Friday, August 4, 2006

Don Juan in Helsinki: 13

OK, this is Donho Likkanen back again. Where was I? Oh yes, stuffed inside a blue Volvo 164 on a snowy highway on the way out to Kauniainen (Grankula) on a Friday night in 1971. It is Aino's car, or more likely, her father's, since Finnish teenagers rarely owned cars in those days. This is not America, oh no. Not yet, anyway. Even the snow is not a big deal to us Finns; we regard it in the same way Americans think of rain, as just an annoyance. The car has chains on the tyres, a second row of very bright headlamps on the bumpers, and even little heaters built into the seats. But Aino is too upset to drive, so Matti has taken the wheel; Stina and I are in the back seat. She and I are not touching--she is leaning forward, trying to say comforting things to Aino, or at least to distract her. To me, with no sisters, and with only loud, cruel, self-centred Heli as an example for a real girlfriend, all this dramatic talk and naked emotion is very strange; Bjorni and I would only discuss such a matter with a grunt or two and then go out and either get drunk or play hockey. Or most likely, both. I am also uncomfortable around Stina. She has begun the evening by putting my hand to her breast; now she is not ignoring me exactly--indeed, she often will brush my arm or hand with hers when talking (a whole chapter is devoted to this technique in one of her books, it turns out)--but she is giving her attention elsewhere.

Our first signal that something is wrong is a turn signal; first one side refuses to stop blinking, then the other. Next all the lights in the car begin to blink and boink--and then they all short out, along with the engine. Aino is under some dreadful evil enchantment, and everywhere she goes tonight electrical equipment refuses to work. Matti steers the Volvo into a drift on the shoulder, and we come to a halt. Matti tries to restart the ignition a half dozen times, flooding the engine, and then gets no charge from the battery at all. 'Perkele!' she yells. We are marooned in the arctic. There is not much traffic out tonight, only a few long-distance trucks that do not stop for us. We are taught in school to wait for a police car in such situations, but tonight we could freeze to death doing that. The cell phone has not yet been invented. But there is a yellow glow around the curve of the road only 100 or so metres away, and we decide to get out and walk. We are in luck--it is a Shell petrol station; by the time we arrive there, we are frosted over with snow and look like four Michelin men.

Now, here is another difference from America; inside most Finnish stations at that time were bars, 'Shellin baari', they were called. Nowadays, of course they have mostly been converted to convenience stores, but then they sold spirits and beers like Lapin Kulta, Karhu, and Koff and snacks like 'lihapiirakka', a sort of hot dog. This place also had a few slot-machines and, of course, a jukebox on which is playing 'Whole Lotta Love'. The station manager is behind the birchwood bar counter in front of a red flurorescent Koff sign, and there are a few lit yellow paper stars and a straw billy-goat for Joulu decorations. He tells us there is no mechanic on duty tonight to drive a tow-truck. But there is a pay-phone, and Aino uses it to call her parents' house. The Rosens, like the Molens, have servants, which is not completely strange to me; my own mother has a daily maid, my parents retain a handyman, and there is even a doorman and a concierge at our apartment building. But the Rosens have a chauffeur! Aino awakens him, and he tells her he will be along to fetch us in the Mercedes as quickly as he can. While she is doing this, I have a look around. There are a few truck drivers drinking coffee on stools, and a pair of 'huligaanit' drinking viina at a table. As soon as I catch sight of them, I know there will be trouble. Just my luck! Well, it is natural, even the truck drivers, who likely have wives and kids waiting for them at home, are unsettled by the sudden appearance of three pretty rich little schoolgirls and mutter appreciative obscenities. But it is the two at the table who are the problem. Even after three and a half decades, I find I can remember their faces quite clearly (even though, strangely, I have trouble recalling that of my own father), and I bet I barely half to describe them for you to remember them, too, because you have all probably seen them before in a bar somewhere. The 'leader' is thirty or so but looks older because of a funny scar that cuts into his eyebrow. He fancies himself a great ladies' man and wears his blonde hair greased back in a ducktail. He has sideburns like Stephen Stills, the Woodstock musician, and too-tight black leather pants. His 'sidekick' is big and has a lump of gristle for a nose and bad, rodent-like teeth; you remember him from the schoolyard playground, where he was always the arm-twisting bully. Both of them have been in and out of the army, where they were lazy and stole things, and in and out of jail, which is why they aren't policemen. And tonight they are drunk.

At first, everything is OK. I buy a beer for myself and Matti, and Jaffa orange soda for Stina and Aino. Then the blonde guy with the scar starts saying things to the girls. His friend laughs. They both become more aggressive. Matti replies to them defensively, I don't remember what she says, but Stina tries the 'tough-girl' approach, saying something like, 'Shut up, will you?' Naturally this makes them laugh harder, but a bit angrily. Now, again you must realize, this is not America. These two guys have no guns, they are not going to kidnap and rape the girls, and although the closed-circuit security camera has not yet come to Europe, there are a few witnesses here who will talk to the police if anything happens. No, it is not really the girls who are in danger, though they might get pawed over a bit; it is me. The odds are getting higher every minute I will take some kind of beating before we are rescued. The only way I can escape this is to disappear outside after giving some sort of excuse, like saying I am trying to hail a cab or look for a police car or something. For an instant I am tempted to do this. But I decide to stay and play the hero, though likely it will hurt. After all, three soft female pairs of eyes are watching me, and all are silently begging me to stay. And I'm still too young and foolish to be a true coward yet. So, when one of the guys approaches and starts to play with Aino's hair, I stand up suddenly, my hand still on my beer bottle and say, 'Enough!'

'Or what, homo?' says the big guy. 'Homo' is the universal Finnish derogatory term for a gay blade.

Suddenly I find I do not have an answer for this. I haven't really thought it through very properly. While I am reflecting, the manager comes from behind the bar and tells them to go home. My sense of relief is so great that I almost piss myself, but I strain very hard not to let any of this show on my face. I cannot bear it if those three pretty girls should realize that I am actually secretly scared of dying in their defence. I would rather die! Besides, it isn't over. I could still die! The two tough guys are pushing and shoving, just a little bit, calling us both things like 'perseennuolija', which I'm sure you can guess the meaning of, along with other insults. The manager grabs the foxy-faced blonde fellow's shoulder, and one of the truckers at the bar clears his throat very loudly. So finally then it's over, but just for now. The two stomp outside, the big guy yelling, 'Olet ihan perseestä!' ('You are straight from the ass-hole') on his way. The problem now is, they will be waiting out there for us, at least until they get cold and sober up. I thank the manager, who waves me off angrily--he blames us for the trouble, and he is hoping these two don't come back after closing hours and cause much more trouble, like smashing in his glass doors or stealing something from the lot. So I buy another beer from him and return to the table to sit with the girls. Now time is passing very very slowly indeed. Where is the chauffeur, Taneli, he is called? Keeping a wary eye on the door, we play tunes on the jukebox, though there is not much to chose from, mostly Finnish oldies like Matti Esko's 'Helsinki Valssi' or Irwin Goodman's 'Ei Tippa Tappa'. Or of course, Led Zeppelin, who have played in Helsinki the year before. While Stina and I pore over these, the other two girls try to phone Aino's home again, but there is no news of Taneli. Where is he?

And where is Vaino, you are saying? We are only reading this story because you say it is about Vaino's great cruelty--we don't see any more of that yet. OK, OK, he will be along in a bit, just be patient. But first we need Taneli, the Rosens' chauffeur, here. An hour has passed, maybe even two, when Aino decides she sees the yellow headlamps of the Mercedes passing by on the road outside. 'He's missed the turn!' she says, and rushes out the door and into the night to try to wave him down. So, of course the rest of us follow her outside--what else can we do? The snow has stopped, and there is no sign of the two bad guys. There is no sign of any Mercedes either. We turn to walk back inside, and then suddenly there they are waiting for me in an icy patch on the cement beneath one of the petrol pump canopies, a pair of dark shapes in the light of the station. There is the red glow of a cigarette inside one of them. They move to block my path, and I stop. The girls are still back behind me somewhere, beside the road, too scared to go back to the station. The blonde guy is in my face now. Meanwhile his sidekick is moving behind me.

'You've been pissing in my car,' he says. His words stink of anger, tobacco, and viina. And spittle. Some of it sprays on my face. His words surprise me so much, I am momentarily paralyzed with confusion. Even to this day, I don't quite know what he meant--perhaps it was a poetic simile meaning that i have ruined his evening. Perhaps his car was parked on the lot and he was accusing me of having scratched it or stolen petrol from it. Perhaps he was so drunk he actually even believed I had pissed on his car. Who knows?

But he leans forward and flicks his cigarette into my left eye; I see this as a tiny meteor hitting my vision, then spinning down to the pavement like a catherine wheel. At the same time, he tries to kick me in the balls, as the big guy grabs me from behind. Now, Likkanen may be young, but he is not completely stupid. When we left the baari I have secretly slipped an empty beer bottle into my coat pocket, and my left hand is holding the neck of it now. The blonde guy is wearing sharp, steel-tipped leather boots; unfortunately for him, these are leather-soled as well. He is also drunk. He slips on the ice as he kicks me, just enough to miss my crotch and kicks the bottle in my pocket instead, which splinters into three or four sharp shards. Then he falls over backwards onto his ass, cursing loudly. Meanwhile his friend is shaking me and trying to hit the back of my neck. My head is ringing and my vision is still sparking, though, as I discover later, the cigarette has missed my eye and hit the lid instead. Matti has now run over to us and bravely tugs at the bully's other arm, and he tries to hit her too. Suddenly I become very angry indeed. Without really thinking, I whip the bottle shard from my pocket and slice it deep into his fat hand. He screams. At the same moment Matti screams too. The three of us are standing there, swaying back and forth like The Three Stooges, when suddenly we are caught in a glare of yellow light, as if we have been visited by a UFO. It is the headlights of a black Mercedes sedan. It stops a few metres from us, the driver's door opens, and a middle-aged man wearing thick glasses and a Russian cap gets out. He is holding a tyre iron. At the sight of this, the second thug lets go of me, and the two of them scramble off into the night.

Later we will learn that the reason Taneli (for this is him) is holding a tyre iron is because first he had to slip the chains on before he set out, and then once he was on the 'Turuntie' driving east, some debris from a motor accident got caught up in them and punctured a tyre. So he had to change it. Then he went to the wrong Shell station. This is why he has taken so long to get here. But who cares? I am so happy to see him, I could hug him anyway. And in fact, here is the incredible thing--I am actually feeling better right this moment than I ever have before in my whole life! I even want the two bad guys to come back so I can do it all over again. Because you see, from where the girls were standing it must have looked as if I had walked straight up to the two of them quite fearlessly. So what if I really didn't see them until I was there? I am still a hero anyway. The moment we get into the car, Aino sitting beside her chauffeur in the front seat and me sandwiched between the other two girls in the back, Matti and Stina are telling me how noble I was while they wipe my eye with a packet of tissues and their own warm saliva. 'Any other guy would have run away,' says Matti. 'I'm worried about concussion,' says Stina. Heaven! I will never be so happy again as I am this moment, I think to myself. I am wrong, of course, but not very much.

Next time: The Garden of Eden.

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