Snowflakes had fallen overnight. They had drifted down in the dark, glistening in the light of street lamps and then settled on banks of snow, their surfaces pockmarked by an earlier thaw. With them fell a silence like emptiness.
The windows on the tower blocks were dark; only the lights in the stairwells criss-crossing the buildings shone. ‘Like tall slow-burning candles,’ Tea thought as she walked towards the bus stop.
In the bus shelter, she sat down on the plastic seat; someone had drawn two vaginas in black ink. On other mornings she had stood there with other people, waiting for a bus, and not once had anyone sat down on the daubed seat.
The temperature had dropped even further during the night. The clearing, and the footpath that ran through its middle like a string of pearls, had allowed the sky to fall over them like a dark-blue cloak. The moon moved away from the earth. Tea took off one of her mittens and dug out her travel card. It was a quarter to six.
The bus came straight from the garage. From a distance, it seemed to be approaching slowly, although its lack of speed was an illusion; in reality, the empty vehicle was rattling along at a fast speed. On the days she used to go ice-swimming in the morning, Tea had seen commuters sitting in the window seats. It occurred to her that Finns respect each other’s privacy: they understand that people prefer to be lost in thought rather than communing with the stranger sitting next to them.
The bus route ran to the outskirts of the city and then headed north to a lake. There was a bakery before the final destination and Tea had once got off at that stop. But that was before Christmas, when everything was different.
This time, she’d stay on board to the very end of the route. When the bus reached a curve and Tea saw the bus-stop sign beckoning in the dark, she got off, like any other rambler. She had done it countless times before; this morning felt no different.
But perhaps it was.
The hole in the ice was 15 x 15 m. When Tea saw the ice-swimming place for the first time in early December, she thought it resembled a crime scene: powerful lamps illuminated the black, swirling water and the steps leading into it. She had watched the swimmers hurrying to and fro between the sauna and the hole in the ice, their skins steaming, their shoulder blades prominent. Women in rubber caps and brightly coloured neoprene shoes and men whose privates had shrivelled into mushrooms under wet swimming trunks.
How could this possibly be the same water she’d seen in the summer? Water that splashed against rocks and coarse sand as the crew dragging the lake drove their oddly-shaped boat to the shore night after night before going home, shaking their heads. The same lake Tea had scanned, a suppressed scream in her throat, and whose shores she had roamed at night with a torch.
Nobody had asked her why she’d started going to the hole in the ice. Seeing her stare at the water, others had merely thought she was afraid of the cold. She’d seen female ice-swimmers flirt with the icy water, at first dipping their toes and feet and legs and then yielding to it with grimaces of enjoyable pain on their faces. Mouths open, she saw them gulp, gasp, pant and laugh, even the old ones, ha ah a a a a a a haah haah . . . The swimmers guiding her had let some water into their mouths, swirled it round their gums and tongues and smacked their lips: you could drink this, so cold and fresh!
Tea went underwater. Her expression was scrutinised as if she were a virgin: hurts, doesn’t it? ‘You’ve got puppy fat’ someone said. She didn’t even go to the sauna, just put on her clothes and walked to the bus stop, her hair frozen into a tangled bundle of wires under a woolly hat. It wasn’t until she was under the duvet at home under that she felt cold.
And the cold felt like a presence.
This morning, there were only two other women at the hole in the ice. One of them, who had a large bust that looked as if it had exploded from her chest, watched her putting on her swimming costume.
‘Are you still at school?’
‘I’m a student.’
‘You look so young.’
Tea bent down to put on her protective shoes. The woman was plump but her calves bore signs of an interest in sport. Her clothes, folded on the bench, seemed expensive; the winter coat was multi-coloured, with large buttons.
‘Would you like to make some money?’ the woman asked. ‘You’ve got the right figure for it.’
Tea straightened up and took a hairbrush out of her rucksack. Every time she came here, someone would express horror at her long hair: you mustn’t get your hair wet. It was as if one’s head was like the burning end of a match, which you mustn’t put out. Something like that.
‘Last year we did body painting, but that’s totally passé now. This year’s all about food; it’ll be served off a female body. I don’t trust the girls from the model agency, the little minxes would freeze to death.’
Tea was brushing her hair, her head bent. The other swimmer emerged from the sauna and walked past them. Tea would wait till the hole was once again a black, empty square. The woman, who introduced herself as the manager of an advertising agency, was chattering away about a hotel and a celebration. It was only when she mentioned seafood that Tea started paying attention.
A girl acting as a serving plate would be covered with mussels, crayfish, octopus. She’d be a mermaid, or a shark prey, washed up ashore. These days you had to shock, bring back the smutty decadence of celebrations past. The attention of clients was going the way of the human ability to concentrate, so this kind of quality was gradually going out the window. The girl-on-a-plate would have to endure staying on an icy trolley for an hour and a half, because the seafood buffet would be served between half nine and eleven. Four hundred euros. Four hundred euros for the brave student.
The other woman, who’d just taken a dip, resurfaced with both hands full of slush. She lowered the crushed ice into a basin and sprayed liquid soap on top. She would rub her body with the mix in the shower. When she announced her intentions, her smile barely concealed the extreme rigour of the pleasure waiting for her.
After showering, Tea put on some flesh-coloured tanga briefs. Then her face was made up and her body coated in gold paste, which smelled of seaweed. The paste was applied by two female trainee waitresses wearing disposable gloves. Tea stood on a towel placed on the floor of the women’s changing room, next to a trolley. Her hair was tied up with a rubber band.
The trainees helped Tea lie down with her back against the steel surface. One of them used a pastry brush to add more paste to Tea’s groin, the seams of her briefs and the tiny folds in her armpits. She stared at the ceiling as they wheeled her into the cavernous kitchen.
On the way to the cold store, she caught a glimpse of a clock: 20.55. Grinning heads turning, shelves, bowls, piles of plates and steam rising, pressed up against the ceiling. The entourage was joined by two men from the kitchen, tasked with covering her with seafood.
The smell in the cold store was forbidding. One of the men positioned and locked the steel trolley so that it was possible to work around it. He had a shaved head. Tea heard the sound of silicone gloves snapping around wrists.
‘Fucking hell, her soles!’
One of the chefs went to get more paste. The bald, muscular man stationed himself by Tea’s head.
Tea felt him grip the top of her head, release the rubber band and gather her hair. Something cold and slippery descended on her earlobe as the man lifted her neck and began to weave a slimy web into her hair. She was aware of this man’s wrists, moving, and she could smell the plentiful seafood.
The ceiling was fitted with a device that blew out cold air. The paste arrived and the sous-chef began to rub it into her soles.
His touch shared the delicacy of Samir’s, as he had applied sun cream to Tea’s back during that first summer. So much had been suggested by that, everything: they were getting ready for the big event, the big one, the one that brought couples together more closely.
A bucketful of ice was poured into Tea’s hair. A cube slithering onto her cheek was flicked away by the chef, like a cockroach found on an operating table. Things that felt like cold stones began to be piled around her ankles. Lemon halves. Four hands were working on Tea’s body and she sensed every finger, just as Samir had felt the crayfish move on top of him, their swimmerets rendered light and slippery by lake water.
The position of Tea’s shoulders was adjusted to provide a better platform for the large lobsters that had been flown in from abroad. Spiky oysters were placed on her chest.
‘Hey, bloody hell, don’t put them on my tits . . .’
‘An octopus carpaccio will go on the chest,’ the bald chef said. ‘But not till the end. Move the almond mussels to a more prominent place and put the crab sticks between her thighs, upright, like this, so they can be picked up for dipping.’
Tea felt the men pulling her legs apart, forcing something between them. The door opened. The sweet aroma of blossoms wafted above the seafood.
The manager of the advertising agency coughed: the strong smell of the cold store had taken her by surprise. Tea realised that two dipping bowls had been placed between her legs and she was to squeeze her thighs together.
‘Oh, this sauce is merveilleux,’ the manager commented, sucking a fingernail. ‘This will, undoubtedly, be a triomphe . . .’
Another bucketful of ice cubes crashed onto the steel trolley. Tea felt the chill spreading around her spine. She thought that the human body consists of two mirror images, which get closer together in the cold like Samir’s and her lips during their first summer together: their mouths struggled against the tiny distance, thin as a tomato skin, which still remained between two willing souls.
Artificial eyelashes glued onto her lids helped her keep her eyes closed. Some light still shone through: it was hard to concentrate on the numerous fingertips peeling delicacies off her. Tea could smell the fruit table from a distance, wine and all the substances the people swarming around the seafood buffet had used to treat their bodies before coming out. She smelled men’s and women’s shower gels, deodorants and other scents patted onto necks. She smelled sweat and tobacco and cannabis. She heard voices that reminded her of people on TV. . . Evenings with Samir, his arm around her shoulders, she preferring his beloved face to the television screen. His roving eyes had absorbed language and customs off the screen – all the stuff that Tea had been bombarded with since she was small. Adverts for food. Tea had seen Samir’s lips moisten – and his eyes. Then Tea had pressed her hands over his eyes: eat me . . . look at me!
The bowls between her thighs wobbled when too many people shoved a prawn or a mussel into them at the same time, or it might have been another titbit, something they devoured because others did and because they got to eat off a naked woman. Bright white bubbles fizzed; next week’s papers would feature pictures of the feast and of the people, posing, full of themselves, alone or in groups of two or three with a glass of sparkling wine in hand. The little mouths were nibbling non-stop; somebody’s hand would always be reaching out, grabbing a mollusc. The oysters were the first to run out. A waiter brought a fresh lot and pressed them harshly into Tea’s armpits. Then, without anyone noticing, he bent over her.
Through the cacophony of voices and music and clinking plates, Tea heard the waiter sniffing above her, inhaling through his nose secretly and lengthily. What was that smell?
Tea remembered the black dog with its thick ruff of fur, standing in the boat. She had been sitting on a stone that was still warm from the sunshine, though it was late at night. The dog had chased tiny bubbles, circled the boat, stretched his predatorial neck over the edge as if to drink. Sniff around. Swim! Pick up the scent as you swim and when you get to the right spot, dive. Dive right to the bottom and gently take hold of the arm that was once full of life and vitality, the arm that hardened into a tree trunk during love-making.
Some names were made to be called out loud. Samir! Tea felt the memory resting by the sides of her neck like hands that had ceased strangling. A tarpaulin lay on her grief now. Her grief had reached the docks. That’s what she had assured people, and her friends had believed it.
Tea sensed how many of the guests lingered close to her only to observe the marvel of cooling flesh. It was the same kind of curiosity that made people stare at a fire-eater’s gaping mouth or a porn star’s fist-sized vagina.
Samir had not been startled when Tea woke to the moaning sounds coming from his computer. Samir wanted to know and see everything in the world. The veil obscuring a foreign language and strange new customs had been drawn aside. The new liberal attitude to sex had to be cracked open like a breakfast egg.
Transparent octopus slices were peeled off Tea’s breasts. Someone gagged but disguised the sound as laughter. The feet of a langoustine crept across the ice cubes and grabbed her left breast, pinching it hard. Tea’s thighs were rigid and so numb that one touch by a drunken guest felled a bowl. Several palms tried to sweep up the sauce that had spilled, then somebody had the idea of scooping it into a pool in her groin, using a shell.
Stiffness brought on by cold results in hallucinations, Tea thought. The backs of her thighs tingled, and it felt as if the small of her back were lying on a heated, upside-down plate. Cramps in her lower stomach became increasingly painful.
Did the computer night mark the beginning of her feeling that her attention shifted from Samir’s back to his lips and the black marbles of his eyes. His back was good, too: shoulder blades and long sinuous strips of flesh, bony knots of spine – feeling them didn’t always wake Samir up.
Tea felt her muscles contracting. If she was no longer able to control her limbs, if she didn’t recognise them as her own among the ice cubes, her muscles still worked, the ones that had held Samir back even as his heart was already flying in the sky like a paper plane. He had used those words to describe himself.
Samir had gone with his friends. The ones to whom he didn’t speak the new, hard-learned language and who, like him, were sampling these new flavours for the first time. He’d gone swimming with these men.
Tea felt the dull pain in her lower stomach spread across her hips.
She opened her eyes a little; she imagined lying under the heavy greenish glitter of water, but now she saw the black ceiling boards and the star-like spots of light, which made the hairs of the people babbling around her glisten as if they were wet. There was seepage between her thighs.
Someone shoved a cod stick deep into her briefs. It was a man with a pretty face, Tea had seen him in a film. When the man lifted up the stick, its mayonnaise cloak was reddish.
‘This is a groovy taste,’ the man said in his doll’s voice.
Don’t move, Tea thought. Ice will stem the flow.
In the summer, during one of their nocturnal swims, Samir fucked her underwater. Tea hung round his neck, afraid that the blood issuing from her would attract hungry tiddlers. Then the fish grew bigger, slower; their dorsal fins razor-sharp. When such a fish found something to eat, it had to shake a morsel loose, retreat and dash back to snatch the peeling tissue.
After the boat dragging the lake had finished and the dog had been taken away, Tea had gone to the divers. Were they going to carry on with the search? The diver’s stiff jaw had been chewing gum, and you could see that they no longer thought of Samir as a treasure, as something that had to be found and carried to the shore. For all they cared, Samir could sink deeper into the mud at the bottom of the lake, inch by inch. His body would become food and the water would take care of the rest.
And then, in December at the hole-in-the ice, Tea understood that she would get closer to Samir by stepping into the water. If only she could make her body cold and numb enough, they’d be close, they’d be the same.
The pretty-faced film star’s intoxication gave him mood swings – he was up and down and at his incitement, more and more seafood legs were immersed in the mayonnaise. A photographer emerged from behind and recorded the whole thing.
A tight, giggling circle formed; its members all wanted to taste mayonnaise scraped from the special surface. Red-streaked mayonnaise, which the guests licked off their fingers until the photographer’s elbows dispersed the crowd.
In any case, they’d had enough of the taste of the sea and made way. Tea looked at the man, who stared back at her, hiding behind the camera lens.
There they were: the two hired hands in the deep, sated valley of festive buzz. Tea thought that if she closed her eyes again, she could dive the way she had meant to that morning. The way to Samir was not through water, but cold.
Samir’s departure made Tea rush to the balcony. He had been laughing with his friends and then disappeared into the car that swayed at the street corner for a moment. At home, he had played HIM’s ‘Join Me in Death’ incessantly. Wearing his earphones, he shouted: Did you know that HIM stands for ‘his infernal majesty’?
More blood collected under Tea. She remembered running along the school corridor, heading towards the toilets. The blood in her body didn’t comply with the ancient contract between the Earth and the moon; it could start flowing at any time.
The photographer saw it. A tray wasn’t allowed to speak but now she felt like saying to the man: give me something I can cover myself with.
But the back of her neck was stuck on an icy steel trolley, her throat was a piece of marble, her shoulders held down by pale and pink bony fingers.
Samir had cried out. He died amid the glimmer of summery water. People on the shore had seen, frighteningly far away, a high splash of water, then the surface becoming level again, then nothing. Lacking a boat, the onlookers had only been able to watch.
Samir didn’t want to drown. No more than Tea had wanted to make the phone call to the car, a call Samir responded to with silence. It was like sticky tape, catching all that happened in the car, including the voices of the Finnish girls who’d been in it.
Tea saw the photographer place his fingers on her wrist. It felt the same as the one time she’d gone to the hospital to have some stitches done and she’d been humming, safe on her mother’s lap.
Tea’s sole eye contact was with the photographer’s lens.
The man let his camera fall to his chest, bent close and pushed his hands into the mixture of ice and smelly fluid. Tea was lifted into the air, she could hear ice cubes and molluscs rattling down onto the steel trolley and then onto the floor. The man was panting with the weight of her body, his lips drawn, the knife edges of his teeth showing. With anger in his eyes, a fury strong enough to push people away, the man started carrying her from under the lights and headed towards the door. On the way, Tea sensed aromas, salty and honeyed, but what made its way to the top was the scent of the passion fruit, closer to paradise.
artwork © Henti Smith
This story was first published in Granta Finland 1: Ruoka (Food)