Tuesday, 23 February 2010


It was not my birthday, but it would be by the time I reached England again (I was leaving Helsinki on the Russian boat The Alexander Pushkin, and it was a four day sail to Tilbury Docks). Late August in Finland and the summer had run a rapid course from amazing light nights of no darkness, and therefore no sleep, to sudden short days with white mist and gloom by five in the afternoon and the hugest, reddest autumn moons I've ever seen rising above the black pine forests.

J was one of the Finnish International Folk Dance team, a huge farmer, with giant shoulders, a wide bright face with laughter in his eyes, and so light on his feet. When I first met him he had said "Hello, it is nice to see you, and you are nice to see!" I was attending a folk dance day in West Finland; one of the dancers was a fellow teacher at the folk school where I was teaching English for several months and she had invited me to come with her. At the time J sought me out I had lost interest in the dancing and was sitting on a swing in the hot sunshine, barefoot and happy so perhaps I did indeed look "nice to see."

We became friends and went dancing together a number of times. Dancing with J was to be lifted into the air and whirled round like a top; he was strong and he was powerful, an energetic but elegant dancer, and so much taller than me my feet never really touched the floor as we spun to crazy polkas and the fast-beat waltzes that were so popular then in Finland. And on the night of what J decided should be my birthday celebration, since I would not be spending the day itself in Finland, we had gone to a venue deep in the thick forests, where a specially set-up dance floor had been built in a clearing and we would dance in the open air under the stars and the moon. My Finnish was not good enough to fully understand why it had been built here, but it seemed to be some kind of ceremonial gesture to the ending of summer. And it was wonderful.
The only thing that spoiled the night was that when we arrived back at the one-storey block of rooms where I lived - and so did some of my students - the front door was firmly locked and I had no key. Soft knocking brought no response from anyone inside. It was very, very late and I couldn't summon help from any of the other teachers, and especially not the Head. This would have been a disgrace for me of giant proportions. Finland was sternly Lutheran then.

"It is no problem," said J "Come, we find a window!"

And we did: the only open window was the narrow window of one of the toilet cubicles. I climbed on his enormous shoulders, but couldn't wiggle my body through. We got down again to reconsider the situation.

"Ha!" he declared, "It is no problem. I post you, like letter!"

Before I could say a word he had snatched me up and delivered me feet first through the window. My leather-soled dancing shoes struck the top of the porcelain WC tank, skidded, and the rest of me followed rapidly with a terrible racket of rattling porcelain, banging toilet lids, and the heavy impact of a pair of flying feet and solid body crashing against the door. The dead would have wakened at the sound, and what I dreaded soon happened: the sound of running footsteps and the door being heaved ajar and a circle of astonished faces peering in at me.
"Englantilainen oppetaja!" they exclaimed, "English teacher!" and then suppressed giggles broke out followed by great volumes of laughter. J's muttered concern on the other side of the window went unheard. And soon, though bruised and embarassed, I was laughing too.
In my last few days of teaching there I had to endure the conspiratorial winks and smirks of my students, and carry on as if nothing unusual had taken place, until my last day when the effort was too much for all of us and we subsided into so much laughter together the other teachers came to see what was going on. How could I say? What could I say?

"It is big joke," the girls said, "Big, big joke!" More laughter.

Late that October a letter came from J saying " We had a little snow last week. But it went away like you did."

I think of him still when the first snow comes. But only briefly. It was a long time ago....

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