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Count from the Splash

A short story by Helen Dunmore.

“You must meet Lucie. We’re all very excited about the new series.”

Fredrik had his arm around Kai’s shoulder, like a bear. They were good mates, great mates, although Fredrik was the chief bear who could place the paw of success on Kai’s shoulder, or not. As he chose, thought Maija. He chose to have us here and so we are here.

“You’ll know pretty much everyone,” said Fredrik. Kai nodded casually, but he couldn’t help it – his eagerness showed through. He wanted to know everyone. This invitation to Fredrik and Anna’s Midsummer party was a first.

“But, Kai, it’s Midsummer!” Maija had said.

They always went to their summer cottage for Midsummer. They had a bonfire, they cooked crayfish, and Liisa and Matti were allowed champagne. It was a family party, just the four of them. She and Kai sat up late, late, as the fire sank and the sun grew strong. They slept for an hour or two, and then swam in the lake and went to the sauna. The next day, you knew that it had begun: the slow shortening of the days, the lopping of minutes that took you back into winter.

I don’t care if we don’t go to the cottage,” said Liisa. “It’s boring, just us. Everybody else has parties.”

“We’re always going there anyway,” said Matti. “Why can’t we ever just stay in Helsinki at weekends? There’s nothing to do at the cottage.”

Nothing to do.

Sitting for hours on the smooth flat rocks of the lakeshore with Matti, while he fished. Teaching Liisa to dive.

Was that better, Mum? Were my legs straight?

Walking to the farm for milk. Deciding that the children were old enough to fetch the milk themselves. Hunting for mushrooms on mornings that already held a tang of autumn.

“You guys will love Fredrik’s place,” said Kai. “He has a home cinema.”

“A home cinema in a summer cottage!” said Maija.

Then Kai told Maija to ask the kids what they’d like to do. They betrayed her, of course they did. A home cinema and a house party – “Fredrik’s kids are teenagers; there’ll be a load of their friends there.”

Liisa and Matti had gone off with the others as soon as they arrived. They were all sleeping out in the woods. They were having their own bonfire and their own music.

“Light beers, nothing too alcoholic,” said Fredrik with a grin. “We know what kids are like.”

A tall dark boy with hair over his face loped down the path ahead of Liisa, carrying iPod speakers. They were gone.

“And what do you do, Maija?” asked Fredrik.

“I work in a rehabilitation centre. I’m a nurse,” said Maija. Sometimes it could be awkward to reveal her profession among film and TV people. They wondered if they had already met her, in another life. “I work mostly with young people,” she added, and Fredrik nodded quickly.

“Oh, right, good. Well, Kai, let me introduce you to Lucie. Harry Vikstrøm’s coming along later; I really want you to meet him. Julia’s Skirt is in post-production
now…”

They were gone. Kai didn’t look at her. But she wanted him to meet people, of course she did. Even now, with their children teenagers, Kai was younger than most of these people. “You’ve got kids? How old? You must have been still at school when you had them!”

She was holding her bag too tightly. She must relax. Anna seemed a nice woman, and not in TV or films or anything. She’d go and chat to Anna. People always need help in the kitchen at parties.

Anna was splodging caviar on to smoked salmon blinis.

“Let me help you with that,” said Maija. “A girl was supposed to come – I can’t think what’s happened to her.” But Anna didn’t seem perturbed. The table was covered with food.

“It looks wonderful.”

“It’s simple stuff really.”

There were sides of salmon, reindeer tongue, bowls of crayfish with lemon mayonnaise, fresh little carrots and new potatoes, salads that looked as if they had just been pulled from the earth.

“Everything’s organic,” said Anna.

“My father has an organic market garden,” said Maija.

“Has he really? That’s amazing. Fredrik wants us to grow all our own veg up here.”

“Oh,” said Maija, warming a little to Fredrik the bear. “Does he like gardening then?”

Anna scraped the last beads of caviar. “I don’t think he’s ever done any.”

The light changed. A woman was standing in the doorway, surveying them. Not a guest, Maija thought. A maid perhaps? No, she was too unkempt.

“Oh, hello, Birgit,” said Anna, and for a second she hesitated, as if she didn’t want to introduce her to Maija. She wiped her hands on a cloth, not looking at Birgit. “Maija, this is my sister. Are you hungry, Birgit? There’s loads to eat. I don’t know what we’re going to do with all this food.”

“You’ll throw most of it away tomorrow,” said Birgit. Her voice was harsh, as if she’d had to shout for much of her life to make herself heard. There was dirt under her nails. She came close and Maija recognised her smell. Metabolised alcohol was leaking from her pores. On top of the alcohol smell there was the smell of smoke. Her hands shook finely.

Maija put down her knife and pressed her own hands flat on the table. Birgit. Everything was different, but the way the hair lay flat to her beautiful skull was the same.

“Birgit,” she said. “Don’t you remember me?”

Birgit threw her head up and examined Maija. Anna looked alarmed.

“You are Birgit Lindberg, aren’t you?”

She could see the words What if I am? trembling on Birgit’s lips.

“Don’t you recognise me? I’m Maija. Maija Koskinen. You moved away when we were nine.” When your parents got divorced, and your mum dragged you off to Helsinki. We swore we’d always be best friends, but I never saw you again. I wrote you all those letters but you only wrote back twice.

Maija Koskinen,” said Birgit slowly, as if these were words in a foreign language.

“Don’t you remember?”

“Of course.” But it changes nothing, her look said. I am what I am, and you are what you are. How old she looked. Perhaps I look as old as that too, thought Maija. But we are only thirty-five!

“Were you friends at school?” asks Anna, looking from one to the other. Of course, she was Anna, Birgit’s big sister whose friends teased them when they were round at Birgit’s house. Anna would have been sixteen or seventeen then.

“You look good, Maija,” said Birgit. “Do you work in TV?”

“I’m a nurse. It’s my husband who’s in TV.”

“Or you wouldn’t be here,” said Birgit. “I can’t imagine Fredrik inviting nurses to his big party, can you, Anna?”

“Birgit,” said Anna.

“But he invited me. Now there’s a surprise,” said Birgit.

I invited you. It’s my house too. You are my sister and I love you,” said Anna, as if this were part of a script she had read over many times.

****

Let’s go outside,” said Birgit to Maija. Maija still didn’t know whether or not Birgit really recognised her, but she followed her outside. There were people everywhere now. Tango was playing from the speakers; there was a tin bath full of ice and beer bottles. How had they managed to get so much ice? She saw Kai in the distance talking to an older woman dressed in black, with sharp-cut silvery hair. Fredrik was in a crowd around the bonfire, his head flung back.

“This was my father’s summer cottage. Fredrik bought out the rest of the family,” said Birgit.

“It’s a big place.”

“It wasn’t like this. Fredrik knocked down the original cottage. All this is new. Haven’t you seen the solar panels? There’s a geothermal heat pump too.”

“Why did he buy it, if he only wanted to knock it down? He could have built elsewhere.”

“The lake is so beautiful. People kept telling him that. Shall we go down there, Maija?”

“Birgit, do you remember me?”

“Of course I remember you. I remember everything,” said Birgit. “Do you have children?”

“Two, a boy and a girl. They’re already older than we were back then.”

“Mine are too.”

Birgit looked as if she might say more, but they walked on in silence, threading through the partygoers as if they were ghosts. There was a path down to the water.

“We won’t bathe here,” said Birgit, “it’s too near the house. We’ll walk around the lake.”

Maija remembered the tone – imperious, and coaxing too, leading Maija into trouble. They were picking their way among rows of early peas, snapping off the crisp sweet pods. They were ducking into the fruit cages. They were screaming along forest paths, Birgit the leader, bold and wild. They were swimming naked and draping themselves with waterweed, “like mermaids”. It was always Birgit’s wildness that drew them on. Her singularity; her difference.

She was quiet now. They walked past the little beach and took the path that skirts the lakeshore. Birgit walked slowly.

“How old are your children?” asked Maija.

“I have one, a daughter. She’s twelve. She lives in England,” said Birgit, turning to look Maija full in the face.

“What’s her name?”

“Jessica. Her father’s English.”

They walked on. Maija could hear Birgit’s breathing.

“Let’s stop for a minute.” Birgit leaned against a tree and closed her eyes.

“You’ve been ill.”

“Yes.” Birgit’s face was leathery, as if she’d spent years living outdoors. That was all they wanted to do when they were eight years old. They were going to build a house in the forest and live there forever and ever.

“I got an infection. I didn’t see a doctor; you know how sometimes you can’t be bothered. That’s why I’m staying at Anna’s in Helsinki for a while. Fredrik doesn’t like it, but he gets a bit of street cred out of it. We’re giving Birgit support, she’s been in and out of rehab. ‘Rehab’, as he says it.”

Birgit caught the bear’s voice, just as she had caught every voice of their childhood.

They were at the jetty.

“We’ll take the boat out,” said Birgit. “Can you row?”

“You know I can, and so can you.”

“Not any more.”

The boat moved out clumsily, as if it wasn’t used to the weight of people. Maija dug the oars too deep, caught a crab, then caught her rhythm. It was neither dark nor light. The summer gloaming hung over the still water and from the distance they heard the cries and music of the party. Maija thought of her children, deep in the forest, drinking beer with strangers, but for once she wasn’t afraid.

“Let’s swim,” said Birgit.

Maija didn’t reply. She watched the water, the dark trees, the light behind Birgit’s head.

“I can still swim,” Birgit insisted.

“Maybe it’s not such a good idea,” said Maija in the mild voice of work, but she stopped rowing and shipped her oars. Birgit stood up and the boat rocked wildly as she tore off her shirt, her jeans, her pants, T-shirt and bra, and stood naked. Her poor body was seamed with scars. It looked as if someone had sharpened a knife on her, but over many years Maija had learned not to show surprise, still less revulsion, still less fear. Maija remembered how Birgit used to dive. The lake surface would open for her with barely a ripple, as if Birgit herself was made of water.

“I was in an accident,” said Birgit.

“I thought you must have been.”

An accident that had gone on for decades.

Birgit raised her arms, preparing to dive.

“I can’t stop you,” said Maija.

“I know that. Close your eyes. Count how long it takes me to swim to shore.”

“But how will I know when you dive, if my eyes are shut?”

“Oh Maija, that’s pimps! Count from the splash!”

There she is, laughing. She leans forward but she hasn’t launched herself yet. It’s easy-squeezy, Maija! Come on, Maija, it’s pimps! Maija… Maija… Maija…

The circles widen, going out, going back. Maija counts from the splash. 

Helen Dunmore (1952-2017) was an award-winning British poet, novelist and children’s author. Her final volume of short stories, “Girl Balancing and Other Stories”, is published by Hutchinson

This article appears in the 27 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special