End of Term
Raija stood by the field and watched weary crows trying to extract a meal from the tilled earth. A soft drizzle fell from the overcast sky, but she was barely aware of her nylon overcoat getting wet. She let her gaze traverse a full circle – not a soul in sight. A solitary swan flew low across the sky, due south, a laggard, weeks after the gaggles had flown by.
So this was how it was to be retired.
She had wanted to leave at the end of the term, in May, so as to get to enjoy her first free summer. No such luck. First the headmaster tarried with opening the position for applicants, then the young, newly graduated teacher who was selected called in and said she was pregnant. The headmaster said the only possible route was for Raija to come back in August and work until they could find a replacement for her replacement.
And once more she had prepared her teacher’s notebook, writing the names of yet another cohort in her neat handwriting. The Jussis and Pekkas and Jaris had been replaced by Veeti and Joonatan and even a Leonardo, which brought a brief smile to her narrow lips. The name set always reflected the sentiment of society; now all names were individual, whereas in her first years there’d be three or four of the most popular names in a class.
To add insult to injury, she was issued a bunch of the unruliest first graders ever. She worked for weeks just to get the horde to understand the value of sitting quiet for three minutes. Every morning Raija felt she simply couldn’t take it anymore as she dragged herself to the school. She felt woefully inadequate when she failed to bring any semblance of order to the class, and a classroom assistant had to be brought in to control the little rascals.
But eventually they did find someone to relieve Raija, and let her retire. The teachers’ lounge was decorated with flowers, and her colleagues did their level best to send her off in style, but in their hearts they were happy to dispose of the dinosaur. No one wanted to teach longhand anymore, and no one wanted to help Raija to log in to the web services that were part of every textbook by now.
Of course, the headmaster gave a speech. He’d been in that school for two years, Raija had spent seventeen of her forty-one years in the teaching staff there. Consequently the speech was just as full of platitudes and well-meaning, but utterly boring turns of speech. Raija found it very hard to smile when she was issued the gift certificate and two bottles of wine, along with another set of useless arts & crafts products. In her acceptance speech she found it hard to say anything from the tears, which everyone took to be those of sorrow at leaving the faculty, but were tears of relief.
The final straw was the rocking chair they hauled out as if it were the object of her sincerest desires. A damned rocking chair! Raija couldn’t believe the bad taste of the teachers. Surely she did not want to come across as the grandmother-type, with three different knitting projects going on at any given moment as she watched the evening news before falling asleep in the chair. She forced out a smile for a split second. “What a lovely chair! Thank you all so very much!” she said as the teachers clapped their hands like a bunch of idiots. The PE teacher promised to deliver the chair, since he drove a Hiace.
And now it was two weeks later, eleven o’clock on this late October day. She’d risen at 6.30 as always, before understanding she had set the alarm clock entirely by habit. She had read the morning paper, watched morning TV, and stood by the mailbox waiting for her mail, which was nothing but bills.
She was never a fan of cooking, but now it hit her she no longer had access to the school lunch, so she prepared oatmeal for herself, and ate it by the window. She had no idea how to spend the rest of the day. Yesterday, when everyone asked her what she would do now that she had all the time in the world, she had listed oodles of things: redecorating the guest room for all the relatives who would come and visit; finally start collecting cook books and learning the Provence style kitchen inside out; enrolling in the Open University to brush up on her French; travelling to Jerusalem to see for herself the places she’d taught in years of first grade religion… it would be so great to have time!
And now the time was in her hands, slipping away second by lonely second. Raija sat at the table with the oatmeal turning into concrete in the kettle. Only after half an hour she understood she needed to do something, and she managed to clean the kitchen. Then she sat in front of the TV waiting for the news, even if they only aired fifty-five minutes later. The evening was spent in a similar stupor, as was the next day, and the next.
On the fourth day of her retirement Raija went to pick up her newspaper from the mailbox. As she did so, the mailbox rotated 180 degrees on its stand, the top nail rusted away. The contents were deposited on the muddy ground as the box opened. Raija stood there for a while, looking at the sorry remains of domestic and international headlines mingling with soppy bills and Lidl beer ads.
She turned on her heels and marched straight to the shed, where she found a hammer and a large, rusty nail. Returning to the mailbox, she uprighted it and banged the nail through the support, all five inches of it. Then she picked up the newspaper and dried it off in the heat of the fireplace, and read it with her afternoon tea.
Later she would tell her friends the mailbox was a turning point.
In the morning Raija began a major cleaning operation. She went to the attic and was astonished to see how many boxes of diverse materials she had accumulated during her career. True, everything was assembled in perfect order, but still… She took a flashlight and looked at the labels on the boxes. “Sewing patterns and other handicraft instructions, first to sixth – First grade math – Second grade math…“ she said to herself as she kneeled by the boxes and tried to understand what to do with them. The sheer bulk of the boxes felt intimidating to her and she backed away, and cleaned the silverware instead.
The next day she returned to the attic. She took a sheet of paper and wrote down a list of all she had in the boxes. The sheer bulk of arts and crafts magazines was staggering – there were the entire volumes of Burda from 1969 to 1999 (at that point German was no longer taught at the school she worked in). Similar magazines in Finnish, with names such as “The Joy of Knitting”, The World of Sewing” and the like, filled other boxes. “What was I thinking… saving all these patterns,” she said to herself as she lugged the heavy boxes to the living room.
There was absolutely no need to sort the contents of the boxes, because when she had filled them, she had sorted everything to a T. Raija picked a random box, which happened to contain three volumes of a magazine, and checked the patterns. No one in their right mind would use them, she decided, and put them back in the box, at loss with what to do now.
To clear her mind she went out and decided to work on the apple trees and berry bushes for a while. Arming herself with a pair of pruning shears, she went to the first apple tree. Gingerly she snipped off a broken branch and walked around the tree to ponder on branches and find another to cut, then thoughtfully cut away a thick one. A third one was easier to cut, and the fourth even easier than that. She began hacking away at the tree until all that remained were thick branches, and even they were high and beyond her reach.
This felt invigorating. She took on the next tree, and the next, and within three hours had worked her way through all of her eleven trees. She collected the branches in a messy pile at the edge of the neighbour’s tilled wheat field, and felt so enthusiastic about something, finally, that she started on the blackcurrant bushes right away. Had they been able to flee, the entire garden would have made a run for it, but all of them fell prey to Raija’s shears. Apples would be sparse next season, but she hated making juice of them anyway.
It was already dark when she realized she had handled her precious garden with just as much care as the barbers reserved for recruits at a Marine boot camp. Apple trees stood with their remaining branches held high, like mute people during a stick-up. The blackcurrants would have to sprout new branches from the roots, if they wanted to survive next summer. And the pile of cutaway bushes and branches was higher than Raija herself.
That night she slept well, for the first time in a long while.
She also woke up cheery and energetic; she had a mission. A quick breakfast, and she was off to the attic again. She carried all the boxes downstairs and set them up in a long row in the living room, magazines first, then gifts from pupils and other mementoes accumulated during the decades of teaching.
The magazines were easy to handle. All that would burn well were stacked in neat piles, one of them destined to her sauna by the river, one for use in the inhouse fireplace, and the rest for lighting the bonfire of branches later. Others were to be thrown into the fire when the conflagration was going all right and would ignite anything.
The harder part was that of the presents. Raija always had a soft spot in her heart for the pupils who would have toiled long and hard to make that small facial towel out of waffle cloth; they never failed to bring a tear to her eye when they presented her with their precious gift on May 31st. But in 40 years, one accumulates an awful lot of them, and candles, and paper napkins tied to cakes of chocolate with uneven bowtie knots. She had eight full boxes of it, eight boxes of a life lived.
Raija opened the oldest box. With a tender smile she picked up a wooden matchbox dispenser, made of plywood and with many more nails and way more glue than necessary. The attached card said, “To Raija teacher Many nice SUMMER DAYS from Veijo”. Even today, when Raija decided to have some ham for her evening snack sandwiches, Veijo would serve her at the store and always find the juiciest slices for her, and slap on a few extra after weighing it. She took the dispenser to her fireplace and filled it with matchboxes, the returned to the box.
The next items in the box had her wondering who gave them, but she could not produce any memory of those long-gone pupils, even with names on cards. But when she picked up a silver rose, her thin lips formed a solid line, straight as a ruler. The richest kid in town had brought that to Raija, not as a present out of the goodness of heart, but just to show her that her dad could buy just about anything. Raija still remembered the feeling when she was handed that rose, and the way it wiped the smiles off all the other kids’ faces.
Raija put the rose on the kitchen table for further thinking. She then took a plastic bag and collected all candles from all the memento-filled boxes; thirty-eight in all, thick and heavy ones for the most part, standalone. She wasn’t a candle person anyway, so she decided she’d get rid of them in the bonfire as well, and only set aside five that looked remotely usable. And off to the next box…
All day she worked on the boxes, setting up piles for recyclables, second hand store stuff, and sheer junk. She felt so good working on these items, the remains of a career spent processing youth into semi-adults. Most of the stuff she found was quickly allocated to the piles, which grew and grew until they were of suitable size to be stuffed in big black garbage bags. Such items as could not be relegated to the piles were set aside for later thought. And some of the items brought up such memories that they just had to be fondled and looked at, until the emotions subsided. A dartboard with five darts had her in tears of laughter – what was the person who gave it thinking?
But then, as evening began to dim the light of the world behind the window, she went upstairs for two more containers. One was a wooden box that held a collection of wine bottles, and the other was just a folder. Somehow they felt heavier to carry than the other boxes, but as they were all that was left up there, she took them down too.
Raija never was much of a wine drinker. If she had to attend a party where wine was served, she’d only take one glass of white wine and sip it like a bird, a drop at a time, all evening long. Or she’d ask for 7-Up if she felt comfortable doing so in that company, or juice. But every spring she’d get at least one bottle of wine, and even if she had taken most of them to friends as presents, she still had eleven bottles in that box.
A conscientious person, Raija certainly couldn’t dispose of the bottles with her garbage. She’d have to empty them and then recycle the glass. She took the box to the kitchen, and took up a bottle. “Sherry… Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana,” she spelt the name on one bottle, then took a corkscrew and opened the bottle. The scent of the sherry crept up out of the bottle, and tickled her nose. “Maybe I’ll taste it, just to see if it’s gone bad,” she said and poured out a little drop.
She tasted the sherry, and the slight burn on her tongue felt surprisingly good. So did the taste, it was like the fiery Spanish sun in a liquid form. She smiled to herself – look at her, sipping sherry while erasing the traces of her former life. She poured a little more, then sat down and enjoyed the feeling of warmth as it crept into her veins.
The next bottle, a Domaine Chevrot red, had indeed gone bad. As soon as she had a sniff at the opened bottle, she knew it had to be poured away. To wash off the vinegar smell, she poured a little more of the Manzanilla and had a good sip. The warm flush she got from swallowing the sherry made her wonder why she’d not had some before.
She worked her way through the bottles. Only the Manzanilla was still in a condition for drinking, and the rest suffered the ignominious fate of disappearing down the sink. By the time she was ready to take the bottles to the front porch, she swayed a little when she stood up. “Oh, silly me, all tipsy,” she giggled to herself. The bottles clinked hard when she set the box on the floor, but did not break.
And then there was the folder.
She poured a stiff one and then sat in the armchair by the fireplace to open it. It was tied shut with a bowtie knot. It was years since she had opened it last, but she remembered what was in it.
The first item was a large picture of a smiling man. The picture was signed. “To Raija from Holger, with love.” She looked at the face. One could not say he was not good-looking. With a well-cut if thinning salt and pepper hair, a trimmed moustache, high forehead and mock turtle glasses, he looked very much a professional. He could have been an accountant, or a manager in a PR office; in reality, he was Raija’s headmaster from years gone by.
This was shown by the next item in the folder, a newspaper clipping. “Holger Grönstrand new headmaster at Kuivaniemi School” was the title, and the story listed Holger’s previous schools and wished him well running a school of 130 pupils. Raija looked at the date she’d scribbled on the upper right corner: November 13, 1968. She remembered the day he had come to lead the school; he had his sights set on Raija from the first moment on.
She leaned back and had some sherry. As the liquid burned its way down her throat, she remembered how it had initially felt good. No one had ever chased her that way. He would wait for her outside her class at three, when the kids were stampeding for their clothes to go out, and he’d want to talk to her on something, just to make time with her. Such attention was not what she was used to. Her on and off relationship with a high school sweetheart was whisked away by the arrival of the savvy senior colleague.
With a tinge of regret in her mind, and a slight woozy feeling in her head, she took out the next item in the thin folder. It was an agenda for a teachers’ meeting, mimeographed in purple that was now all but faded out. On its back was a cryptic mark in ball point pen: “012/7” 0 for basement, 12 for gymnastics mat storeroom, 7 for time. She could still revive the ghost of his hands on her back, her sides, her breasts, finding all the right spots. Remembering the illicit pleasures, the hasty shags on the musty mattresses, made her reach for the Manzanilla again.
A train ticket, 2nd class, to Imatra for the Teachers’ Union meeting, hotel invoice for same, a stained menu from the restaurant. These were all that remained from the only weekend they had together. That weekend he had told her he was married and that the wife and kids would move in over the next week. She first remembered the stain on the menu was wine, but then she thought she could admit it to herself – it was mascara, dissolved in tears and deposited on the menu in a silent rage.
She got up and looked out into the late afternoon sunlight. There had been a dry spell for a couple of days, much better than all last week. Maybe she should try to get the bonfire going, she thought – now the sprigs and branches might burn well. And remembering Holger had her emotions on fire too, she just had to get out of the house and do something with her hands. She put on her outdoor clothes and went to get the lawnmower gasoline from the shed.
Raija was nothing if not thorough. She carried every box of flammable stuff she had found to the corner of the yard, then ripped and crumpled and rolled all paper into a large pile. She deposited all the candles in the pile, and covered everything with the towels. She sprinkled gasoline onto the towels and let it soak in for a while. Then she attacked the pile of branches and worked hard to get everything on top of the ignition pile.
All this made her long for a drink of water, so she went to get some. The Manzanilla beckoned her from the livingroom, so she had a drink of that too. It climbed into her head and made her woozy again. Reaching for a box of matches from the dispenser, she was ready to burn away her past life.
The sky was darkening and a few stars were already visible when Raija went to the yard with the matches. Years spent teaching kids on the dangers of fire were not wasted on her; she carried the gasoline container back to the shed before striking the first match. Throwing the lit match into the pile did nothing. Neither did the next four start the fire. Mumbling a curse under her breath, she went to the shed with a rag. She poured gasoline on it and stuffed it in an old can she found on the floor, then went back to the pyre.
Raija thought that she should say something noble when the fire would finally start. Striking a match and lighting the rag in the can, all she could say was, “Goodbye.” She hurled the flaming can onto the inner, gasoline-infused core through a hole she made in the branches, and this time it caught.
Within moments the inner pile was in flames. The candles she could see on it went liquid quite fast, and then the stearine caught the flame and added heat and fire. The branches also caught fire as soon as the flames reached the lowest ones in the pile, and Raija had to stand back from the intense heat. She laughed. She raised her fists and punched holes in the air in exultation. “Yay…!” she said aloud, then watched around. “YAYYY! BURN!!!” she cried with all her might. It felt so good. “BURN AWAY ALL OF YOU UNGODLY UNGRATEFUL SONSABITCHES… PRESENTS! You never appreciated an OUNCE of all the SWEAT I PUT INTO TEACHING YOU!!!”
As the bonfire burned all the more ferociously, she dragged all the rest of the branches onto it. Perky sparks flew up into the night to mingle with the stars before fading out into the inky black sky. Raija danced around the huge bonfire like a shaman, waving her arms and yip-yipping away. Looking around for something more to burn, she at first thought this was it – everything she wanted burned was in it already. She did remember the old skis; it took two trips to get all the wooden skis and bamboo poles to the fire. Then she had an idea.
Raija ran into the house and went straight for the Manzanilla for a slug of inspiration. Quite a lot of it was in her system already and made her walk more than just a bit sailor-like. Nevertheless, she was able to carry the rocking chair out to the yard and set it down by the fire. With the chair out, she had an even better idea.
She hurried back to the living room and grabbed the dartboard with the darts, and the folder of Holger memories, but not before enjoying some Spanish sun in a bottle. She slipped at the stairs and fell on her bum, but in her excitement didn’t even stop to massage the hurt half of her posterior. The bonfire illuminated the entire yard, and Raija ran to the wall of the shed, where she remembered a nail stuck out at convenient height. She pinned the dartboard on the wall, then stuck Holger’s picture on it with one of the darts.
Measuring five long steps from the wall she turned and aimed with one eye closed, then threw a dart. It missed Holger by quite a lot, as did the next two darts. The final dart hit the board but missed the face. Disgusted, she collected the missiles again and measured four steps. This time, she managed to get two hits on Holger – one on the chin and one between the eyes. The last dart resulted in a whooping celebration that would have stunned the entire teachers’ lounge of her old school.
Taking the last two darts from the wall, she stabbed the picture with them repeatedly, until she triumphantly lifted the board and picture from the wall, and delivered it to the gods of the pyre. Watching the bright yellow flames lick Holger’s face into oblivion was something she had been waiting for for years, without knowing how to bring it about. She clapped her hands like a child, hopped and danced, and then fetched the axe.
Raija attacked the brand new rocking chair with the axe and with splinters flying hither and thither, reduced it to a collection of broken wood. She fed the pieces to the fire and when the last half of the last rocker flew in, she laid herself down on the muddy ground, and admired her former self disappearing up into the starry void along with the hot gases of the pyre. Drunk and exhausted, she passed out, and knew no more.
Waking up at the county hospital was a slight shock to her, but the kind nurses explained that the bonfire had attracted the attention of the fire department after they got a call from the neighbor across the fields. The firemen had sent her away in an ambulance, mistaking her for someone with a real health problem, and then allowed the fire to burn itself out in a controlled fashion. Now, Raija had a headache of monumental proportions, her bottom was dented, but she didn’t think she had any real problems whatsoever and wanted to be released immediately.
“Hello! Good to see you’re awake,” said the nurse who stopped by her bedside. “We have a project with the social service people for cases like this, alcohol misuse with elderly people. The support group meets at the Library twice a week. Here’s an info sheet for you.” She passed a printed A4 to Raija, who issued a glacial smile and appeared to look forward to learning about the dangers of drinking. As soon as the nurse left, she meticulously tore the sheet into identical little pieces and placed them in the bedpan.
Within three hours she was back at her house. She went in and carefully poured what remained in the thick brown bottle into the kitchen sink. She had a shower, changed her clothes, and then sat at her desk to call the travel agents.
As the first thing of her new life, Raija was going to see where they make Manzanilla.