I open my eyes and get out of my bed. I look out the window, the sun is shining, and a blue bus is just pulling out of the stop across the street. When it’s gone, three seconds later, I see the poster on the bus stop. It’s an advertisement for “Slap Shot”. It puzzles me that a hockey movie is coming out in the summer, but not as much as it puzzles me that Mom and Dad won’t let me see it.
I know I’m not 16, and I did hear Mom and Dad talk about the movie just yesterday with a friend of ours, about the language, but still: I’m the hockey player. But I also know there’s no use arguing about it.
The bus pulls away, and I watch it all the way to the the two banks, one on each side of the street, one called HOP, the other KOP, when I notice a familiar character walking on the KOP side of the street. He’s an elderly gentleman, wearing an elderly gentleman’s uniform: a white shirt and brown pants, and since it’s a warm summer’s morning, a hat.
I see him every day, often twice a day as he walks around our neighbourhood once in the morning, and at least one more time later in the day. My friend tell me he’s a retired fire chief who’s still doing his rounds. I watch him walk past our house, past the old church across the street from us, and then disappear behind the bend. All is good. He always walks briskly, and he’s always so serious, that I’m a little afraid of him.
No answer, but I know he must be at home since he’s my best buddy and also since he’s our dog. I call for him again, and hear a sigh and sounds of his chain collar rattling as he’s getting up at the balcony door. A few seconds later we meet in the hallway, and I throw a tennis ball at the front door. It bounces back to me just as he’s turned around to chase it, and I catch it when he’s turned away.
“Where is it? Where’s the ball?” I ask him, and he looks around confused. Then I show him the (broken) tennis ball, and he snatches it from my hand. Riku walks slowly back to the balcony door while I go to kitchen to make breakfast.
There’s a note on the kitchen table. It’s written in my Mom’s handwriting on my Dad’s stationery, with his photo on the top-left corner, and the store logo on the bottom.
“Eat breakfast, and call me. /Mom”
I call her first. He asks me what my plans for the day are, and I say I don’t know. The usual, I think. Maybe some soccer with Pekka and if he’s not at home, then maybe soccer by myself, or ride my bike somewhere. Most likely all of the above.
“Is there any money if I want to go out and buy some lunch, a lihapiirakka or something?” I ask him.
“I put a plate and a spoon on the kitchen counter. I thought maybe you want to go to the park and eat some soup. They have soup there,” she says.
“Oh, OK,” I reply, and we hang up.
I go to the kitchen and get myself a bowl of Rice Krispies, and spread the paper on the big kitchen counter that’s facing the street. That’s the only place I can read the morning paper. There’s no space on our kitchen table for the broadsheet, and I can’t hold it in my hands, either. I flip it over and start reading it from the back. First the funny pages, then sports. And then, well … that’s it.
I go to the balcony, and send a signal to Pekka. He lives in the apartment building on the other side of the small playground, and we sometimes use mirrors to communicate with each other. Since I don’t have an own room, and even if I did it’d be on the other side of the building, I often don’t see if he’s trying to reflect the sunlight into our living room, but sometimes he’ll see the reflection of my mirror in his room.
We’re best buddies.
This time the signalling doesn’t work, so I call him, and we agree to meet up. Just outside the park, where we’ve created our little space for soccer. We kick the ball back and forth, taking turns in a. being the goalie and. being Pete Best, the coolest football player in Buster, a sports comic book.
I’m wearing a T-shirt, blue shorts, and my football teams socks, but I haven’t pulled them all the way up, because that’s not cool. When Pekka goes upstairs to eat lunch, I walk back to our house, and before I open the back door and go up the stairs, I check the lock for any signs of breaking and entering, just like I had seen Dad do when my bike was stolen. The lock looks good, and so does my new bike, which is still where it’s supposed to be, as is the new odometer, my most precious biking accessory.
I pull the key from underneath my T-shirt and open the door. I hear the sound of Riku’s collar again, but I tell him to just stay there.
“I’ll just grab the plate,” I tell him.
Mom has wrapped a yellow plastic bowl, and a spoon, in plastic wrap. I decide that it’s geeky, so I rip the plastic wrap, throw it in the garbage and put the spoon in the back pocket of my shorts, and head off to the park. I know that park, it’s only about 400 meters from our house, a five-minute walk – or a three-minute run, and two minutes on my bike – but it’s just on the other side of the big intersection, and I don’t ever go on that side of the big intersection.
Just as I’m about to walk past HOP, I run into a family friend. Her husband is Dad’s old buddy, and has a barbershop in our house, and their daughters are my friends. They live in the HOP building.
“Hey, where are you going?” she asks me.
“To the park. To get some soup.”
“How are you going to eat it?”
I show her my yellow bowl, and pull put the spoon from my pocket. She starts to laugh.
“OK, fine then. See ya,” she says, and disappears into their house. I put the spoon back into my pocket and keep walking. It’s a beautiful day, so the cab drivers that are hanging around their post all have rolled up their sleeves, and their car windows or doors open.
People come out of the grocery store with ice creams. This grocery store is at the end of our block, and yet we never go there because our store is just across the street from us. So I keep walking to get some soup.
In the middle of the park there’s a small hut, where the kids can go and get balls and skipping ropes, and board games. There’s one that I’ve only seen once before, here at the park, on a soup trip. It’s a hockey game, but not a table hockey game that I have at home, but a hockey card game, with famous players’ photos on the cards. I don’t know the rules exactly because mostly I just stand behind one of the kids playing. Like today.
Then I get my sausage soup from the hut. When I’m done, I lick my spoon clean, and walk back home, with the bowl in my hand and the spoon in my pocket.
On my way back, I spot another familiar character walking towards me. I’m glad I noticed her first, because I’m a little afraid of her. She walks around our neighbourhood almost every day, too, but it’s much more fun to see her from our kitchen window. Every time Mom sees her, she lets me know.
“Mrs Sunshine’s out,” she’ll yell, and I’ll run to the window to see her outfit for the day.
Although, it’s not her outfit, really, that’s the big deal. It’s the fact that she’s wearing so much makeup that it looks like she’s painted two red balls on the her cheeks. She also appears to be wearing two wigs on top of each other, although, if I think about it, I’m not sure if she is. But I do know that seeing her makes Mom happy. So, in a way she is Mrs Sunshine, even if it probably wasn’t all praise to begin with.
But Mom’s not here, Mrs Sunshine is, and I’m a little scared of her, so I walk as close to the edge of the sidewalk as I can, leaving most of it for her to pass me without having to pay any attention to me. Her wig(s) are swaying, as is her big purse, as she walks past me in a colorful summer dress.
I cut to the right, between two apartment buildings so I come straight to Pekka’s house. We agree to do something, which usually means just roaming around our block, sitting on the big swing in the park, or picking rose hips for our rose hip fights. Later in the summer, when the rose hips are dark red, we’ll split them open, and use the the seeds as itching power we’ll try to put inside each other’s T-shirts.
But today, there’s a man sitting on the bench in the smaller park, the one where there’s only two benches and the roses, not the bigger one, which is the playground, with the swings and the sandox. The man shouts something at us, and Pekka walks up to him to ask him what he said. I keep my distance, but I listen to them speak.
“You boys, you don’t mind my sitting here, do ya?” the man asks Pekka.
“No, it’s fine. We’re never here anyway,” he replies.
The man takes a sip out of a bottle, which he then tries to hide from us. I find it silly, but also a little frightening. Obviously, I now understand, the man is drunk.
“You’re good boys,” he says, and Pekka nods.
I nod behind him.
“You boys should have an ice cream, it’s such a hot day,” he says.
I freeze, but Pekka sees an opportunity. We both know you’re not supposed to take anything from strangers, absolutely not, never ever ever, ever, and I remind Pekka of this.
“You’re not suppose to talk to strangers, and much less take anything from them. Absolutely not, never ever ever, ever,” I tell him.
“I know,” he whispers back.
Meanwhile, the man has pulled up a wrinkled five-markka bill, and that blue bill pulls us.
“I think it’s OK, since it’s money, and not anything to eat,” Pekka tells me. He takes the bill from the man and says thank you. The man gets up, which startles us, but he just pulls up his pants and tells us he’s gotta be moving on.
“Have a good day, boys,” he says, and walks towards the woods where the scrap cars are. We call that place “Scrap cars” because there are a half a dozen abandonded cars there.
Pekka waves the five-markka bill in front of my face.
“Let’s get some ice cream then,” he says.
We turn around and walk past Pekka’s house, towards the station, where our favorite kiosk is. We’re not sure, but we think it may be the best little candy store in the world. We run the last hundred yards. Pekka gets there first, and he gets us both strawberry ice cream bars.
I’m still a little nervous about the whole affair, about accepting money from a stranger, and Pekka can tell. We walk back towards the playground, and as we sit down on the big swing, he takes my ice cream, which is still in the wrapper, and points out a small hole in it.
“Now, I’m not saying anything happened, but that’s where they could inject the poison in,” he tells me.
I stare at him.
“It’s probably nothing,” he adds, and then after another pause, “although I didn’t see a hole in my ice cream.”
By now, I’ve already taken a bite out of my ice cream. It’s delicious. I don’t taste anything different, there’s no taste of poison whatsoever, and I tell that to Pekka.
“Well, poison doesn’t taste anything. That’s why it’s such a good murder weapon. Like arsenic, for example. Atomic number 33,” he says.
I just nod.
We get up, and each one grabs the chains at one end of the big swing, and we start to swing. The goal is to get the other end to defy gravity, so that the chains loosen and you feel like you’re flying. Until gravity does pull you down and the chains tighten again. You’d better hold on to them then.
But I tell Pekka I’m going home. I keep swallowing every 30 seconds, to feel if arsenic is already in my bloodstream. I think I have a sore throat, but can’t really tell, and everything seems to be working fine. Riku greets me at the door this time, so I throw a tennis ball a few times, and he fetches it for me.
It’s been a good day, except for that damn poisoned ice cream. I stand by the kitchen window, and I see the fire chief walking past the building. He’s walking in the opposite direction now, in Mrs Sunshine’s footsteps. I follow him all the way to HOP, and see another familiar figure walking towards our house.
I hear the downstairs door open and then close, and immediately after that, our door open.
Riku beats me to the door. He’s wagging his tail, and it keeps hitting the cupboard door in the hall. The sound echoes in the stairs before Mom closes the door.
“Hi, Mom,” I say.
“Hi, how was your day?” she asks me.
“What did you do? Did you go for soup?”
“Nothing special. And yes I did.”
“Good. I got some candy for you,” she says, and pulls out a brown paper bag from her purse.
I know what’s inside the brown bag. It’s filled with spogs, the pink and blue jelly buttons from liquorice allsorts bags. She always buys those on Fridays.
I take one and when I swallow, I notice that I don’t feel a thing.
I feel great.