock self-assurance, and said something that was a mixture of familiarity and disdain. She stared at the table and grunted almost inaudibly. Everything about the kid’s body language said he was doing this just to torment her; the lack of any genuine desire to talk to one another was painfully obvious.

The punk’s eyes lit up like traffic lights: first came the rejection, then the need for revenge and finally the spark of glee that might result from his upcoming counterattack. A hand appeared out of his pocket, and he thrust it towards me. I heard something along the lines of ‘I don’t think we’ve met. Hi, I’m Heidi’s brother Jesse.’

I had to take hold of the paw and say my name, although the kid had made it clear the formality was just another way of taking the piss. I made our brief handshake firm enough that he should have spent the next minute or so blowing on his knuckles. After composing himself for a second, the conversation continued with a comment sucked through clenched teeth:

‘Jyrki, mate, I thought you’d have higher standards in the girlfriend department.’

I looked at her. Her head was drooping, her black hair hiding her eyes at the sides.

I looked at the little twat, smiling as broadly as I could muster.

‘Funny you should say that,’ I said. ‘We’ve just decided to go off to New Zealand and Australia together. For months. Far away from this sleety shithole of a country.’

The kid’s eyes betrayed a look that told me the revelation had really hit the spot. No real answer came out of his throat. Stammering a pathetic ‘Good luck, mate’, the wannabe macho man left the table, walking in an absurdly laboured wide gait, presumably in an attempt to look cool.

BOOK: Birdbrain
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