Helsinki Diaries: Between the Devil and the Deep Sea (originally published in Slanted #29)
Helsinki is a vulnerable city that faces the vast open sea. Its shallow waters are time capsules – the bottom of the Gulf of Finland is a graveyard of countless armadas of ships that will never rot, preserved forever by the low salinity of the cold water. The sea has borne witness to the arrival of both war vessels and cruise boats, travellers and conquerors. It has persuaded the city to bend to its will and accept the changes it has carried.
Short-haired girls in short dresses make the floorboards creak as they dance the Charleston or some other dance that is fashionable right now. The memory of the first big war cannot touch this moment and the next war has yet to announce its arrival. The room smells of freedom. Even though the country is poor, some of its young people are no longer held down by traditional Lutheran values and restrictions. Modern girls want to dance. They know not to be afraid of the Great Depression that will make their hems long again and force them to hide their ornate jewellery in the furthest end of their closet. Tonight their untamed steps are accompanied by the soft jingling of their long glass bead necklaces as they make their rounds in the room, touching their favourite people’s shoulders with silk-clad hands. The boys smile through the haze, their smiles widened by tea laced with rectified spirit. Their sloppily constructed hairdos are starting to droop, exhausted from the heat, the cheap oil used to hold their hair in place glistening in the soft overhead lights. They tug at their double-breasted suit jackets that have suddenly become too small. They buy another drink and their grins become wider. The supplies are running low. The last of the remaining alcohol is hidden behind the counter, just in case a policeman decides to knock on the door.
Alcohol is not the only king that reigns tonight. The seductive white powder descended on the city some years ago and is now distributed widely. The girls are eating fruit marmalades laced with something sweeter than sugar and the doorman has a bag of it in his jacket pocket. The drug has become the talk of the town, first arriving hidden in the suitcases of German drug mules on their way to supply the hedonistic nouveau riche of St. Petersburg with their daily doses. It has now worked its way into every fashionable party in town. The tabloids are warning about the dangers of the drug that enables hungry girls and boys to dance until the first morning light to the latest jazz tracks that have been smuggled from Stockholm.
The windows fog up and it is almost impossible to tell that winter is here. Nobody has time to think about it now, as everybody is busy tapping their unpolished shoes on the wooden floors, making the walls reverberate with volatile energy. Nobody talks about politics, the war or rationing here. Nobody talks at all, as the night slyly and slowly turns into a new dawn. Nobody feels a storm brewing.
The sea shows its might tonight. It hurls its waves in full force against the low sides of the small wooden boat unfit to carry five sturdy men who are fighting against the tide. The ripples stretch high to lick the lapels of their coats and fill their mouths with salty water. It is an operation that needs a sleight of hand and a keen eye for the temperament of the waves. The sea allows travelling unseen – but only under the cover of a violent storm when daylight is long gone. The salt water is as much an enemy as it is a friend and tales of smugglers who have been lost in the murky waters for good have been doing rounds since the operations started. Smuggling offers high profits for those to manage to pay their dues to the sea – contraband alcohol is known to have paid for villas with colourful facades, shiny black cars imported from the other side of the Atlantic and soft fur coats. The devil’s liquid has a power of its own, as the tabloids scream, and it is known to seduce men into firing their guns and drinking their fortunes in big gulps.
A bright torch sweeps the black waves. It is a police boat. The men cut the thick cords that hold their contraband in its place as they have done countless of times before. The club will not get its fresh supply of bootleg alcohol tonight. Tomorrow morning, when the last dancers will have collapsed in exhaustion and the police boats will be taking a break, the sea will allow the smugglers to retrieve their bounty that from the bottom of the shallow waters. The sea will play the role of a silent accomplice, participating in a dance around what is considered right and wrong for a total of thirty years of prohibition.
"The island's core is fundamentally ugly."
The island’s core is fundamentally ugly. War and the possibility of it have always existed here, cohabiting paradoxically peacefully with the people of the island. It has fostered life – tiny gardens, fields of flowers and sweet berries – but also allowed death to flourish. Following a wave of black plague, a cholera epidemic in the 1830s forced disease-ridden soldiers to spend their last moments here, cocooned off from the world on this island. Countless final breaths have been taken here. From the edge of the island, the mainland seems so close that you could just swim over, but the sea has always isolated death onto this small island – insurance to those who live on land.
Today, death seems far away. It is a summer day like no other – the air is hot and the sea is serene. Occasional warm showers give relief to the apple and plum trees that dot the island’s relief. Everybody has forgotten about the long winter months when every inhale feels like breathing in miniature ice picks and the sea freezes over so you can walk from the island to the mainland. Now summer has draped itself over the archipelago, unwilling to let go. The air is clean. Nobody smokes tobacco here – not because the islanders are health-conscious, but because on this island, it is life-threatening. Weaponry of the Finnish Defence Forces is stored here in old Russian army barracks and cold tunnels that snake under the ground. Ordnance and mines are loaded and maintained here and one ill-placed flame could turn the island into a fiery hell. The workers are careful but suffer from ennui – when they take breaks, they carve their names and initials on the walls of the barracks and the bricks of the tunnels to pass the time and to leave something permanent behind. It is a slow process but on this island, there is nothing but time.
The first explosion is surreal. No help is issued at first since the inhabitants of neighbouring Suomenlinna Island interpret the loud bangs from the explosions as gun salutes to honour the anniversary of the Marine Corps. Ammunition is strewn across the valley that instantly becomes awash with orange flames. Every new flame ignites another one and soon it looks as if the whole island had been swallowed by a midsummer bonfire. Thousands of kilos of explosives are flung across the island, turning into fiery rain that hits the neighbouring Suomenlinna Island. Pieces of grenade flying in the air are mistaken for peculiar rain coming from blue skies. The explosions make windows shatter in upper-class houses on the mainland. A middle-aged man who worked at an armoury on the east side of the island will later be blamed for the chain of explosions. He had just carefully disassembled nine cannon ammunitions – the tenth was to be his and many others’ death.
It is quiet. A pall of smoke floats above the island, covering the barracks, reaching high to the sky. Survivors scramble for safety, boarding rescue boats that are so crammed that people strip to their underwear, ready to jump into the sea and swim in case the boats capsize halfway to the mainland. A young woman rows seven people to safety on the neighbouring island, her hands blistered by the flames from the explosions. Twenty people die, while others try to swim to neighbouring islands or hide behind the island’s boulders. The island cocoons its inhabitants in a blanket of black smoke and red flames, offering few ways to escape the flames. The sea has isolated death once again.
After the deadly explosions that paint the island black, the valley where the explosions started from is renamed Kuolemanlaakso, the Valley of Death. The Vallisaari Island will remain uninhabited for ten years after the events on the ninth of July 1937. Eventually, families will settle here again. The following generations will remember sunny childhoods spent running laps around the island, playing hide and seek behind old military barracks and peering out to the sea to wave at passing boats. The grass will grow again, small gardens will push through the broken bricks and the winds will bring rain clouds to wash the fields. The sea will isolate the island again, but for the better. It will protect and nurture dozens of rare species that will thrive where death once spread.
"The young city is not fully in control of its limbs yet, but it is trying its hardest, like a teenage boy who has grown too quickly."
From the big windows of the hotel room on the ninth floor, people look like small plastic toy soldiers, although you would not know it now – at one o’clock in the night, the streets are empty. No toy soldiers hurry to get to work in offices, factories and construction sites. It is 1967 and the city is under permanent construction. The young city is not fully in control of its limbs yet, but it is trying its hardest, like a teenage boy who has grown too quickly.
The room is barely big enough for all of them. The four boys are strewn across the room, lying in symmetric piles of long limbs and stylish clothes brought from the other side of the Atlantic. The girl is wearing trousers with a flower pattern. She is the only one who is from this city, although she behaves like a big city girl – she knows how to pick the right words to sound worldly. She has a running subscription to NME and Melody Maker and she listens to Radio Luxembourg. She is finding it difficult to explain to the boys why there are no people around and why every bar, club and restaurant has already closed – it is like explaining the architecture of a galaxy to a group of children. Besides, they do not care for explanations. They want to fill their stomachs with alcohol, flirt with pretty girls and see the sun rise above the open sea. They are tired of lounging in their hotel rooms, killing time rolling joints, filling their jacket pockets with identical rolls of tobacco. They are getting fidgety and uneasy – even the one who is lying still on a divan by the windowsill, rolling one cigarette after another as if he was in a soft slumber. One of them has heard of a famous fine dining restaurant that stays open until the early hours. He hastily writes its name down on a piece of paper, one letter at a time. K A L A S T A J A T O R P P A.
The unlikely gang faces the night high on the foreign city’s intoxicating newness. It is only two o’clock and the boys want to see something new. Monday has turned into Tuesday and the streets are so empty it feels like the aftermath of an atom bomb. The cab driver’s eyes are getting tired as they drive through the city, past the monuments and the small islets. The restaurant sits overlooking the big bay. This is where the city ends. On the other side of the bay, new buildings are being constructed for the urbanising middle class, but the borders of Helsinki are drawn here. The bay is far enough from the open sea to have a calm about it but close enough for it to carry salty winds that rattle the branches of the pine trees.
The marble floors of the restaurant’s foyer shine in the bright lights. Nearly three decades ago victims of the Winter War were operated on in this room. This is as far as the boys will get tonight – the doorman refuses to let them in. Their peacockish moves and velvet suits are too much for this city. They silently stand still in front of the restaurant like a strange tableau vivant. It feels futile to explain that they are not denied entry because of racism, but a small-city fear of anything new. The bay is quiet. There is nothing exciting to see here, just the sea that stretches out for kilometres ahead. This desolate place is worlds away from Chicago, London and New York. The girl in flowery trousers is frantically apologizing over and over again. The boys nearly get into a fistfight with a group of drunken businessmen exiting the restaurant, just having celebrated an outstanding deal with too many glasses of imported cognac that has evaporated into a cloud of machismo and fear of the foreign.
The boy who has the most reason to feel hurt about the racist doorman quietly suggests a drive to the sea. He lets his slender fingers rest from the cab window, stroking the crisp spring air. Three years later, he will die next to his girlfriend, a German artist, in a beautiful West London apartment on a leafy street. The meticulously painted façade of their apartment will not save him from dying of an overdose fuelled by Vesparax sleeping tablets. He will never mention the windy spring night spent in the tiny Northern capital that was shaken by the introduction of his outlandish manners. Tabloids in Finland will continue to write about his visit for years to come – how Jimi Hendrix was turned away from one of the city’s finest restaurants. But now the group of gangly boys accompanied by a small Finnish drive through the silent boulevards, past the sea, into the black night.
The sea is glistening in shades of black as we look down from the pier. It looks like thick oil imported from some desert in the Far East, sloppily moving to the rhythm of the waves sent by cruise ships sailing on the open sea. It is already dark – winter is fast approaching and everyone knows that after it arrives the sun will not shine this far north for at least half a year. We shiver under layers of thick wool, sturdy cotton, cheap polyester and our skins that have not grown accustomed to the change of seasons. Our skins retain hues of golden brown not yet stolen by a harsh winter. I have just come back from a scorching summer trapped in London, my memories of the sea glorified by an adult life spent in a sprawling city with no coastline.
We have cast our sweaters in a lonely pile at the end of the concrete pier. We hesitate. The horizon is black. The sea is black. The waves that break its surface are black. We shudder, not merely because of the cold wind but also because of the thought of jumping into the emptiness of the black sea. When we jump, we imagine our feet touching the bottom of the sea, even though they will never reach it. We swim up to catch air as quickly as we can to escape whatever lies at the bottom of the sea, populated by unwanted things. Drug dealers come here to throw their burner phones as far away as they can. Their old Nokias ring at the bottom of the sea, heard by discarded bicycles and rusty cans. The blackness of the sea makes us tremble more than its temperature. It conceals secrets that we would rather not know. With tingling spines and shaky hands, we climb up the slippery ladder all the way to the pier, from where we survey our bathing place.
The winds pick up the pace as we pull our sweaters over our wet bodies. When we walk away, our feet skipping over broken glass and small rocks, the wind makes the waves run faster. We sense an autumn storm coming. I turn back to see the trees bend to the will of the wind, the waves yield to the force of the sea. More powerful than any leader, more unjust than any corrupt judge, more beautiful than any painting and more fertile than any mother. The sea has the last word in this city.