Saturday, September 2, 2006

Don Juan in Helsinki: 23

The next morning after we saw the first part of 'Solyaris', Maarit and I caught the train from Leningrad to the suburb of Gatchina, which lies south of Pulkovo Aeroport. Maarit had an appointment there with someone at an illegal trading market, where she would also meet her cousin Märkko from Estonia, which was less than 100 kilometres away. On the train I read a description of the town and its famous lake and palace from the only Finnish guidebook to Leningrad I had been able to find before we left. Gatchina sounded to me a bit like Haga Park in Stockholm, near to where my grandfather lived: ''Its marble walls were built to reflect the colour of the surroundings. In the summer sun they appear to be a warm gold, in the rains of winter a steely blue."'

'Well forget it, because we aren't going anywhere near the palace,' she said, as we left the railway station huddled under her red umbrella, ' This is just a business trip, so it's OK to buy cheap rubbish, but nothing else. We aren't here to take any stupid risks.'

'Then what are we here for?' I was not complaining, you understand; I was well content to share her umbrella. Jammed up beside mine beneath it, her body smelled of coffee, coal-tar soap, warm wet wool, and sex. This far from the sea, the rain had slowed to a steady drizzle. It was, according to the clerk at the front desk, 8 C on this day in late July. We could see our breaths.

'To fix shipment prices and dates with the Russian gangs. If this were a normal country, we could arrange it all by postcard or personal newspaper ads, but because it is still always Stalingrad here, deals have to be made with a handshake and drink of vodka. These are very backward, primitive people. It is important to them that they meet you in person, so that they can kill you later, if they have to. Of course, that doesn't make for good business.'

'But is it safe for you?' I asked, suddenly worried.

'Oh yes. My family is very old and well-connected, you see. Besides, I am just the little messenger girl. Nothing bad can happen to me here.' I was not so sure. We were walking northwest on Chekhov Street, a wide boulevard lined with eucalyptus trees and large white buildings that had, even in this weather, an oddly tropical French look, like a shabby old neighborhood of Nice or Cannes. Its mansions, streaked with soot and grime, were all schools now, or police stations, a local party headquarters, or Red Army training posts; once it had been a summer retreat for millionaires, an artists' colony, and, according to my guidebook, Imperial Russia's most 'cosmopolitan small city', filled with Germans, Swedes, and even Finns. Likely we were the only Finns who had seen it in some years--and we were certainly attracting many hard stares as we approached the apartment towers of the workers' housing estate. We turned left onto a street marked 'Radischeva'. On an abandoned muddy lot on the corner a group of young street toughs were listlessly kicking about a football so sodden it had burst apart and from a distance resembled a human head. One of these thugs spotted us and ran over to us, saying something in Russian. His hair was carefully greased back like Elvis Presley. He ogled my clothes as if they were a woman.

'He says he'll guide us there,' said Maarit. 'This part of the city is called "Zagvozdka"--that means "Big Trouble".'

'Wonderful,' I said.

'Well, literally, "Tough-As-Nails-Town".' The foot-traffic was picking up around us, the streets full of hurrying middle-aged men in translucent black nylon raincoats and women in bright scarves who might have been the cleaning ladies from the hotel. Everyone was smoking. There were a few younger girls, too, in day-glo pancake make-up and mini-skirts. Up close, it could be seen that the tenement blocks were quite new, perhaps built in the '60s, but already they looked as if they'd been shelled during the war. There was graffiti painted everywhere. The black market, or 'rynok', was in a paved arcade between two blocks of towers, and was packed with people of many different ethnic appearances, all of them dressed very badly. It was like a miniature USSR, I thought. Originally it had been created to house real shops, it seemed, but since there were none, the fronts were either boarded up or plastered over with party propaganda posters. In front of them were makeshift stalls and tables selling vegetables or dead chickens, but most activity was apparently being conducted by word of mouth. A man with no legs sat sleeping like a Hindu ascetic on a mat covered with toilet paper rolls and turnips. Next to him were strung clotheslines from which rows of spark-plugs dangled like clothespins. Maarit stopped at a folding table and bought a canary-yellow scarf from an old woman with no teeth. "Like it?' she asked me, tying it over her short black hair.

'You look like a real babuschka now,' I said.

'Well, I love it. I think it might even be real silk. You can get anything here if the traders have it in stock. Today it's Western make-up and underwear, I think--Russians hate Soviet underwear because it's made for one sex and one size.' This image was not deeply erotic to me. 'So you can see, if we can smuggle it here, we can sell anything. The problem is finding something to exchange, because the ruble is worthless. But you'd be surprised.' And so I was. So were we both, in fact. Our guide turned the corner into a covered concrete passage and gestured at a side door to one of the papered-over shops.

'Tuda,' he said, and Maarit gave him a handful of cigarettes. The door was unlocked. We went inside; there was no one there.

'What do we do now?' I said.

'We wait,' she said, looking at her watch. 'I'm a bit late. That's your fault, for keeping me awake all night.' The big room was in twilight, lit only by the gloomy daylight leaking in from the covered show-windows in front. By it I could see stacks and stacks of folded string shopping bags, some waist-high. The walls were covered from counter-top to ceiling with square medical X-rays with dark circles in the middle: skulls, chest cavities, crania, pelvic girdles, other anatomical parts I could not identify, and so I moved nearer toward them to stare.

'We used to bring those in, too,' Maarit said. 'We'd buy them from hospitals and clinics.'

'X-ray plates? Whatever for? They're useless once they're exposed.'

'Not here,' she said. 'Ten years ago, the "roentgenizdat" used to turn them into jazz phonograph records by pressing grooves on them. Nothing goes to waste in this country. This place might have been an underground music shop.' Something on the floor behind a counter caught my eye. A boot. Beside it was another boot. Both were attached to a body lying on the floor. I walked around the counter and saw there were two bodies lying there side by side with the slightly disjointed look of discarded dolls. Both were men in their forties with dark moustaches like Freddy Mercury of 'Queen', and both appeared snappily dressed. One had half-curled up on his side, but the other lay sprawled on his back with his face lolling toward me, his open mouth full of gold teeth, a blossom of dark blood staining his groin, and a single black bullet-hole between his eyes. Both corpses had defecated in dying, and up close, stank of shit.

I heard a sharp gasp behind me. 'Märkko!' Maarit said. 'Oh God, I feel sick.'

'This is your cousin Märkko?'

'No, no, Märkko did this. The lying prick set me up to finger these two for him.' Her face had drained completely of all colour, and she swayed on her feet. I caught her arm.

'It might not have been Märkko. It might have been...anybody. The KGB. Or, I don't know, Uzbeks.'

'No, it's Estonian-style. Right ball, left ball, then bang between the eyes.'

From outside I heard the distant, unmistakable sound of police sirens; a moment later, someone pounded on the front door and shouted, 'Blya, menty!' Maarit didn't move. She closed her eyes; she was shivering, and her face was bathed in sweat.

'Come on,' I said, 'We have to get out of here.' I dragged her out the way we'd come in and was almost bowled over by a group of fleeing housewives. We followed them down the passageway and out into an alley behind the apartment block. Maarit seemed about to faint, but revived a bit in the rain--somehow, we had managed to leave our umbrella behind. We had walked about two blocks away when she suddenly stopped and leaned over, breathing shallowly. 'I'm sorry,' she said. 'I'm acting like a complete girl, aren't I? The thing is, you see, I've never seen anything like that before.'

'It's OK,' I told her. 'It's very upsetting.'

'Look at you, though, you're being really brave.' She sounded almost resentful. Just then, Elvis peddled up to us on a bike. He braked and spoke in Russian to Maarit, his eyes flicking back and forth between us.

'He wants our money,' she said. 'Give him whatever you have.' I had a pocketful of rubles and a few Finnish markkas, which I handed to him in silence. He said something more.

'Now he says he wants our clothes.'

'What?'

'Just give him your jacket, that's what he's really after,' Maarit told me, taking hers off. It was a 'blue-jean' jacket, real American Levis. I gave it to him reluctantly. 'Don't worry, I'll buy you a new one.' Elvis carefully put it in a shopping bag, then insisted on taking her watch as well before he pedaled off.

'He's going to turn us in anyway,' I said miserably, cold rain beginning to trickle down the small of my back.

'No, he won't--he'd have to give our stuff up to the militia if he did. That watch of mine is crap, but he can buy himself a motorbike with your jacket.' We turned the corner into the next street, and suddenly there he was again.

'Saatana!' I exclaimed, losing my temper. 'What, has he come back for my pants? This is straight from the arse-hole!' Beside me, Maarit gave a weak giggle. Elvis stood there for a moment or two, legs astride his bicycle, looking at us with a slightly shamefaced expression, then handed us each a crisply folded black nylon raincoat. I put mine on after he had disappeared for good. I had cut off most of my long hair before meeting Maarit's family (it was going to have to go anyway when I reported for military service in a month); now she pushed a damp lock of it off my forehead.

'You're starting to look almost Russian,' she said. 'I've never heard you curse before. It's cute.'

'What do we do now?' I asked her. 'He took all our money.' Our passports were back at the hotel; we had been given grimy photocopies. My guidebook had fallen into a rain-gutter, and I felt an irrational panic at the sight, as if I were somehow saying goodbye to the last of my Finnishness.

'Oh God,' she said, starting to tremble again. 'This is so embarrassing, Lemo. Don't look at me.' Her teeth began to chatter, clacking loudly against each other, and she retreated into a little alley behind a mound of rusting containers. I watched her pull off her panties and squat down. When, after a time, she came back looking very little better, she sat down heavily against a low brick wall. A passerby stared at her curiously.

'I always carry a roll of dollars around with me inside a certain place.' She peeled out a few five-dollar bills from a little plastic sandwich bag and handed them to me. 'A certain place you have visited many times. I'm sorry, I'm feeling too sick to move right now. There's a "Vinnyj' on the corner, see it? Go inside and buy me a bottle of vodka, just say "Stoli, Stoli", OK? Don't accept anything else. Make sure the seal is unbroken and on very tight, we don't want to poison ourselves with "samogon". Oh,' she added as I began to walk away, 'See if you can buy yourself something to eat in there. It's going to be a long walk back.'

When I returned with the Stolichnaya, she opened the bottle at once and began sipping from it. 'It's the shock. This is the first time anything like this has ever happened to me. Always before it was just like a game, you know?' I nodded. She staggered to her feet, and we walked slowly north and east to the 25th of October Avenue. A police Zhiguli with flashing lights roared past us down the middle of the road, followed by two black vans; we turned and continued on in the direction they'd come from, trying our best to walk like Russians. The rain was beginning to come down harder, so this was easy enough--we were hunched against the downpour like a pair of half-drowned rats (BTW, I have noticed that this 'look' is now quite fashionable these days in Manhattan for both men and women--they appear to comb their hair with stinky cologne to achieve it. Sometimes I think no one bonks from real attraction any more but just as part of some sort of hazing ritual.) Inside the liquor store I had stuffed my pockets full of a candy bar called 'Kaka-o'; these claimed to be chocolate but tasted fairly much like their name.

'What exactly happened back there?' I asked her, trying to choke one of the Kakas down. The vodka helped a bit with this.

'I'm not sure exactly. Märkko is in a gang called the "Saha-Loo'--that means the "chicken farmers"--maybe they took a contract from the Kambov gang here in Leningrad, to kill those guys we saw back there. Or maybe not. Maybe something just went wrong. Or perhaps it was a hit ordered by the Estonian Defense League; they are very closely connected. One thing is for sure,' she said, taking the bottle back. 'Nothing Märkko does is his own idea. He's really conceited and stupid. He takes all his orders from his sister Tiu, who is the toughest girl I know. These are my real cousins, you understand, not just business cousins--they are the children of my mother's older sister. She married an Estonian named Peko Silves, a friend of my grandfather.'

'This Estonian Defense League,' I said. 'Aren't they like...?"

''Japp, they're like Nazis.' She took the bottle from me, put it to her lips, and swallowed hard. 'Next weekend I'll have to go to Tartu and talk to them.' We kept walking for about an hour up to Leningradskaya before catching a local bus that, after a long whimsical detour through a labyrinth of roads around the aeroport, finally got us back to the city. The next day we returned to Finland; at the border the sun finally came out.

Next time: Eurydice in Tartarus

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