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If she was honest, Kaisa couldn’t quite remember when she first met Matti. He, on the other hand, told her endlessly how he’d been overwhelmed by her loveliness and innocence when he’d first seen her at the house of her new school friend in Lauttasaari. Kaisa had no idea that Matti had even noticed her during any of those lazy weekends and evenings spent at the Norens’ house.
Helsinki, Autumn 1974
Kaisa was the new girl in town. Again. But she was well versed in entering a classroom where she knew nobody. At fourteen she had already changed schools no fewer than four times. During the past three years she’d spent exactly a year in each school. Still, there were a few butterflies in her tummy when she scanned the room full of new lanky students on the second floor of the redbrick building. It was late August and all the new faces, some looking up at Kaisa, had a healthy glow from the long summer, which was now nearly over.
Vappu Noren was the first girl Kaisa spoke to; she’d sat down at the desk next to her at the back of the classroom. Vappu was skinny, with an angular face framed by long, thin blond hair and a friendly smile. They exchanged a few words about how unfair it was to be back at school on what seemed like the hottest day of the summer.
Vappu said she, too, lived on Lauttasaari Island, where Kaisa had moved with her mother and sister Sirkka only a few weeks before. In fact, Vappu and Kaisa discovered they weren’t too far from each other. On that first day, after they’d had lunch together, sitting on the grassy bank at the front of the school building, Vappu invited Kaisa back to her house.
Kaisa had no idea that Vappu’s place was one of the large houses at the tip of the island, overlooking the sea. She’d walked along the shore with her mother after arriving in their new home, admiring the grand places, wondering what kind of people lived there. When she saw the Norens’ house for the first time, she’d regretted her earlier, carefree, mention of the small flat she lived in with her sister and mother. The modern detached house had a vast wooden balcony at the front with a wide driveway below, leading to a garage on one side and a front garden with paving stones up to the door on the other. Kaisa’s new home in Lauttasaari would have fitted into the Norens’ large, open-plan living room. There were five bedrooms, a sauna, and a swimming pool next to a basement TV room. The lounge had floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the sea. Kaisa tried to remind herself that, after the divorce, her mother had done well to get a rental on a two-bedroom flat in such a good area as Lauttasaari. The flat even had a partial view of the sea, if you craned your neck and looked to the right-hand side on the small balcony. It wasn’t quite the same as the full vista of the Gulf of Finland, which the Norens enjoyed when they looked out of their living room windows, but still.
Vappu’s parents had split up just like Kaisa’s, but instead of having just the one sister, Vappu was the third child in a gang of four blond-haired siblings. Vappu was fourteen, just like Kaisa; her boyish, lanky, sports-crazy sister, Saija, was thirteen, her brother Erik seventeen and the oldest, Petteri, had already turned twenty-two.
Petteri was serving his conscription in the Finnish army, so was rarely in the two-storey house that the Norens called home.
Visiting Vappu was a bit like going to a house party; there were always other young people there – Vappu’s sister and brother Erik, and their friends. They’d all cram onto the large corner sofa in the basement TV room, or have sauna and pool parties, with illicit beer and Lonkero, the Finnish bitter lemon-and-gin drink that the girls liked. Sometimes even a bottle of Koskenkorva vodka would be passed around if Mrs Noren was working late, or out with her own friends. They’d grill sausages in the log-burner, which stood in the middle of the oblong basement room, and joke and flirt with each other. Kaisa liked Vappu’s younger brother, Erik. He had pale blue eyes, straw-blond hair and a strong jaw. He’d just come back from a year as an exchange student in Minnesota in the States, and sometimes used American words, such as ‘Yeah’ and ‘Alright’, instead of Finnish.
During a particularly rowdy evening, when Mrs Noren was away on a weeklong conference, leaving Petteri in charge, a girl no one admitted to knowing threw up on the sauna floor. But the rowdy teenagers took no notice of the quiet twenty-two-year-old Petteri’s attempts to restore order, so Matti, his best and only friend, as far as Kaisa could tell, stepped in. Matti, who stood out from the crowd of blond siblings and their friends because of his dark hair and brown eyes, took on the role of a grown-up. Acting like everyone’s dad and speaking in a stern voice, Matti told the guests to leave, and the Noren siblings to go to bed. Kaisa stood there, staring at this adult amongst the teenagers, a little drunk, not knowing what to do. Vappu was very unsteady on her feet by then, and walked slowly up the stairs, arm in arm with her younger sister Saija, waving goodbye to no one in particular like a queen on a balcony. She seemed to have forgotten about Kaisa.
Matti bundled the unknown girl who’d been sick into a taxi, and when he came back inside, Kaisa noticed it was just the two of them standing in the basement hall.
‘I’ll take you home,’ Matti said in the same stern, dad voice to Kaisa. He wasn’t looking at her, and Kaisa didn’t want to cause any trouble, so she said she could quite easily walk.
‘It’s past 2am, and I haven’t had anything to drink, you’re safe with me,’ Matti said with such confidence and authority that Kaisa just nodded and followed Matti out of the door.
On the way home in the car, Matti suddenly turned towards Kaisa, and smiling said, ‘You’re a good influence on Vappu, you know.’
‘Thank you,’ Kaisa said.
‘She shouldn’t drink alcohol, so it’s good that you’re no drinker either.’
Kaisa turned fully to see Matti’s serious face, momentarily lit by the streetlights. They were about to turn onto the main road running through the western part of the island. Matti had stopped the car and was leaning forward, closer to the windscreen, to see if there was anyone coming from either direction. Kaisa thought about what he had said. Hadn’t he noticed that Vappu was so drunk that she could hardly make it up the stairs to her bedroom? Or that Kaisa herself was quite the worse for wear?
‘What do you mean?’ she said, trying not to slur.
Matti turned to look at Kaisa. For the first time she noticed that his eyes were very dark and his lips very full. The street was absolutely empty, and the only sound came from the ticking of the indicator. The sky was black against the yellow glow of the streetlights. Matti’s face was serious, but there was gentleness around his eyes when he replied, ‘I shouldn’t have said anything.’
Finally, Matti turned into the main road, and then onto the street where Kaisa lived. She had to direct him to the right turning, but apart from that they didn’t speak for the rest of the short journey. When they reached her block, Kaisa got out of the car, and leaning in before closing the door behind her, thanked Matti for the lift.
‘I’ll wait to see that you get in safely,’ he said smiling, and Kaisa nodded. There was absolutely no one about, so Matti’s caution seemed unnecessary but strangely flattering. She waved to him from the door of her block of flats, and he waved back. She saw through the glass panel that he was sitting in his car watching her as she entered the lift. When she reached her bedroom and looked down at the dark road below, she half-expected to see Matti’s car still parked below, but the street was empty.
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