The Skunk

Arndt Britschgi

I.       It was years since I'd been home, and now that I'd come it was only for a matter I had to arrange. Call it business. Yes, business, that's the proper word for it. Let's say I was back home on business and then let's leave it at that.

       In any case, I had my "business" accomplished and thought I might as well wait till the next morning before getting in the car and driving back to Helsinki, I wasn't really up to all those hours on the road right now, I'd arrive late and Dennie was away in any case, might as well wait. I didn't have to be back at the brewery until Monday night, for the night shift. Beautiful day, clear sky, a landward breeze, I went by the house to get my old trunks and go down to the Cliff for a swim; only I didn't find the trunks where I thought I'd left them, so I took a pair of Dad's from the drawer instead. That's right, he'd liked them loose, very loose, after all this time they still looked ridiculously big on me.

       At one point I thought the water might not be deep enough anymore, on a fine day like this the high pressure front would keep its level low, and God knows what a good ten years of land-recovery could make out; then I dived in all the same from the upper shelf, an icy shock when the water closed suddenly around my body, I made an effort to maintain the dive shallow, not let myself sink too deep below the surface, but it seemed the depth here was still safe, I couldn't sense the bottom near me. It's an instinct you never lose, the instant before you'd hit the bottom you're aware of it and automatically lift yourself the way you've learned through years of practice.

       I floated out towards the first line of skerries, towards the open sea. The water was clear as I'd remembered it, up from the Cliff I could make out the algae-covered, greenish rocks over the bottom in all detail, through that glazed, almost magnifying prism; some strokes further out it was pure sand. Warm too, now that I'd got used to it, I swam for half an hour and came up all shivering (oh yes, although it's warm after half an hour you shiver), and lay myself direct on the sun-baked rock-face, the heat hard on my back, quickly drying the water from my skin. My body relaxed now, dozing off to the sound of surging waves and seagulls screaming, half dreaming, half thinking of the white plates someone from the Pavilion Restaurant further up the bay, across the beach, had thrown into the water during the night, and we came down to the Cliff in the morning and could see them through that glazed prism, a sharp white against the algae green, hundreds of them, we spent the whole day diving for them, fishing them up one by one, piling them in stacks on the Cliff, and I'm not sure, I think one of us took his pile home afterwards, a whole new set of plates for his mother.

        A couple of years later, as times got harder, I used to come here alone like this, I used to love the spells of rest it brought into the tumult, glide in this silent world of its own forgetful of that life which at one stage had seemed excessively hurtful. Usually hung-over too by then, the cool water and the sun used to do me good.

II.       I half thought, half dreamt of the time I went to visit my grandfather, one of those journeys you're not likely to forget so soon. I booked a week-end flight at a pretty affordable price, and just before we arrived they announced from the cabin that because of the fog they wouldn't get permission to land, they'd fly us half an hour back to the coast where we could choose between taking the boat over or, as I recall, the bus back to our respective points of departure, and I, unfortunately, chose the boat: that meant twelve hours with only a deck-seat ticket, the most the airline would agree to as compensation, trying to catch some sleep exposed to the looks of people desperately drunk, desperately trying to convince themselves that this was having a good time, this was the occasion for cheap liquor, cheap tax-free shops, all-night discos, all-night bars, anything you'd want. Fourteen-fifteen year old girls, would-be prostitutes I guess, sneaking around offering themselves for a lay, for which at this stage they certainly hadn't the intention to charge, only seeking the experience so far, no boys among them in those days, in any case not so openly – all that only for the sake of visiting my old grandfather. (I realise my tone of voice sounds bitter here, but I'm adapting it to the reality I'm describing: this was a cold and bitter, ill-willed part of the world.)

       A million things I could tell about my grandfather, mostly bad. Thinking back now like this, over a safe distance of time, he very likely was the nastiest man you could imagine. And I'm not trying to say he'd done anything to me personally, on the contrary. The summers my brother and I spent with Grandmother and him, those summer weeks in the far-off Aland Island province were among the happiest of my life, he was always square with us, a real pal we used to say, which obviously was the reason I wanted to go and visit him again in the first place. Mother told us once, on his way home, tired and angry, infuriated with drink, he met a blind man in front of their house and tore the stick out of his hand and broke it; that describes his character fairly well, I think, it pretty closely corresponds to the image I have of him. A million things of that kind I could tell about my grandfather. But I'm aware it won't be necessary, one unpleasant event covers them all.

       I know from myself, and through many others, that the greatest fear you have is that of something happening to the ones close to you, you sometimes wake up in the middle of night and hear that easy breathing at your side and feel a cold shudder at the thought that something could happen, some accident which would take the two of you apart; or at the irrevocable fact that at some point such an accident must happen, at some point you have to part and you, both of you, will be left alone, in one kind of solitude or the other. I know my father experienced that, he mentioned something about it, I think. And even if he hadn't actually mentioned it, when my mother died what until then had been a reasonably happy life ended in tragedy, all happiness disappeared with one stroke as if it never had been there, everything suddenly worthless, an open wound, so it's obvious where life had its value to him. Somehow this mutual trust, this tie between husband and wife, between man and woman, life companions, somehow to me this is the essence of humanity, in it whatever good there might be in us crystallises, and in the case of my grandfather it seemed to work the opposite way, to him the goal was getting rid of Grandmother, and, in the process, derive some benefits from it for himself. All the economical gain he could get.

       There are things to say in his defence, there usually are, life is scarcely a matter of simply black or white; and I don't mean to claim that Grandmother was totally without blame in what occurred, although I actually don't know. I'm sure she didn't feel any more affection for Grandfather than he did for her, though, in any case she never showed any signs of it (I remember the big obsession of her later life, after they were divorced and she'd become quite ill, was to get back her maiden name, blot Grandfather's name from all her documents; but of course by that time lots of disagreeable things had happened). This was basically a marriage in the vein of Strindberg's plays, what little affection there might have been degenerated into loathing and war in a short span of years, into a ruthless struggle for power where at each given moment both parties would profit from prevailing conditions to get stronger and subdue the weaker to his will. That kind of horrible, concealed war, all the while maintaining appearances, a war which wiped all other considerations out of its way. They of course lived in another period, the expectations for them were different and the social and environmental pressure strong, and, after all, we're only pieces in a broader, more powerful game. But even so, my grandfather's case was different; even so I maintain that, if we're to be human in any sense at all, that must include a capacity of dominating conditioning factors, the need to integrate can't be so strong as to exceed all judgement: if getting married means inflicting disproportionate suffering on someone else, the counterpart, then there must exist the choice not to get married, to simply say no, to refuse, no matter how strong the pressure from without or how disagreeable the consequences for oneself. Without that small margin of freedom there's really no humanity at all, as there is none without the awareness or the wit to recognise the damages of one's own actions. It's really hard to find an excuse for what my grandfather did. Grandmother got ill and as a consequence became dependent on medicines, which were expressly prescribed to her by the doctors; she didn't feel well, naturally, had little power to resist, and in time Grandfather persuaded her to take more of the pills than was actually good for her, more and more, until the drug made her totally confused and he had her locked up as mentally unstable in one of those old asylums, what nowadays would be considered a virtual mad house, by every possible means trying to get her declared insane so as to, besides having her out of the way, be granted what I think is called power of attorney over her estate, in other words her money. There obviously wasn't anything wrong with Grandmother's mental state, she just was exhausted from the illness and confused from the excess of drugs, hardly able to make herself understood anymore, and Grandfather invented all kinds of stories, lied to the doctors to convince them that she was actually mad, carefully concealing the fact that she'd surpassed the amount of medicines prescribed (he was a master at just that kind of small deceit), taking advantage of the fact that she couldn't defend herself. If he hated her so, if being married to her proved such a torture to him, he could have solved the problem by simply divorcing her, or moving away from her, that was a fairly easy alternative even in those days; in that event, however, he would have had to give up the money, and that he wouldn't voluntarily do. Luckily here my mother intervened with all her force, to get Grandmother out and to an ordinary hospital, where she could finally get the care she needed – she suffered a stroke not many months later and never recovered completely from that – here my mother really proved the worth of her character, which on other occasions could be disturbingly hard and unyielding.

       At the time I visited him my grandfather was in his eighties. I remember he kept joking about the treasure he was collecting in Heaven, at his age he had to take those things into account, he told people with that kind of defensive, good-humoured laugh which is really meant to hide or soften the frankness of a statement. The idea was that, as he was likely to die within some years, he would make a finish to assure his good deeds outweighed the bad ones, by being friendly to everybody, escorting old ladies across the street (what to an eighty-year-old could be old ladies), keeping the door open for people or ceding his place in the shopping-line. He also told people high and wide I was his grandson the doctor, that of course was a matter of pride to him, and I don't know what annoyed me most, his joke about the treasure, that defensive laugh, or what he told people of me. I wasn't a doctor, only M.B., and I knew by then I wouldn't finish my studies, although I didn't know exactly what I'd do instead – I guess I still don't know exactly, I don't think writing, taking all kinds of odd jobs, or not even that anymore: using up Dennie's money, qualifies as doing something, I wish I could drop it – and, his joking aside, I know my grandfather was just so insincere to think he'd actually be able to sneak his way into God's or whoever's favour by some cunning scheme he'd invented, and more: he really thought he was entitled to it, he really thought Heaven was where he belonged. He spent the last fifteen years of his life playing the good old conciliating ancestor with absolute inner conviction, he actually did try to gather that treasure for himself, piece by piece, and actually thought he would succeed. He refused to see, or was unable to see that there couldn't be a way to make up for what he'd done or the way he was, there simply weren't enough good deeds around to cancel that. Most probably he wasn't able to see that he'd done anything bad to begin with. (Naturally I recognise a reflection of myself in him, I'm full of useless regrets and it gets me into a profoundly bad mood.)

III.       I went from the Cliff into town, to the pub for a meal and a bottle of beer. Of course I had to meet some old acquaintances, so it turned into one of those tiresome nights of too much drink, too much cheer, I really wasn't in the mood for those things anymore, those were the old days and the old days were forever gone; I guess I hadn't been in the mood for those things even then, I'd just thought so or tried to convince myself that somehow I was. At some stage the classic decision to continue the party at the Pavilion was made, we walked over, a group of five or six I think, and surprisingly managed to get past the door-man into the bar without standing in line, without a proper jacket and a tie, familiar faces emerging from the crowd, more and more numerous as the evening advanced. Until I went to eat I'd avoided them, in here there wasn't any escape.

       The tables in the dining-hall were full, there were people on the dance floor and the band sounded exactly the way the bands here had sounded the last 20 years or more, I imagine, I wondered vaguely where they dug them all up. For as long as I remembered they'd changed bands four or five times in the summer, every three or four weeks the old band packed off and another appeared, there was talk around town that the new band at the Pavilion was really great, or really lousy, and when you heard it it sounded exactly like the one before, exactly the same stuff all through the summer, one summer to the next, year after year. The guests didn't change that much either, more or less the same drunken crowd, like back at the pub, only here you could see they'd tried to dress up. (But it seemed you actually didn't have to wear a jacket these days.)

       My memory got flimsy, I can't recall anything precisely except those faces, very distinct, appearing out of nowhere, then disappearing again just as quickly. I had the impression of talking immeasurably and didn't remember a thing I'd said. Then I was walking alone by the duck-pound, on my way home to sleep, there was that beautiful light of a clear midsummer night over the water-lilies, a green carpet with white spots, so densely covering the surface that you felt tempted to step out on it, to see if it would carry (the way you played here on the first ice in November, or, better still, down by the bay, where at times, in spring, you could sail on ice-floes as well, remember? How we would take the poles from Mom's clothes line because they made the best punts, and try to sneak them back again before she noticed? How she would give us on the ear if we came home with our clothes wet?)

       Before turning up the hill I noticed Nyberg some distance away, walking towards me, someone I didn't know with him. That asshole Nyberg, I just had to see him for the words to form in my mind, it worked like a reflex, I couldn't keep it back, not if I tried - not that I did, I didn't particularly try to keep the words back, but even if I'd tried I'm convinced I wouldn't have succeeded, the fucking asshole, same stupid face, same stupid, heavy build, childish somehow, like a clumsy twelve-year-old child, only with considerably more mass and power behind him: a fucking asshole all over. Same old rowdy too, how else, and he had company here, I could have watched out all the same before letting that reflex fire off, could have kept my voice down some and walked on home, gone straight to bed. But then again, I'd never distinguished myself by good judgement, had I? Especially not when I was drunk and in a bad mood anyway, the mood thinking of my grandfather had got me into.

       “What's that? What's that you said back there?” Nyberg came and asked me.

       “Oh, you heard him,” his companion said. “He called you an asshole, that's what this fucking boy did. Said you're an asshole.”

       “What boy? What fucking boy? It wasn't a boy, Nyberg, it was me. That's right, I called you an asshole, because that's what you are, an asshole. And your companion too, goes for your companion here as well.”

       “You know this one, this fucking boy?” the companion asked Nyberg.

       “Yeah, do I? How the fuck else would he know my name? What? Yes, I know him. We all know him. Troublemaker, always was.”

       “Fine person too, isn't he? The way he talks and all, the way he pronounces the words.”

       “Uh huh, that too.”

       “Uh huh, that too,” I exaggerated Nyberg's local Swedish accent, laughing him in the face. “So?”

       “So let's see if this fine boy's so willing to talk once we're through with him,” the companion said. “I doubt he'll pronounce one fucking word after that, let's ram the teeth down his throat and see if that doesn't teach him to keep his mouth shut.”

       Nyberg didn't say anything, he just took a step forward and landed a blow high up on my cheek before I had the time to realise the rumble was on. “You've had this coming now for years, you fucking bastard. Fucking prick. Glad I got the chance to kick the fucking shit out of you at last.”

       “You've had it coming, Nyberg,” I said. “You've had this coming to you for years. Don't forget now who's hurting you, I want you to know. Want you to remember.”

       I hadn't noticed, but at some point Nyberg must have mentioned my name. His companion suddenly came between us and asked what he'd called me, if that's who I was. “Is that your name?” he turned to me.”Is that what you're really called?”

       “Yeah, that's what I'm called. Fuck it, so what?”

       “That who he is?” the companion turned again and asked Nyberg.

       “He already told you, what the fuck's the matter with you? Get out of the way, will you, I'm gonna belt this piece of shit.”

       “You went to school here then? You're not from someplace else, you grew up here?”

       “Yes, here. Listen, what the hell's wrong with you anyway?”

       “You're in the same grade with Helen? You know, Helen? The Skunk?”

       The Skunk? Hell no, not me, that's my brother, I wanted to say, but it must have been the drink, I was too slow again. I didn't get it out in time.

       “Oh, screw you. Don't fucking start with that again, the fucking Skunk!” Nyberg said, making a sign with one finger to his head to indicate to me that his companion wasn't altogether bright, and the companion's eyes seemed shiny now, he'd come very close to me, at first I thought he'd taken over for Nyberg and swore I wouldn't be too slow anymore, I wouldn't stand there half asleep and just receive the first blow, but then I saw he wouldn't hit me, his face came close, he made attempts to embrace me. Everything went very quickly, I was too slow again after all, didn't know if I should kick him in the groin, or run away, or what. I think the fucker was actually starting to cry.

       “You see, Helen's my cousin,” he said to me. “She always talked about you. You're the only one she talked of, the only one who was kind to her. That's what she said, she always told us you were kind to her.”

       “Cut it off. Shit, first you burst out in tears over the Skunk, and now you'll kiss that bastard too, that little angel, or what?” Nyberg said, and he was right, the companion had his arms around my shoulders, he might have kissed me any second, that's the impression you got.

       “Hey, look,” I said.”Listen, it's not me, it's my brother.”

       “Your brother?”

       “Yeah, my brother. Three years older than me, he went to school with the Skunk, not me. So leave me alone.”

       “Your brother? Okay, your brother, it doesn't matter one fucking bit. You kiss your brother for me then, the way I'm kissing you now,” the companion told me, and with some fifteen years of delay, over a distance of some thousand miles, I guess that's more or less what I'm trying to do.

       Nyberg took out a bottle of pocket-warm rye and handed it to me. “Shit, don't mind him, he's not that tight up there himself, runs in the family,” he shook his head.

       “See, she came home from school crying and told us that,” the companion said again, “told us everybody was mean to her except you. That's it, she always added that: except you. You're really the only one, the only one of the lot, in the world, who was kind to her, I don't know if you can get what I'm saying.”

       “Not me, damn it. My brother.”

       “Okay, your brother, what's the difference.”

       What's the difference? Oh, I'll tell you, a whole world of difference, one whole world. But when he said that, the only one in the world, he obviously excluded his own family. He obviously took loyalty, identification within the family for granted.

IV.       In those days, around the years we started school, there weren't any special classes for mentally retarded children, they had to get in with everybody else (I'm not sure, that may be the policy recommended again recently, in a somewhat modified sense however, I gather: it's not likely anybody would seriously propose having children absolutely unable to derive any benefit from the courses sit in with the rest, there wouldn't be much point). Of course Helen didn't smell bad, they called her the Skunk because of how she looked, in a derogatory sense, to express how ugly they thought that handicapped appearance of hers was. I guess they wanted to mark a difference between themselves and her, they had that need of pointing out their superiority and to them her presence must unconsciously have seemed very much of an insult, maybe even a threat, they really wanted to offend her. I think the bad opinion I have of people in general has a lot to do with the memory I carry with me from those days. It's hard to imagine that children the age of seven to ten would be corrupt, morally ruined by society or environmental factors so early, they might be in part, the possibility can't be altogether ignored, but the truth somehow lies deeper, very much points to something within themselves. Offending the Skunk was like an instinct to them, a source of infinite pleasure and invention, they wouldn't miss one opportunity to scorn her, hurt her, humiliate her, point their finger at her and laugh, make fun of her. She was defenceless anyway, so why the hell not, there wasn't any danger. The image of that somehow has never left my mind, everybody did it, everybody was the same. Everybody as bad, boys and girls in their distinct ways, but all as bad, all except my brother. My brother was the one exception. It's true, he was the only one who wasn't mean to the Skunk, the only one who'd talk with her and sometimes try to stand up for her – yes, the only one who could be kind to her! (And me, I wasn't mean to the Skunk either, but my case was different, one whole world of difference there: I did what my brother did, I wanted to be like him. Big winner, big goal-scorer, good brain who beat up people from the seventh grade when he himself was in the fourth, I wanted to be exactly like him. And if he'd caught me making fun of the Skunk, even once, even slightly, the slightest remark, even learning about it indirectly, from somebody else, he would have taken me aside and belted me, he would have beaten me up so good I couldn't have sat in a fucking week, and afterwards he would have come forward and admitted to Mother what he'd done, and told her why, and Mother wouldn't have beaten me up any more maybe, but she would have agreed with him, she would have thought I'd got exactly what I deserved, and, Jesus, hadn't I! It occurs to me now how lucky I was in that, I can only imagine now what it would have been like if my brother hadn't been there watching me, keeping me in line. What it would feel like thinking back on the Skunk if it hadn't been for him.)

       Yes, just remember what it felt like sometimes to get up in the morning and go to school, even to yourself – and I for one never had any difficulties at school. What it must have been like to her, the thought really eats into you, it fills you with horror. I remember during the breaks she'd walk alone along the borders of the school-yard, always trying to be unseen, out of the way, that was her only defence: to pass unnoticed, that they'd finally grow tired of persecuting her; and when the bell rang, staying far behind, always the last one in. Never forming in front of the door with the others. Always alone. A girl of eight or nine, straight hair, round, white face, heavy movements and one size too big for her age, how intensely she must have suffered, my God.

       So this turned out a story about my brother in the end. All right, here goes, here's to my brother. Here's what I wanted him to know and never took the time to tell him. I won't forget again, not this time. I won't forget that afternoon, we were playing on the ladder, around the corner from the back entrance of our house. We still lived in our old home then, the wooden house close to the railroad, within sight from the street which ran alongside it, we were playing on the ladder and the Skunk came cycling by, and when she saw us didn't try to pass unseen at all, but instead turned and came to say hello. My brother let himself drop from the ladder, from over halfway to the roof – that's what the game we played was about: rung by rung getting higher up on the ladder and letting yourself drop to the ground, the one who gives up first loses (wonder who lost there, usually?) – he landed smoothly, his feet together, and started to talk with her the way he'd sometimes talk with me, big brother-small brother, asking her things, arguing with her the way you do at that age, although with a strong wish to protect somewhere underneath, barely showing. (Yes, I realise now being different put an immense responsibility on him, he recognised others were not as fortunate as himself, sensed the distinction and instead of confirming his superiority at the expense of those more vulnerable felt a need to defend them and, if he failed, who would there be?) It was the first time I heard anybody address the Skunk by her real name. At some stage Mother came out on the porch as well, to join the conversation, she would have done that, she wouldn't have missed the chance to set a strong example. It occurs to me again what a privilege it was for me to have them, Christ, I think I've never really learned to value it enough. So sad I finally never made anything of it.

       In any case, I'm glad my trip back home at least served the purpose of reminding me; yes, I'm grateful to this friend of Nyberg's for reminding me of the treasure my brother has waiting in Heaven. Because, contrary to my grandfather, who talked about it but never did anything to earn it, my brother does have a treasure in Heaven, I know he does, no matter how he might have turned out in life's cruel course, no matter how he's been worked over and what wrong things he might have done – and I'm convinced he's done some wrong things, lots of them, I don't imagine him a useless saint – all that could never wipe out, never outweigh the good he did to the Skunk, the merit and the benefit of that will always remain, I know. What it proves of him will always remain. I really wish I could have been more like him, not only tried that way, back then, when we were small. I wish I could have been like him.

© 2001 Arndt Britschgi

Of himself, Arndt Melchior Britschgi writes: "Born and grown up in Finland, I did two and a half years of medicine (M.B.) at the University of Helsinki, then spent several years travelling up and down Europe, taking any kind of jobs available. I taught English in Barcelona for a year, and later settled in Madrid to work as a squash coach in different fitness clubs. Since the early 90's I have lived in Zürich, Switzerland. I am married, work and write on the side (or the other way around maybe), and recently actually took my degree in philosophy and mathematics at the local university."

Email: [email protected]

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