from The London Girl
by Susanna Alakoski
Introduced and translated by Kira Josefsson
‘Finnjävel,’ fucking Finn; ‘knivfinne’, knife-Finn; slurs spat sideways from Swedish mouths. The many Finns who emigrated to Sweden in the second half of the 20th century, after the abolition of passports and work visas between the Nordic countries, were rarely welcomed as long-lost siblings, despite the two countries’ intimately entwined histories.
Finland was under Swedish rule until 1809, and Finns have migrated to Sweden for economic opportunity for centuries, making them one of the largest immigrant groups in the country. Still, Finland is not part of Scandinavia; the languages of the other Nordic countries are more or less mutually intelligible whereas Finnish stands out as Finno-Ugric, part of an entirely distinct lineage. And contrary to Sweden, which grew rich through industrialization and peacetime stability as it managed to stay out of open combat and overt alliances during World War II (though it did allow Nazi troops to pass through the country), Finland was rattled by frequent armed conflict in the early 20th century and sided with Germany in the Second World War. 1945 came with the loss of a large industrial territory to the Soviet Union, and the burden of hefty reparations.
The Finns who made the trip across the Baltic or the northern land border, therefore, did not just have to contend with language difference; they were also shunned for their poverty and its symptoms, alcoholism and violence. Today Finns remain the largest minority group in Sweden, and Finnish has been made an official language of multiple localities. Still, the history of these ‘Sweden-Finns’ and the underclass they represented remains largely unwritten.
Susanna Alakoski, herself a daughter of Finnish labor immigration, has made it her life’s work to chronicle lives on the narrative margins, beginning with her best-selling debut Svinalängorna (Beyond), a novel about childhood in a Finnish family trying—and failing—to find its feet in the new country. Her most recent project takes an explicitly wide, and dazzlingly ambitious, view of regular people caught in the winds of history with a suite of novels that puts individual destinies in a deeply researched context. 2019’s Bomullsängeln (Cotton Angel), set in Finnish Ostrobothnia, introduced the quartet by showing Finland’s transformation from agrarian to industrial country through the eyes of Hilda, a farm girl made cotton mill worker after she’s kicked out of her home for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
Now, in Londonflickan (The London Girl), Hilda’s daughter Greta sets her hungry eyes on the horizon. Peace is here after World War II and she knows from the glossies that there is a world beyond poverty and mill work, somewhere out there, and so she sets off, first to glamorous Stockholm, and then, when the jobs she finds there turn out to be hardly different from the repetitive work she knows from Finland, she ventures even farther, to London. It’s a daring dream Greta has, to rid herself of the reproductive labor that falls to women and undergirds all of history even as it is rarely seen or valued, and Alakoski draws her quest, as historically specific as it is perennial for women, with a loving but unsentimental pen.
from The London Girl
August fever. The skerries were a reddish yellow and the sun seemed tired as it labored to reach the top of the firs. The shadow side of the pines stood mirrored in the water. Greta squeezed her purse. In it: the dictionary. In it: the passport. She had brought it even though Hilda, hand on the Bible, had sworn she could trust the talk at the Mill. A proclamation had been made in Sweden: no more passport controls between Sweden and Finland. Helli, too, had attested to the truth of this rumor. Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway had entered an agreement that allowed foreigners to go freely from one Nordic country to another. So as long as Greta crossed at a legitimate border station, Helli joked, and as long as she behaved, she would have no trouble. There were even discussions about the EEC, an agreement that would enable everyone to trade freely with each other, so in the future Greta could become whoever she wanted, even a traveling saleswoman.
White froth in the wake of the ferry. It reminded Greta of the cotton tangles in the warehouse, though it shifted in green, like patina on metal. It looked like the floor of the dye shop. But these were the waters of Stockholm, not just any old detergent. She took a deep breath. The air, she thought, it was just as clean as Villa Sandviken’s newly polished windowpanes.
The gulls flocked around the ferry’s chimney. Summer homes and fairytale castles drifted past. Not a single house splintered by bombs. Not a single one! At Vaxholm Fortress, a welcoming committee of raucous, hungry gulls. They sailed off again without rest; perhaps already full. Or perhaps they were Finnish gulls, perhaps en route back to Finland, Greta mused, tracing the coast with her eye.
No bombed outhouse buildings.
No trenches either.
Not a single ruin.
The crowd on deck was growing. Tired children with red eyes and their parents, and tourists eager to meet the morning. Greta pulled her suitcase closer. Made space for a couple of hung-over gentlemen. Made sure the landing ticket was in her purse. And with it, the paper scrap with Aili’s address. Åsögatan, Greta spelled out. Åsöö. Swedish: she spoke enough to get by. Seamen were thronging in between the passengers. Waldemarsudde, Greta heard someone say. Waldemarsudde. Greta would never forget this word, Waldemarsudde. This first Swedish-Swedish word, a word she had learned in Stockholm.
The city was swept in the misty veils of dawn. A tall church tower came out of the haze straight ahead. White Svea commuter boats lined up, side by side. Greta jumped when the ferry sent a bellow echoing into the sky, sent it mingling with the black smoke. Here, she was here. Aili would be standing by the Katarina Elevator. The tram, just think! She was going to be on a tram for the first time in her life. [...]
The bus lurched, and again Greta looked out at Stockholm with euphoric eyes. The low sun made the borders of the clouds glow like rubies. Amber leaves covered the still-green patches of grass. Up the hill they were building skyscrapers, and down in the depths they were digging to make room for more subway connections. Scaffolding lined the streets. Disorder on the ground it covered: planks, piles of brick, and in some places liquid soft clay after the rain that had just fallen. Excavators and cranes dotted the city.
Greta could not tear her eyes from a worker pulling a thick rope, his chest bare. The veins on his forehead, blue and swollen. Smoke came from the boilers. Oh, Stockholm, she sighed. City of half water, half asphalt. And I, Greta Varjola, riding the bus as one of the first to traverse this brand-new greasy-glossy surface. Greta Varjola, on her way to start working at a real hospital.
As she entered the yard she was hit by a strong smell of medicine, urine, disinfectants, and fresh coffee. She was early. Changed into her blue-dress. Inspected her own reflection with severe eyes. Fixed her hair, the apron, the starched collar. The nurse introduced herself as Elvy Eriksson. Said they would start with the hygiene. Instructed Greta to go to the sink. Fetch the basin. Thereafter, go to room two.
The sink? The basin? The hygiene?
Greta squeezed the dictionary in her apron pocket.
‘Greta will find the sink by the door on the right side.’
‘I do hope Greta knows the work.’
‘Mother been hospital once.’
Elvy Eriksson stared at her. Greta bit her own tongue, hard. ‘Mother been hospital.’ Why did she say it like that. And the way her Swedish sounded. Elvy Eriksson might well fire her on the spot.
‘The large basin for washing the top. The small for the bottom.’
Greta looked in the cupboards. Found steel basins in different sizes. She located room two. Trailing Elvy Eriksson closely.
Once the hygiene has been completed Greta will assist with breakfast, Elvy Eriksson instructed. Then, time to make the beds. After breakfast Greta will move the patients to the sitting room.
The bed-women’s hair, silver-white and translucent. The morning sun shone through their skin. Skin under skin shimmering in blue. The bed-women’s mouths were round little holes. Greta had to look; did they have ping pong balls stuffed in there? Greta can begin with Number One, Elvy Eriksson said.
When Greta said good morning Number One did not answer. Was she really to wash a sleeping person? When Greta sought an answer from Elvy Eriksson all Elvy did was give a stern nod. Greta filled the basins with water in the washstand and said good morning to Number One again.
Fish, garbage can, urine. Body odor welled forth like a volcano when Greta lifted the covers. She caught herself staring. The sparse gray hairs down there. All clotted. How often did the old ones get washed? Greta stared, turned her face, feeling sick. She looked around. Change the water in the basin? Wash once or twice? Elvy Eriksson nodded: once.
After the morning toilette Elvy Eriksson and Greta worked together to put the bed-women in a seated position, one after the other. They stretched the sheets and fluffed the pillows. Raised the beds’ backrests. The nurses across the room were performing the same tasks, all military spirit and posture. Greta did as they did, pulling and stretching the sheets. Oh, Elvy Eriksson grabbed them so hard by their thin skins. These poor old people, Greta thought, and tried to handle them with softness.
Once the women in the room were all sitting up the food cart was brought in. Porridge, bread, butter. Coffee, milk, bibs. Greta watched the flocking of gray and white around the cart. They buttered bread and passed plate after plate to Elvy Eriksson, who spooned out the porridge. Greta can start with Number One, Elvy Eriksson said.
Number One was still sleeping. Again Greta sought Elvy Eriksson’s gaze. Elvy Eriksson nodded as sternly as she had before. Greta took this to mean that she was to feed Number One while the woman was sleeping. Greta gently lifted Number One’s head. Carefully slipped the spoon in.
Number One rolled the porridge in her mouth. It came out, dripped onto the bib, the nightgown, the bed. Milk dribbled onto the floor. Greta wiped. Fed and wiped. And how was she to make Number One swallow her pills. Greta looked at Elvy Eriksson again. She nodded twice. Greta placed the pills in Number One’s mouth. Then she poured in a bit of water. When she held the jaw so that the mouth closed Number One swallowed pill after pill.
Having tidied up Number One, Greta placed her, with assistance from Elvy Eriksson, in the wheelchair. The sitting room was located midway down the hall. Head drooping, Number One was rolled out to join the others. Freeing Greta to make the bed, dust, wipe the floor. We air the room out every day, Elvy Eriksson said, and once that was done Greta would, along with Nurse Svea, clean the smoking room, the kitchen, the storage, the disinfection room, and the staff room. The toilets were cleaned every other day using scouring powder. And when the rounds came all cleaning equipment had to be immediately tucked away, the ward tidied up. The girls out of sight.
Aili welcomed Greta home with pork soup. Greta kicked off her shoes, fell into the armchair, rubbed her feet. Unable to suppress her excitement. Aili might understand. How much she had learned, and so many new Swedish words.
Wash basin. Sterilizing. Compress, laundry bag, rounds, sitting room. Parkinson, senile, stroke, insulin. Hygiene, she said, do you know what hygiene means? Greta supplied the answer before Aili had even had the chance to think about it. It means washing both top and bottom with a washcloth. So, the same thing we did when we washed Leila. Are you going to be happy there, Aili asked. Greta thought for a moment. Then she said that hospitals seemed like a kind of prison for old people who are no longer able to eat or walk by themselves. But my position is ambulatory, I am going to serve as an alternate at different wards, even in the operating room. But are you going to be happy there, Aili asked again. I think both yes and no, Greta replied. We shall see. [...]
Britt summer, that’s what they termed it in Stockholm, the warm sunny days of early October. In Kapernaum those same days were celebrated as poor man’s summer, since the people at the Mill, quite like the badger, liked to gather what the forest gave for winter storage.
Assaulted by a downpour, Greta picked up her pace through Old Town. A rumbling behind Djurgården. The agitated light of thunder cut through the sky, blazes zigzagging over the amusement park. Lacquered black cars stood parked on Gustav Adolf’s Square outside the Royal Opera. And across the water: the Royal Palace, it too encircled by scaffolding. Buses and cars turned onto Norrbro and then the tram came squeaking from Kungsträdgården and she dove in under its roof, sweaty and soaked through.
‘A one-krona ticket please.’
The cashier handed her the ticket. She clasped it for a moment before folding it and putting it in her purse. A Masked Ball. She was going to see A Masked Ball.
At the top, in the far back. Greta slowly walked up the stairs. Her pumps glided across the red carpet. Dazzling brass, and the statues waving at her. She didn’t care that she had to stand. That she could see neither soloist nor choir. Because, oh! the moldings overhead and the textile of the seats. Because, oh! the dresses worn by the women sitting on that same textile. Because, the chandelier and the vaulted ceiling. Because, the murals and the angels. Because, the violins and the waft of Shakespeare. Greta understood neither plot nor words, but the music and the song sent her first to gather flowers and then made her crush them with her heel, and it was all that mattered, and this, her sitting here, at the Royal Opera, in Stockholm, in Sweden, crying and laughing in the heart of this very building raised with marble, gold and mirrors, far removed from soldiers’ jokes and racing and old tractors. And to think that she, a Vaasa girl, had walked on true red carpet, as soft as any mink stole in Vogue. If only the people of Vaasa could see her now. The people of Ostrobothnia, of all of Finland. Greta broke into tears of joy, and those tears seemed the size of cherries. She let them fall. [...]
It had drizzled for three days straight. Stockholm smelled of fall and had turned brown all over. It was as though the skin of the city had been singed by autumnal fire, which prior to the rain had cooked the streets and their buildings for weeks. Elm leaves drooped wet and pale-brown, threatening to fall all at once. Greta watched the looming darkness pull the rags off the city. Watched it transform the facades into ghosts, gray translucent skin. And Strömmen, dirty-brown, lapped the city as though the lake was a field laid fallow, awaiting the coming ice. People stood in line to the Saltsjöbanan train. The passenger ship Gripsholm had docked. Taxis, tractors, and everywhere bikes, bikes, bikes. Greta involuntarily committed the slogans from the wall-mounted billboards to memory.
Remember Nivea Creme.
For safe driving—Drink Coca-Cola.
When Number One deteriorated, Elvy Eriksson passed word from the doctor. No life support. Greta swallowed. She knew she wasn’t supposed to, but as Elvy Eriksson gave her the instructions she couldn’t help herself: she pictured what Mrs. Vallin had looked like as a child. As a teenager. She wondered about her work. Had she been married, did she have children, grandchildren, maybe even great-grandchildren? Had she been among the crowds dancing and kissing on the streets of Stockholm when the peace came? Had she been wealthy, or poor? We are not to spend our thoughts on dying patients, Elvy Eriksson interrupted Greta’s reverie, not when the living are still here to care for. Greta’s task was now to see to Mrs. Vallin at regular intervals. Keep her lips moist. There was the son of a son who should be called if it happened at night. Greta was simply to wake the night nurse.
Morning chores completed, Elvy Eriksson sent Greta to stock the cabinets. Linen, diapers, gloves, compresses, band aids. They kept running low on everything. Which meant they kept needing to stock up on everything. And when she was done with the cabinets she was to pump the wheelchairs and clean them of food spills. And now that the medical corps were lodging at the ward, Greta could take the opportunity and ask the draftees to haul the laundry bags, the garbage, to take care of the enema. It would free her up to polish the floor of the sitting room at some point.
Greta looked at Mrs. Vallin’s hands. The large, rough knuckles. Purple veins and multiple moles bore witness. No, these hands had not lived the idle life of an elegant hat lady, of the wealthy with their excesses. Mrs. Vallin had doubtlessly toiled at Liljeholmen’s Candle Factory or the Milk Central, and even before that she had most certainly scrubbed countless rugs.
Whirling snow as early as November, and the wind wailing as though it had come speeding in from Soviet. Stroller wheels punctured the snow cover. Alleyway children rolled their dirty snowballs. Greta’s boots sank into the muck. She paused to watch a man dig his car out of the snow. At Slussen she turned to face the sky, greeting the impending storm. Finland, it smelled like Finland.
People were slipping. The bike messengers wobbled. Down the street men in caps were clearing the ground, shoveling snow onto the truck bed even as new snow fell on the ground. They would dump it in the water. Gusts of wind. Drifts towering in doorways and on tram platforms. She pictured the fires at the Mill. Pictured her mother. Mama, she was already at work. She pictured her at the machine. Felt the mill cold creep up her calves. Put its lion’s claws in her thigh. Greta chuckled. Big Stockholm with its billboards, its neon lights, its mirrors and cafés, its red rooms and red carpets, its towers, doorways and vaults, its pillars and arcades, suddenly behaving as though the Eastern weather had launched a nocturnal attack on the asphalt streets and the distinguished capital had no tanks to defend itself with.
Greta stomped the snow off her boots. Her reflection showed a criminal. Barely three months and already tired. Tired of the laundry that grew and grew each day, the laundry which was sent off to God knows where and came back in even larger bags. Tired of the ward for the chronically ill and the Ping-Pong mouths, the gray hair and the murky eyes. Death came and took the bed-women one by one, sometimes in the midst of the hygiene but usually at dawn, without anyone having visited the day before. Or even the week before. Nurse Märta and Nurse Rosa said these nights of death were nice, they gave perspective. But Greta, no, she couldn’t bear it. Tying up the chin, putting on the white shirt, that was one thing. As was folding hands and fetching candles. But during these nights of death when people crossed over, all she could hear was Hilda with her face under the covers, soundlessly weeping for Arvo. She heard Jonni humming in the bomb shelter. She pictured Senja Salmi with those faraway eyes, hugging Lill-Karlo, the war child, born of a German. And the silent tears in the yard under the midnight sun, Liisa Salo sobbing for the twins who’d come back with flowers in their hands. It echoed in her. The silent parcels containing the fathers’ army fatigues, watch, glasses, wedding band, calendar, and dog tag, they too came to her during these nights of death; as did she and Jonni playing bomb planes. Thoughts that pushed away the lonely women, the mothers, the widows. Painted everything with the gray color of deprivation. Greta had to remind herself: she lived in Sweden now, she had a job, she had her life in front of her.
But no, she still could not make herself want it. Did not want to be one of those who made themselves invisible during the rounds either. Did not want to be one of those who was ready whenever someone called. She also could not bear the prohibition on caring for Mrs. Johansson, who wanted to hold Greta’s hand and tell her about her life as a farmhand, when Greta was forced, instead of listening to life, to scrub and polish floors. Still, there was one thing she’d learned, something she would keep with her forever. The sicker a person was, the quieter. The closer to death they were, the harder it was for them to swallow.
How could she tell mama. She had only just started, and already she wanted to move on. Would she even tell her? How could a mother and a mill worker from Vaasa, a collector of cat postcards, understand youth’s longing and appetite for adventures. This mother, who had never ventured farther than a tour of her home region and a brief visit to her own country’s capital. What did mama know about the world! Though she might understand the ways in which the hospital job, when all was said and done, was like the work at the Mill. Greta shuddered at the thought: one room, then the next. Ward after ward, done, and on to the next. Saturday and Sunday, Christmas and Easter, every day the assistants worked. Leg ulcers and eyes to be rinsed. Dust. Polish. Clean the windows. Change out the urine collection bag, measure the amount, empty it out. Roll the gauze, fold the compresses, sterilize bedpan, enema syringe, tips and forceps. And Christmas, sure it was pretty, the Lucia parade, the tree, the decorations, but to polish the copper objects, to crinkle the paper for the candle sticks. She pictured Sophia Loren at the fountain, in her close-fitting red dress and those pumps. London, Greta thought. What if I went to London after all.
Natur & Kultur, 2021, 333 pages
Foreign rights: Anna Frankl, Nordin Agency
We are grateful to the agent and author for permission to publish this translated extract.
A review of Bomullsängeln, the first book in this series, is also featured in SBR 2021:2.
Susanna Alakoski debuted in 2006 with the August Prize-winning novel Svinalängorna (Beyond), which was turned into an Oscar-nominated film. 2019 saw the publication of Bomullsängeln (Cotton Angel), the first book in a suite of novels about women’s lives, work and aspirations in the 20th century. Londonflickan is the second novel in this suite.
Kira Josefsson is a writer, translator and editor between Swedish and English. The recipient of a PEN/Heim grant, her work has appeared in places like Granta, Svenska Dagbladet, The Nation, Triple Canopy, and Göteborgs-Posten. Recent full-length publications and collaborations include The Trio by Johanna Hedman, out with Hamish Hamilton in 2022, and the editing of Fia Backström's translation of Åke Hodell's The Marathon Poet (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021). She serves on the editorial board of Glänta, a Swedish journal of literature and philosophy.