A Girl Called Przystupa

May in Sweden displays all the charm of nature as it once more effortlessly wins the favour of people offended by the long winter. This is compensation for the streaming rain of November, the darkness of December, the frost of January, the hopelessness of February, the illusions of March with its warm and icy breezes, and the stagnation of April, when it seems that winter will never end. May arrives suddenly: the mornings quiver with a milky light, the afternoons intoxicate with the colours of plants in flower, and the evenings pulsate with warbling and the flutter of mating.

People are happy in May (as long as they're not depressed), celebrate their reawakening, drink themselves into a good mood and sense a joyful tingling in certain parts of their bodies. They play sport and admire beautiful views – like Mrs Weak's family, who ate their meals on the terrace at weekends from the beginning of May. They were very picturesque – the mere sight of them was wholesome and uplifting. And if the casual passer-by didn't look in at the horribly neglected garden, he would leave full of hope that the world wasn't a dreary hole populated by madmen. Assuming he wasn't one himself.

A so-to-speak 'ordinary' passer-by, i.e. one reasonably well socialised, would enjoy the sight of a beautiful woman of Slavic charm, a long-haired teenager devoid of spots, and a blond boy playing with a wooden railway at their feet. The passer-by might even fail to note the missing link in the family chain, might mistakenly assume a happy triangle rather than a square wracked by disagreements.

So much for the passer-by. We need to clear up the issue of the head of the family.

He was a Finn – tall, burly, taciturn, white-haired and with the neck of a bison – who left for work in a grey coat early each day with a briefcase. He returned before six in the evening, changed into his indoor clothes, and disappeared into his room. He ate lunch at work and in the evenings, when the children went to bed, he fetched himself something from the fridge. Clearing up in the morning, Przystupa found plates covered with crumbs and remnants of ketchup in his room. There were usually empty beer cans underneath his armchair, and a bowl full of pear peel on the table. Alongside lay a knife, its leather sheath reminiscent of a boot, the surface decorated with geometrical flower patterns. In the centre of the white hilt was a notched wooden panel; the blade was ten centimetres long, gleaming and very sharp.

The Finn was older than his wife. He never laughed and lived a life separate from the others. There were no pictures in the house of them together, but only of Mrs Weak and the children, while on the Finn's television was a small sepia portrait of an old woman whose face was bereft of eyebrows. The Finn didn't participate in the breakfasts on the terrace, as he was sleeping off his exhaustion from the week, exacerbated by the hours spent in front of the television. He worked hard, although he often watched films until dawn – the corpse-like light filled the windows of his room when Przystupa went to bed in her hut, and occasionally in the morning, when the ferry horns woke her up.

Mrs Weak therefore had only the children to keep her company on the terrace, which gave her obvious pleasure. And so it was that day too, towards the end of May, as she read the newspaper, eating a soft-boiled egg. Pirkka was playing in the garden, and Janeczka was still in the bathroom.

"They write here that Stonehenge is a monument to fertility." She rolled up a pale piece of polar bröd.. "From above, the stones apparently look like female genitalia."

Przystupa leant over the table and passed her the butter. It was salted and tasted different from Polish butter; on the other hand, the fish here were served sweet. Just then, Janeczka appeared on the terrace. Mrs Weak literally flinched, for her daughter's shoulders were covered not with golden hair but with black, wet snakes, while streaks of dye coloured her temples, neck and hands.

"Jesus Christ!" cried Mrs Weak, and Przystupa crossed herself involuntarily.

"Never mind Jesus, help me get it off," said Janeczka, holding her hands out in front of her. "This stupid dye won't come off my skin."

"Of course it won't, you have to put on gloves to use dye!"

Mrs Weak stood up and returned shortly with a plastic bottle and cotton wool pads. After half an hour of scrubbing and scouring with peroxide, the marks on the temples and neck paled, but the finger nails remained graphite-coloured.

"You look as though you'd died," grumbled Mrs Weak resignedly. "I can't do anything else for you."

"Vad kul!" sighed Pirkka admiringly, playing with his sister's fingers.

"It's not 'kul', she'll be expelled from school," said Mrs Weak exasperatedly.

Janeczka burst out laughing. Nobody had ever been thrown out of a Swedish school and her mother was well aware of the fact. By this time her hair had dried, and the girl looked at herself in the window pane.

"So how do I look in black?"

Mrs Weak didn't say anything.


"That's not the point."

"So what is the point?" The girl tilted her head.

Mrs Weak stood up and silently leaned against the balustrade of the veranda. Janeczka's face became sullen.

"You're scared again of what the Finn will say, huh? And what business of his is my hair?" – she said defiantly. "I can do whatever I want with it!"

Her mother's gaze narrowed and she fixed her eyes on a passing motorboat.

"What business is it of the Finn's?" Her daughter raised her voice.

Mrs Weak tore herself away from the scenery and looked at her cooly.

"You live under his roof."

"So what! My hair's my hair!"


"I'm not Janeczka, how many times do I have to tell you?!" The girl sprang up from the wooden floor of the veranda.

"Janeczka, listen..."

"I'm Nayana!" – she shouted. "Got it? Na-ya-na!"<

© W.A.B

photo by Stephan Vanfleteren