I can remember a cold evening, very cold, my toes numb in my boots, my fingers aching in my muff, so much so that I wanted to take them out and suck them to make them warm. I was huddled close to my father, his left arm was round my shoulder, and our feet crunched on the snow as the skirts of his coat flapped outwards at my thighs and legs. We were hurrying, and I felt that it was not so much because the winter snow was whipping at our faces, but because it was late. My father was in haste to get home, almost as though he was afraid. A few lights from windows and elsewhere threw patches of yellow glow on the snow, but though every flat surface was white and the wind was drifting it against walls, there were still shadows too dense for my half-shut eyes to see into, and pieces of black wall standing crazily upright like broken teeth or gravestones. Snowflakes clung to my eyelashes, and there was enough warmth in my face to melt some of them and make them run like tears. My legs propelled me almost to fast for me to stay upright, and had it not been for my father’s steadying arm, I believe I would have tripped over my numbed toes. My body and my breath were hot from effort, making my extremities feel even colder by contrast. If there was any sound apart from the crunch of our footfalls – which I seemed to feel rather than hear – it was lost in the wind that buffeted my ears. A winter night in Helsingfors can be cruel.
Then there was a moment when I came closest to falling; that was when my father suddenly stopped. Again I can’t be sure of sounds, but I think he gasped. He pulled me closer to him, pressing my face into his coat. It was rough and harsh against my skin, and I couldn’t breathe, so I slowly twisted my head so I could see out of the corner of my eye, between two of his long fingers as they barred across my face.
I thought I could make out that we were close to our home. If it had been bright daylight, I might have recognized the place where the street bent to the right, and to the left an alleyway led up narrow steps before making a right-angle and losing itself amongst the tenements and go-downs of the city. High on a wall a casement was flapping open in the wind, wrenching back against its own hinges. It was allowing a light to shine down upon the mouth of the alley and the steps. At the margin of the patch of light there seemed to be two vague shadows. One was like a crumpled shape on the ground, the other seemed to bend or loom over it; as the snowflakes dashed against my face, the two shadows seemed to merge into each other, separate, and merge again. Then suddenly, the lower shadow was alone, the looming shadow had disappeared; but instead there was a figure standing at the top of the steps, a man in dark clothes. The light from the casement shone directly onto his face – it was as though his face attracted it. To me it seemed as though his bright eyes were fixed upon me and only me, and he was looking at me, memorizing my half-hidden features. He was grinning, a nasty, fixed grin, and there was something about his teeth – I could not take my eyes away from his grin.
The wind blew my father’s coat across my face for a moment, and when it flapped back again the top of the steps was empty. The man had gone.
Once we reached our house, my father took me up to my bedroom and made me lie down for the night. I didn’t go to sleep immediately, and my father sat there beside my bed, his head bowed as though he was praying. When I did go to sleep – I seem to remember – my dreams took me back to the mouth of the alley. It was always deserted, not only free of snow but as though the steps had been swept by a broom. The casement was always tight shut and curtained. There always seemed to be the echo of running feet…
‘Anna Lund’ is a casual, on-going project of mine. Something might come of it.