An absurd little narrow-gauge railway ran from the station to the village, which had now grown into a market town. Compared with the frightening, snorting great trains of the grown-ups, this little engine with its miniature coaches all of different colours was comfortingly reminiscent of a child's toy. In the big train I had felt oppressed and uneasy, afraid of losing my suitcase or of going past the right station. The fear had been very real and intrusive, and it was with relief that I
climbed into one of the green toy coaches, sat down on a handsomely perforated wooden bench and stowed my suitcase between my feet. After all my anxieties I felt I had reached my goal.
The little train suited me; its size was reassuring, and when with a piercing whistle the engine jerked the coaches into motion I felt pride on its account. The line was familiar to me; I knew where I had to get out and was sure of being able to find my way. But I had never made this journey alone before. Hitherto I'd been a child; now I was twelve and travelling on my own, and among the underclothes, sandwiches and bathing trunks in my suitcase lay Stevenson's Treasure Island, the most tremendously exciting book I had ever read.
The bathing trunks strengthened my sense of being no longer a child. Hitherto it had never occurred to me to wear such things, but in this little country town there was a public bathing beach on the lake shore, and Mother told me I must wear them there. The moment she said this I realized the truth of it, and felt somehow estranged from her and from all the world, as if some protecting membrane had split and left me naked and afraid in an alien place. But this first confusion had long since passed and now I merely felt very grand in possessing bathing trunks, and also in having a suitcase of my own.
Barely three hours had passed since I had formally shaken hands with my mother on the platform in Helsinki, rigid with dread lest despite her promise she should disgrace me by kissing me good-bye in front of strangers. She had not done so, and these last three hours had swept me away from my former life – from safe, familiar things – into a solitude where I must fend for myself. This was a painful yet exhilarating feeling. Alone I had changed at the junction, and felt proud indeed to have found the right train without difficulty. The loneliness of that too big, too rapid express train had lain heavily upon me. Now that the ordeal was nearly over I straightened up, like a beetle which, having been frightened into shamming death, cautiously spreads its gauzy wings when the danger is past.
I leaned airily back, threw one leg over the other and looked out of the tiny window. The coach rocked pleasantly, the little engine hooted at every bend and a green and red spruce wood rushed by. Then appeared the outlying houses of the town, and the train drew up by an open space beyond which the ancient church, with its steep shingle roof, soared to the sky. Jackdaws were screeching round the steeple.
It was here I had to alight. No one had come to meet me, for my aunt was delicate and suffered from loss of breath, and my uncle disliked interrupting his work without good cause. I knew I should have no difficulty in finding the house, and at the thought that there was now no need for anyone to meet me I felt even more grown-up than before. I paused for a moment to look at the church, knowing that it was a noted feature of the place and was even pointed out to foreign visitors. Its walls were over three feet thick, and had huge stones built into them at such a height that no one knew how people living all those centuries ago had ever got them up there. Or so my aunt said, never forgetting to add that the bigger the stones they laid in the walls the bigger the sins for which they fancied they would be forgiven. Aunt made this remark with heavy irony, well knowing that it was by faith alone and not by works that mankind could attain salvation. Yet in thinking of those far-off days she would heave a gentle sigh and add indulgently, "Poor souls!"
The sight of the church aroused in me a strong feeling of repugnance, for already I could hear the minatory thunders of the organ; the paintings on the walls appeared to my mind's eye in dreadful detail, and again I felt the deadly boredom that had gripped me on every one of the countless Sundays I had spent there, when I was completely in the dark as to what it was all about. Such, again, was the prospect if I meant to spend the whole of August with my aunt, but I tried to persuade myself that those inevitable hours would now be easier to endure. I understood a certain amount by this time and had also begun to think.
I wandered along the dusty road that ran through the little town, looking in at the stationer's window and noting that a new house of stone had been built in the market square. The buildings were painted yellow or white as before and were surrounded by hedges of spruce or hawthorn, and in the gardens there were apple trees. At last I stood before the familiar house. I opened the discoloured gate and walked cautiously up to the house along the edge of the sandy path so as not to spoil the wavy patterns made by the rake; Aunt was very particular about these. Quietly and warily I opened the outer door, for Aunt didn't like noise. A white rug striped with red lay on the gleaming, extremely slippery linoleum, and once more the eternal problem confronted me: should I walk on the rug or on the floor? For neither must be dirtied. But the familiar, Old World smell of the house drifted to me reassuringly: the scent of old furniture, clean linen, rusks, linoleum, and freshly roasted coffee. Aunt came towards me, temporarily dismissing all problems from her mind, and held out her big, bony, kindly hand.
"Well, here you are then, Joel," she said. "I'm glad to see you. How's your mother?"
I answered conscientiously all her questions about my mother, my home, and my journey. She showed me where I was to sleep, took the suitcase from me, and offered me a cup of coffee in the kitchen. Here was proof that she considered me full-grown; in the old days I had been given only hot water and cream.
Aunt sat with her chin resting in her hand, scrutinizing me with eyes that sparkled kindly in the big, lean face. When I had eaten four slices of wheaten bread and finished my coffee she glanced toward the door of the workshop and said hesitantly, "Maybe you should go and say how-do-you-do to your uncle."
It was clear that she was as nervous as I was of disturbing him. I therefore knocked cautiously, opened the door and amid the ticking of innumerable clocks walked across the spotless floor to where my uncle was sitting behind the counter. He let the watchmaker's glass drop from his wrinkled eye and turned to greet me. He wore his working coat, but with it a high starched collar and a grey silk tie. His grey hair was combed carefully back and his scalp gleamed white between the sparse strands. His eyebrows were two wing-shaped tufts and the grey whiskers lent him an air of dignity. But his cheeks and chin, for all his grizzled age, had a sort of roundness and innocence about them, and I felt I had never seen so shy, modest and kindly a face as my uncle's.
Nevertheless I was nervous as I gave him my hand, though I guessed he was no less so. He stammered and muttered to himself until I thought of giving him, my mother's message of greeting. For this he was grateful, since it spared him having to find a topic of conversation; a task which he always found difficult. A black-haired apprentice stared at me from the other end of the table and then openly stuck out his tongue at me. I was thunderstruck. For me, Uncle's workshop with its everlastingly ticking clocks was as solemn a place as church; especially when with all their clear, various voices they struck the hour together. One began and the rest followed in due order until the noise swelled to a tremendous din which gradually decreased, until only a few belated clocks struck their remaining stokes, half-scared it seemed at the sound of their own voices in a room that was to be silent for the next half hour.
My uncle was shy, though of course he would never own to it. But now that I was older my aunt let me see that she often smiled at him behind his back. It was when women came to the shop that he was most alarmed; at such times he often took refuge in the parlour and let the apprentice deal with them. Strangely enough it was this very shyness and reserve that had won him general esteem. Even the most garrulous restrained themselves in his presence, and although to me he never uttered a word of reproach, I held him in profound veneration, was always afraid of disturbing him, and did my utmost to be quiet when he was about.
When I came out into the kitchen again my aunt, sighed with relief and said, "Uncle seems glad to see you. She had watched the greeting ceremony through the crack of the door, and years of experience had taught her to deduce my uncle's thoughts and feelings from is manner. She now looked at me hard as if at a loss what to do with me. “There's over an hour till dinner-time,” she
said. “You can go out and play till then”.
She could have had no inkling of how deeply the word offended me. A person capable of travelling alone from Helsinki and changing trains all by himself had obviously left his playing days far behind him.
"I shall go and bathe," I remarked stiffly, and added, "I've got my bathing trunks."
This crushing remark silenced my aunt and made her look at me with new respect, or so I fancied. Proudly I set off with the trunks under my arm, and strolled through the town towards the beach.
Ah, those years of boyhood, when life is full and vivid and sleep comes as one's head touches the pillow – a sleep tranquil and profound! I was happy in that old house, although everything in it was painfully clean and one had to be constantly on one's guard against dirtying things or moving chairs and so on from their appointed places. I soon noticed that my aunt was easiest in her mind when I kept out of sight, and I availed myself of this to the full. She was a conscientious guardian, but had no children of her own; to have a twelve-year-old boy on her hands was as worrying as having a charge of dynamite in the house. She would have liked to set me to work, for in her eyes idleness was the mother of all vices; but since for many years the routine of the household had run in smooth and self-sufficient grooves it was hard to find anything for me to do. But she did hit on the idea of my raking the sandy garden paths, and this I did gladly every morning when dew was still sparkling on the grass and the air was full of the freshness of approaching autumn. But the wavy patterns I made never quite satisfied my aunt, and she regarded the result of my work with pursed lips.
She also let me pick up unripe windfalls and take them to the neighbour's pig, which ate them with relish and came to look upon me as a friend. It was a massive, placid beast with a glint of unexpected playfulness in its red-rimmed eyes, and it liked nudging the toe of my sandal with its snout. Discovering in it queerly human traits I felt it was wrong to feed and fatten it just for the sake of turning it into Christmas ham. The idea depressed me, and I was glad to bring it all the windfalls there were, since it set such store by them.
But at this point my aunt's ingenuity gave out. Whenever she caught sight of me she began casting about for a job for me to do, but so long as I was absent her conscience slept; and so for the sake of her peace of mind I kept out of the way as much as possible. On rainy days I took refuge in the bakehouse, which was very seldom used, and if my aunt happened to look in to see what I was up to I could always show her my arithmetic book and my Swedish reader, as evidence of the many stiff holiday tasks to be done before school began again. Uncle's apprentice lent me a coverless, tattered copy of The Three Musketeers, and for the first few rainy days I was blissfully happy. When I began to yearn for more reading matter my aunt led me to Uncle's modest bookshelf. The black bindings of devotional works held no attraction for me, and the books on astronomy were too drearily reminiscent of school. Even my aunt realized that books of devotion did not make very exciting reading for a boy of my age; yet in her opinion training in temperance could never begin too early, and she therefore took down a thick book bound in green and handed it to me. It was called Echoes from the Rostrum.
I took it without enthusiasm and looked round the parlour. The boards were scrubbed white and on them lay white mats striped with red. The sofa, chairs, and table, ornamented with lathe-turned spheres and bobbins, were from St. Petersburg, where my uncle had trained. The seats were of red plush, though now in the summer they were hidden by neat blue-striped covers. It was in the room, in a narrow bed with brown wooden head- and foot-boards, that Uncle slept; but, in its cleanliness and quiet the room felt quite uninhabited. One evening, aunt was distressed to find that I no longer repeated my evening prayer aloud, and she led me to the parlour door just as my uncle was going to bed. Through the door I could hear his high, clear, old man's voice saying his prayers, and Aunt said that if Uncle did this, I could, He used always to kneel, she said, but of recent years he had taken to saying his prayers in bed, lying on his back with his hands crossed on his chest. My aunt therefore felt she could not insist on my kneeling, but at least I must pray aloud.
I had to comply. Thenceforth I repeated "Look at me" as Mother liked me to, and then "God bless Aunt and Uncle and save the heathen and protect all sailors on the far seas," for Aunt considered this important. Knowing that she listened from her room every night, I occasionally added thanks for the cakes she had baked that day, mentioning that they had been specially good; and this did not displease her. She was always anxious to prove that little boys' prayers were noted in the highest quarters, and so whenever dinner had been really very meagre I would summon up courage and express hopes concerning the next day's fare. Like most old people, my aunt and uncle ate very little, though their food was always wholesome and good. Bread was cut in paper-thin slices and at dinner Uncle never took butter. My aunt realized that the Spartan diet decreed by him was unsuited to a growing boy, and she did her best to supplement it with snacks between meals. She also gave me money to buy fruit on market days, and I never had to account to her for it. One way and another my prayers were often answered most wonderfully, and my aunt was delighted. To me there was something frightening in this game between God, Aunt, and myself; but I supposed that on the Day of Judgment God, if he was God, would be merciful and forgive both Aunt and me.
In the strange vacuum of this house, where for years time had been at a standstill, my mind concerned itself more with God than was perhaps usual for boys of my age. Having read the astounding and unforgettable Echoes from the Rostrum, I voluntarily added a further petition to my prayers: that God might protect all drunkards. For I was now fully alive to the terrors and temptations of drink. The book had been compiled by a noted orator and contained a vast collection of stories and anecdotes about the abuse of alcohol, some terrible, others ridiculous. Men beat their wives until they became permanent invalids, fathers flung their daughters into the fire, and the liquid waste from a whisky distillery was so strong as to corrode the galoshes of passers-by. Small wonder that this robust world, described in so forthright a style, fascinated me as much as Treasure Island or The Three Musketeers.
Uncle was a good Christian and a blameless man, who had solved whatever problems life may have presented to him by withdrawing from the world, keeping his body and clothes clean, and avoiding all temptations. To counteract his sedentary hours in the workshop he went for a long walk every day at the same time and in all weathers. He may have fancied that he'd been neglecting me or that I was bored, for one day after dinner he coughed shyly and invited me to come with him. This was so extraordinary that my aunt was quite flustered; she made me change my clothes and put on shoes instead of sandals. Uncle was dressed in an impeccable white suit and an old Panama hat, and carried a walking stick with a silver crook.
Side by side we followed Uncle's usual route, first down to the shore, then along a woodland path and finally up on to the ridge. He must have felt every bit as embarrassed and ill-at-ease as I did, but he trudged bravely on staring before him. I can still see his rounded, childish, face and dreamy blue eyes. After a mile or so we reached a clearing in the woods and Uncle remarked, “They’re going to bring a new electric cable along here.”
He smiled, his whole face radiant with delight at having found something to say. Then we came upon a dead crow by the roadside. Uncle turned it over with his stick, but had no comment to make. I would have liked to examine it more closely, but since Uncle found it unworthy of remark I refrained.
When we reached the top of the hill he paused by a grass-grown bank, stared at it for a long time and said, "This is where the Russian soldiers had their rifle range in the old days." Glancing at me quickly he jerked out, "The boys still dig up bullets here now and then."
It was the only hint he ever gave that his own sealed vacuum of a world could ever brush the borders of mine. We finished our walk along a route hallowed by a score of years – a route which Uncle had once chosen and never afterwards departed from – and as we walked I felt we were as far apart as if we'd been living on different planets. Yet this walk was for me so thrilling an experience that the memory of it and its countless vivid details remained with me for years, long after more eventful and superficially more interesting matters were forgotten. This walk, in the course of which my uncle uttered perhaps twenty shy words, still glows in my mind with the radiance of immortality.
The years of boyhood form a series of bright points between which all grey, sad, and hopeless things sink and vanish. At times, no doubt, I was unutterably bored, though I was perhaps unaware of it and merely supposed that that was how people always were.
Every Sunday we went to church. Uncle wore a dark suit and looked exceedingly uncomfortable as he walked along with short, slow steps, pausing now and then to allow Aunt to get her breath. As we approached the church door he had to raise his hat continually, and did so with modest dignity, his round face overspread with a shy, awkward smile. He was not himself again until he could subside into his usual place near the pulpit beside a mighty pillar, where he was hidden from the public gaze. Then he bent his head and clasped his hands in prayer. I had then two hours in which to contemplate the wall paintings and think of my own affairs.
I learned to know all the holy apostles and their emblems, for with each painting was a scroll inscribed in old-fashioned Gothic lettering. But my eyes turned for choice to the pictures in which something was happening, and there was no lack of them. Two especially seemed to vie with one another for pre-eminence. One portrayed a number of little sooty devils with long tails making up a a huge fire with their tongs under some poor human wretches who seemed in agony. In the other an executioner had just struck off St. Barbara's head; pale blood spurted in a broad jet from her neck into the air, while a wheel nearby suggested the immediate fate of the body. From the ground the saint's head regarded her still kneeling form in astonishment.
These pictures did not disturb me in the least, for I was only twelve and quite untouched by their imagery. Surprising things were going on in them, but they in no way concerned me and I could look at them as I would have looked at an exciting picture book, finding in them rich material for my imagination to work upon. They had as little to do with my innermost self as the sermon now echoing impressively beneath the vaulted roof. To me and perhaps to many of the grown people this echoing was what mattered; any possible meaning in the words was of secondary importance. Uncle listened with half-closed eyes, now and then sitting up straight to fix his attention. Aunt observed the congregation with keen interest, and from time to time stifled an incipient yawn. But when the service was over and, released from the clutches of the sermon and the weight of that ancient roof, we stepped out into the bright summer day, we all revived ang felt extremely cheerful, as if cleansed from the week’s misdeeds and in some way transfigured. At home the glorious smell of strong coffee filled the air. Aunt baked on Saturdays, and it was with light hearts that we sat down at the table.
Ah, those bright, immortal glimpses! The severed and astonished head of St. Barbara on the wall of the church, the clean, sour taste of a red-flecked fallen apple, the autumn freshness of mornings in the dewy garden that made one’s breast feel near to bursting; Athos, Porthos, and Aramis in the flour-laden air of the bakehouse; but, above all, one clear August day on the beach, when lightning struck my heart.
The bathing beach was public. It had white sand and a long jetty, and the water was clear. Close thickets of willow and alder edged the shore on the landward side, and behind them came the woods. At that time there were no bathing huts, and bathers undressed in the thickets. There was plenty of room for everyone, for the beach stretched for several hundred yards. Sometimes with other boys, though most often alone, I would undress, pull on my swimming trunks and stride into the water; or I would tear along the sand, roll in it, toss it about and laugh and shout with the rest. It was a pristine joy, unmixed with sad or troubling things.
But one day as I was making for home along the beach I beheld a young girl in the sunshine near a clump of willows. She had just come out of the water and was drawing off her wet bathing suit. Taking me for just a little boy she didn’t trouble to hide, and revealed her white body unconcernedly. I was so taken aback that I stopped short and gazed at her. She burst out laughing, waved the wet bathing suit at me and shouted, “Hi, you there – what are you staring at?”
I dashed away, stumbling in the deep sand and overcome with shame. But my eyes had been dazzled by the sunlit, water-cool image. That lovely naked girl had smiled at me, standing there so white, so wonderful, so outrageously fair. I lost all consciousness of my surroundings and as if blinded I trudged on, shaken to the core by what I had seen; instinctively I felt that I had done something shameful and ugly in staring at the naked girl, and yet I couldn’t have said why it was so.
The lightning flash struck me to the heart, though I was still only a boy with a mind as limpid as a drop of dew. Never had I known either desire or pain, and human griefs were remote from me; yet from somewhere deep within me there sprang dazzling fantasies of nakedness and bliss and that incomparable ecstasy that can flood one’s whole being with tumult. Outwardly I was exactly as before; inwardly something had changed, something had begun to grow. I wanted to forget it, to wipe it from my memory, for it troubled and saddened me. And perhaps I did forget it for long periods at a time, yet never entirely; it was there, though wrapped in darkness. That is why they stand out so clearly side by side in my memory: the cool, sunlit, naked figure and the alien darkness of my boy’s mind.
For several days I searched, furtively and with a nagging conscience, for the face of the unknown girl among the other faces on the beach, and though I never saw her again I still remember her eyes and her smile and how she laughed at me. I loved her for having vouchsafed to me a glimpse of that sweet and terrible beauty – beauty that was even enhanced in my secret thoughts. But I feared her
more than I loved her, for instinct told me that if Aunt and Uncle and perhaps even Mother had known of this they would have felt I’d done something disgraceful and forbidden – something too ugly for forgiveness. And so I was glad I never saw her again.
The day of my return to Helsinki was approaching when my aunt was visited by a delicate-looking woman who led a little girl by the hand. Though the girl was perhaps not much younger than myself she seemed to me a small child, for I had already identified myself with grownups. She had round, red cheeks and dark, inquisitive eyes. Two thick plaits hung down her back.
“This is Mir-yam,” said my aunt. “Say how-do-you-do and take her out to play. She’s starting school here this winter, and she’s going to live with us.”
The girl put her plump hand into mine and met my eyes fearlessly. I learned later that she had many brothers and was therefore not shy of boys.
“Come on, let’s go out,” she said, “so that Mummy can talk to Auntie.”
I hadn’t the least wish to play with her, chiefly because I thought I was too old. Her hair seemed to me much too black and thick and her cheeks too red, and I also considered that she was treating me over-familiarly. As soon as we were in the hall I took my hand away, and when we got outside I began kicking a stone across the yard without looking at her.
“My name’s not Mir-yam but Mi-ri-am,” she said, articulating very distinctly so that I might understand. I wondered how to get rid of her. For my aunt’s sake I had to pay her some attention, and I led her resignedly to well, which I thought the only thing worthy of notice on the place, for it was very dark and deep. She peered politely into it and said “Oo!”
With her brown eyes on me she shuddered as much from genuine fear as from the pleasure of being afraid. I looked at her with suspicion, feeling that she was overdoing it, and then reflected that girls probably always did. Picking up two green apples from the ground I said with the surliness of desperation, ‘Come and see the pig.”
I took her to the neighbour’s pig, to which I gave the apples. Miriam looked on politely and without a spark of interest. She was beginning to irritate me. She gazed into the distance and then with a quick glance at me she said suddenly, “I’m going to be a missionary when I grow up.”