About being an outsider, and All Saints‘ Day: The Ultimate Roast

Excerpt from Täydellinen paisti [‘The ultimate roast’] by Satu Taskinen English translation by Ruth Urbom

As the sun set and evening drew in, people automatically began to open their jaws wide and yawn. Thus it was every day, in every land. Regardless of nationality, skin colour or faith. Even refined Sigrid did it, even though she otherwise took great care to keep all of her bodily functions concealed from everyone else. Sigrid did not perspire, never even blushed.

We had all been silent for so long that Frau Mutti nodded off. Her fur hat sat askew on her hairdo. Her head was tilted to the right. I had tried to sleep in that armchair many times myself. It never worked. How did Frau Mutti do it? Wasn’t she bound to pull a muscle in her neck? I could fetch a needle and thread and mend a couple of The Austrian’s shirts as I sat there. The collars were fraying and they always had some buttons missing.

“Marie-Luisa, you’ve got another cake somewhere, haven’t you?” asked Franz. The Austrian with a craving for something sweet. I would bake him some cakes, too, if he wanted some. He wouldn’t have to say more than half a word and I’d bake him a cake every day. They would have lots of layers with cream, chocolate, anything he wanted, even pickled gherkins and potato crisps. As long as I wasn’t forced to eat any of it myself, no problem. I’d rather eat salad. I really preferred to eat anything green. Even cabbage, rocket, spinach. Yellow things were all right too. Like yellow peppers. Lovage. Can you freeze lovage, or does that make it go mushy? And had The Austrian eaten the missing sweetcorn? I could just as well stop cooking altogether if The Austrian would rather sit in the cold cellar eating sweetcorn in secret. He just had to say the word. I wasn’t stupid, or deaf. Cake Number Two was on its way, but not just yet. If a person hadn’t learnt to wait by the time he was three years old, he was never going to learn. Frau Mutti was dozing. It was not extraordinarily difficult to bring up children or to blend together a specified quantity of eggs and sugar.

Marie-Luisa was trying to cut a bite off her knödel without clinking against the plate. It seemed like she was unable to stop eating as long as there was still something – anything – available to eat. The more we talked about losing weight, the more feverishly she had to eat. At any rate, nobody could accuse her of giving in. What was she really fighting against? Was she doing this to raise money for some charity? With a sort of reverse hunger strike? Or did she want to prove to us that a human being is capable of bursting?

The knife slipped more than once, and when Frau Mutti growled reproachfully in her sleep, Marie-Luisa grew nervous. The Austrian had always taken his sister’s side when they were little, same as now. He looked at Marie-Luisa, who looked back at The Austrian with eyes that could have been borrowed from Maximus’ head. It’s true that owners and their dogs come to resemble one another. It’s a law of nature, my dear representatives of the human race, even if you don’t believe me. Marie-Luisa gave a beseeching look. She frightened me. Marie-Luisa was still hungry, Marie-Luisa was always hungry: The Austrian positioned himself between his mother and sister, began to provide a noise barrier so Marie-Luisa could feed her face. Finally, Marie-Luisa put her cutlery down and started using her fingers. It did make her eating go better, faster, more efficiently.

And oh, how such a vast person could eat, gnawing so rapidly and efficiently. The head of a squirrel atop the body of an elephant. Wasn’t that almost another violation of the rules of nature?

The candlelight was no longer adequate, but The Austrian wanted to keep the room dark so as not to disturb his mother. It was ridiculous. What sense was there in sitting in a dark room where nobody could see anyone else? Like a bunch of cavemen. Under cover of darkness, Elisabeth imagined she could slip a bit of meat to Maximus. But like an animal lurking in the dark, Frau Mutti awoke just then, to a gulp from Maximus’ gullet.

Frau Mutti belched into her napkin and shifted her chair backwards so she could stretch her stubby legs. She might have been dreaming of something nice, judging by the way she rubbed her knee and then gave a sigh of satisfaction.

“The food was – it was there, and at least there was plenty of it,” Frau Mutti laughed in my direction.

She brought her napkin up to dab at the corner of her eye. Its orange colour suited her violet blouse.

“In our family, we never ate roast pork with knödel or sauerkraut,” Frau Mutti said. “Papa wanted potato salad, so that’s what he got. Oh, how I miss him. But enough of that. Just look at how well things are going for us.”

She pointed towards Marie-Luisa.

“Eating is wonderful. It’s wonderful not to have to go without nowadays. These days people talk about quality rather than quantity. I’m firmly of the opinion that quantity beats quality. And I maintain that anyone who’s honest will agree with me.”

Then she added: “Well, then! We got through that, although it wasn’t easy. Thank you to everyone. Is there anything else planned, then?” Frau Mutti got up. She needed to go and ‘powder her nose’.

I was not permitted to do any tidying up. Everything had to stay exactly as it was. As The Austrian’s family saw things, they needed to save me for a while as well. They laughed jovially that the visit was going to go on for a long time yet and I needed to conserve my strength. I had become an old sock to them. Or an ice skate. You had to tie the laces tightly, but not so tightly that the skate chafed, and not so it flopped around, but just so it felt comfortable enough to hold you up.

As if by common consent, the guests rose from their seats and began to roam around. I should have put a yoke on them. A tether. They were like children who had just learnt to walk, and nothing was safe from them. They touched everything, cleared out drawers, put their mitts on anything and everything. Like in a nursery. They strolled from one room to the next, and there were plenty of rooms. One was

thumbing through a Venice travel guide she’d located in the bookcase, another was examining the board games she’d discovered in the cupboard, and a couple were playing a blindingly fast-paced card game I’ve never understood. They were counting points and red and green beads, and collecting cards with trumps at a furious pace (“Just watch, it’s dead easy!”). Someone was washing their hands for ages in the bathroom, another was organising their things in their room (might have been looking for something), then even the spent candles were replaced, dishes were moved, cold food was nibbled on, drinks in bottles were brought up from the cellar and opened, and empties were exchanged for full bottles. I was asked for an iron and some more clean towels and a map of Vienna. I went over to The Austrian more than once. I suggested to him that he might at least change his stained shirt. He did not agree. I took a toothpick over to him. He didn’t want that, either. The Austrian had sat down on the living room floor with the guide to the new stereo system.

“But if you’re bored, you could see about sorting out a little more light. I need a decent lamp here so I can see properly,” he said, trying to read the tiny print using his finger as a guide. Apparently the stereo had an amazing range of functions.

Marie-Luisa was sitting next to her brother, listening intently to what The Austrian had to say, but did she understand any of it? I went to fetch a torch. The Austrian asked me if I could hold it in position, but then when my hand started to get tired, The Austrian said I ought to go and find something of my own to do, or else I might as well take a break from doing anything, as I’d been doing things all day, and no one would get upset. He said I could just go for a walk if I wanted. Just like that. As if I could just up and leave in the middle of this dinner party I’d arranged myself, and leave my guests on their own.

He also said I could stop going on about Allerheiligen all the time, as if All Saints’ Day were the same thing as All Souls’ Day.

“It’s so embarrassing,” he whispered. “Believe me, even if you don’t quite understand.”