Book Excerpt

February 21, 2016

A timid but insistent knocking brings me slowly back to consciousness and I open my eyes to see an empty vodka bottle about four inches from my face. My head is heavy and throbbing, my eyes sting, my mouth is dry with cigarettes and dehydration, my stomach gurgles insistently and my skin is oily. The last thing I remember is sitting on the bed, downing vodka neat from the bottle and re-reading my letter to Claire over and over. Sitting up slowly, I see the letter on the pillow. There is a vague memory of me holding it over a lighter, but apparently I didn’t go through with the incineration.
The knocking starts up again, then I hear the letterbox squeak and I know it’s Mrs Härma. A sudden realisation hits that I forgot to buy her things for her; and I never forget.
“Sonja? Are you okay? Are you in there?”
My alarm clock tells me it is just past midday. Luckily today is not a work day, but it’s not like me to stay in bed so late. Normally my days off are given over to people watching from a café table, and I always wave to Mrs Härma on my way out.
Tentatively, I pull on my t shirt, surprised to find that I am still wearing my trousers.
The whiteness of outside is blinding. Mrs Härma is wrapped in a huge woollen blanket and looks relieved. “Oh thank God, I thought you were dead.”
“Hello, Mrs Härma. No, I’m fine, don’t worry. Just a bit unwell.”
“You look terrible. Just awful. What on earth is wrong with you?”
“Just a virus, I’m sure. I’m so sorry I didn’t bring you your things last night, I just wanted to go straight to bed because I didn’t feel well. I’ll get you your money.”
Mrs Härma’s face falls slightly. She frowns and opens her mouth, then changes her mind and frowns even deeper.
“I may be old, but I’m not stupid.” she says.
My already dry mouth is suddenly arid. “Sorry? I don’t know what you mean…”
“There’s no need to lie to me, you know. You can tell me. I’ve had a life, I’ve lived, I’m not just a stupid old woman. I was quite a rebel in my day, if you can believe it.” Her eyes sparkle with mischievous memories. “I know you didn’t get in until late, I heard you. Bit worse for wear, weren’t you? Had one too many maybe?” She chuckles deeply and a smile forms on my lips.
“You caught me.” I say, suddenly fearful of what she might have heard.
“Next time, maybe we can share a vodka or two, eh?” she adds with a wink. “I didn’t have you down as much of a drinker, but maybe I was wrong! Now are you going to let me in so that I can get warm, or what?”
Nobody comes into my home, not even Clara, who has hinted at it numerous times. It is my sanctuary, my safe space, the only place I can really be myself. I panic as I think of things I may have left out, things that might tell Mrs Härma something about me. She blows into her hands and looks at me with questioning eyes. Reluctantly, I step aside and let her pass me, up the narrow set of stairs to my flat.
I follow her in and for the first time, I see it through someone else’s eyes. The uneven white stone walls are mostly bare, apart from a couple of poster prints that I’ve picked up over the years and the small kitchenette is clean but old fashioned, with dark wood cupboards and brass handles. A mattress sits in the corner of the room, the blankets and sheets unmade. Next to the beautiful turquoise tiled fireplace sits a tattered brown sofa, over which I have draped a crocheted blanket. A pile of books creates a makeshift table and the wooden floorboards are bare apart from one small rug. I rush over to the bed and throw the blankets over the empty vodka bottle.
“Good lord, what a shithole.” she exclaims, patting the armchair to release a pleasing cloud of dust into the light from the window. “You poor girl. They must pay you a pittance in that place.”
Despite my anxiety, I smile at her bluntness. She plonks herself firmly down in the chair, removes her scarf from around her face and sighs and I look at her; really look. She is old, it’s true, but there is a youthfulness to her features. Her grey hair is long, wrapped into a bun on top of her head. Her cheekbones are high and her now wrinkled and puckered lips tell tales of fullness and kisses. I see how she used to be sexy, smart, rebellious. That she once danced all night, got too drunk, grabbed a man by the dick and rocked his world. I see her disappointment, her unfulfilled dreams, her dismay at looking in the mirror and seeing someone she doesn’t recognise. The people she loved and lost. How these days people look right through her and think she isn’t important, or relevant, because she’s old and small. I see the young person she used to be and it nearly makes my guts explode.
I swallow hard and try to ignore the ball of emotion stuck in my throat and instead I put the kettle on, planning on making a cup of tea.
“So. Where are you from?” she asks.
“Germany.” The lie trips easily off my tongue.
“How do you speak such excellent Estonian?”
“My mother’s family were from Estonia. That’s why I came here.”
“Ah, I see. And your parents, do they live in Germany still?”
“They’re dead.”
She stares right at me for what feels like an eternity, her jaw tightly clenched. “I’m so sorry.” she finally says. “You are very young to have lost both your parents. May I ask what happened?”
“They were involved in a car crash.” My delivery is too formal, too rehearsed, but I hope that she considers it a feature of my limited foreign vocabulary rather than something to raise suspicion.
Mrs Härma shakes her head slowly. “My parents also died when I was young, just a baby. When the Russians took our city, my parents were both killed in the fighting.” she looks deep into my eyes and I feel sick with guilt. “It seems we have a lot in common, eh?”
This is why. This is why I can’t let anyone in, ever. Why do I never learn?
I turn away to make tea, hoping that she will assume I am upset, and busy myself around the sparse kitchenette, noticing anew how I only have one pan, one set of mismatched cutlery, two plates that I keep on the drainer when they’re not in use. There is only one mug, so I use it to make tea for Mrs. Härma and instead I pour myself a glass of water into my one tumbler. I love my space, my home, my carefully crafted existence, but in the light of someone else’s gaze, it is pitiful and I am ashamed.
When I turn back to her, she is bent over the fireplace, stacking twigs in the hearth. “It’s so cold in here, child. Let’s warm it up, eh? You look like you need it. Perhaps you should invest in a pullover, too. You’re too thin for the winter here.”
She builds a fire, pulls out a box of matches from the pocket of her giant cardigan and lights the paper beneath the twigs. It catches quickly and we are silent as we watch the flames take hold, then I take out my cigarettes and ask “Do you mind?” She shakes her head and then smiles and asks “May I? For old time’s sake.” I hand her a cigarette, light it for her and she sucks hard on it, filling her lungs, and blows a huge stream from her nostrils with her eyes closed and a satisfied smile on her face.
“It’s been a very long time since I smoked.” she says. “I thought it was bad for my health, so I stopped. Now I don’t care. I wish I had smoked more. I wish I had done everything more. Especially men.” She cackles and it turns into a cough, which she solves by sucking on the cigarette again.
“And you.” she says, her eyes narrowing with mischief. “Men? Or man. I think there is a new one, correct?”
I smile and sit down on the floor in front of the fire. “Maybe. I don’t know yet. I don’t really do that sort of thing.”
“What, fall in love?”
Love. Why is everyone so obsessed with love? Why do they think it is the aim of life, our reason for existing, the solution to everything? Love comes and goes, it flickers and it fades, and the pain it causes lasts longer than the thing itself ever could; yet we are told to value it above everything else. Above material things, above security, above experience and adventure and self discovery. Above our own sanity if it comes to it, even our own life. All love has ever brought me is a gut-clenching, bottomless grief that stretches infinitely into the future. Why would anyone choose that?
Then Mrs Härma tells me her love story.
She was sixteen and living with her aunt, in a tiny apartment not unlike this one, but with proper furniture. Every evening, she would be forced to listen to someone in the apartment below practise the clarinet. At first, they played so badly that she would curse the tuneless, ear-piercing screeches that floated up through her bedroom floor. She would roll back the rug and bang her shoe hard on the wooden floorboards to try to shut them up. There would be a pause, then it would start again, not louder, not quieter, just exactly the same. It drove her crazy. Every evening for three months, she listened to them practice, and every evening she would bang her shoe on the floor in a fury, almost screaming with annoyance; until one day, she realised that the sounds were no longer unpleasant. They were in fact quite beautiful. She stopped and she listened. She closed her eyes and she listened. The music bled into her soul and she knew that she loved this person, even though she had never seen them. “I didn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl” she says “but I knew that I loved that person. I felt them, through the music. I fell in love with that being, no matter who they were.” She went downstairs that day and knocked on the front door. “I must admit” she says “it was something of a relief to discover a very handsome boy with a clarinet in his hand.”
She pauses, smoking the end of the cigarette, right down to the filter, throws it into the fire and smiles broadly.
“So, what happened next?”
“I fucked him silly and made him fall in love with me.”
The water I am drinking goes down the wrong way and I cough it into my nose. Mrs Harma just laughs.
“Don’t let it pass you by.” she says quietly. “Just go for it. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but you never know until you try. Life is a lot longer than you think. It’s not short at all, despite what everyone says. It’s long and it’s boring and you should fill it with excitement and love.”
“So, what happened to the clarinet boy? Did you marry him?” She sighs deeply, closing her eyes, her wrinkles seeming to soften and her face suddenly younger.
“I did.” she said. “But life had different ideas for me. It always does.” She wraps her scarf around her face briskly and struggles out of the chair. “Right. I must go. That step won’t clear itself and it’s a damn death trap. Not that I would mind that as a way to go. At least it would be quick, eh?”
I see her out of the flat, watching her shuffle down the narrow staircase out into the icy street. She stops and squeezes my arm as she passes through the doorway, and I feel overwhelmed by the intimacy of this small gesture, something that happens so rarely. Goodbye, goodbye I say brightly, and I shut the door quickly to hide my filling eyes.