Natalya Filippovna may be a middle-aged single mother and member of the Russian minority in Estonia, but she is content with her simple life. She has a flat, a job at an electronics factory and, most importantly, she has her bright and ambitious teenaged daughter, Sofia. Money is tight, but they make do – that is, until Sofia requires a lengthy, expensive dental procedure and Natalya loses her job. With bills piling up and Sofia’s dental procedure only part finished, Natalya reluctantly accepts an undesirable model of income. As she and Sofia adjust to their changing situation, Natalya falls for a mysterious, kind man, and her life takes yet another unexpected turn.
Deep Baltic launches its new fiction/poetry section with this extract from Mari Saat‘s novel The Saviour of Lasnamäe, one of the most acclaimed Estonian novels of recent year, the winner of Estonia’s Cultural Endowment Award in 2008 and recently translated into English by Susan Wilson. In this extract we find out exactly what this “undesirable model of income” is.
Sofia had never come home from school to find Mum, already back from her morning shift or just leaving for the last shift, staring so fixedly at the window, completely oblivious to her. Was she in a world of her own? That had to be it, otherwise she would have done what she always did; she would have come over to give her a hug, or if she were busy with something she would at least have called out and asked a question or explained what she was doing. Sometimes it felt like she was a bit of a nag. “Mum, what’s up?” she asked.
Natalya Filippovna cried. She cried during the day and she cried during the night, even in her sleep. She wasn’t even sure whether she slept at all or just cried. If she were suddenly called back to work now it was more likely than not that she wouldn’t be able to do anything because her eyes were so red and sore from crying, and her head was thumping, and she had a pain in her chest, and her fingers were trembling – there was no way she’d be able to do anything with her fingers in that state. And now there was nothing for them to do anyway. She had of course heard that things weren’t going so well at the factory. There was talk of a crisis engulfing the global electronics industry, of things not going well with their two main clients, and that there might even be lay-offs. That’s what the gossip was – not that she really paid much attention to it, perhaps because she was, after all, above average. No doubt her age was significant but what did that matter? She was above average for accuracy and speed, had never been off sick and her daughter wasn’t so young that she’d have to stay at home on the odd occasion that Sofia happened to be ill. She was a very good, effective worker. As a result she didn’t immediately understand when they called her in for a chat and said that with regret they could not extend her contract. Later it transpired – as the women had already guessed – that only people whose temporary contracts were coming to an end were being let go. This meant that they would not be laid off – only that their contracts would not be extended any longer. Then it emerged that they were not real workers, unlike workers with permanent contracts who could not simply be discarded in this fashion because they had to be paid redundancy money. Temporary workers could merely be tossed overboard. Natalya Filippovna found it particularly insulting that everyone was treated alike; their speed and accuracy and how much supervision they required counted for nothing. They’d always been happy with her, she’d never missed a shift and now they were suddenly letting her go while the slower, careless workers were kept on just because it cost the factory more to get rid of them… She understood of course that the factory had problems. Even if they actually got rid of the less capable workers on permanent contracts, the factory might not survive, but whatever way she looked at it it felt so unfair. Why bother to monitor and congratulate and praise workers, if it counted for nothing? As she stared at the window, she wanted to hammer her fist against the glass until it bled but instead she merely wrung her hands. It didn’t matter if she broke her fingers, but a broken window would have to be paid for… And how could Sofia live here then, in a kitchen with the wind whistling through… There was no money for new glass… How much would they charge for glazing these days anyhow?
Kiira brought her back to reality. Where from she didn’t know – not from the clouds but from a black hole somewhere. “You mustn’t cry. There’s no point in you crying like this; you’ll make yourself ill and you’ve got a daughter. Who’ll feed you both and what are you thinking of – that your daughter’ll end up on the street? You’ve got to find a job quickly,” Kiira scolded. That was true all right. She had to find a job quickly. Not just any job because Sofia’s braces were waiting and she was still 7,500 kroons short. It wasn’t just the braces though – if she got behind with the rent they’d be evicted. She had half a mind to walk into the sea, the cold grey sea, go as far as she could, first wading and then drowning, going ever onwards for as long as she could – until it was so cold already that she would just freeze to death and have no more worries. But where would that leave Sofia? The very thought that she could think like this at all – forgetting her child, not caring about her, not caring about the braces – drove her back to tears. “Stop snivelling! There’s no point in crying. You’ve got a child to feed and bring up. You can’t let it get you down,” chided Kiira. “Here, have another swig!” The wine was good. The wine had a relaxing, softening effect, like being enveloped in soft cotton wool.
“I mustn’t get drunk,” she said. “If Sofia comes home and sees her mum drunk…” “Don’t worry,” said Kiira, “we won’t have any more, we’re not men – we won’t drown our sorrows. We’ve only had enough to lighten the mood, just this one swig, we’ll have a good strong brew and then we’ll see…”
And they did as Kiira said. Natalya Filippovna registered as unemployed: the benefit wasn’t enough even to pay half the rent, but it was supplemented by a housing allowance and now every cent really counted because unemployment benefits were available only for a few months and there was very little hope of getting work at the job centre. She’d been hoping for a job as a caretaker or dishwasher or cleaning lady. The pay was really low – the minimum wage – and there’d be no paying for braces on that, but at least they wouldn’t be thrown out of the flat. It would be just until she found something better. In the past she’d held down three caretaker jobs… But now she learnt that these jobs had all been taken long ago by pensioners, because pensions weren’t enough to live on. After all, a bit of snow shovelling in the early morning never did anyone any harm… And caretaker jobs were much sought after; you couldn’t just walk into one like in the old days. They all asked for work experience! Only qualified caretakers with previous work experience were in demand. Yes, specially qualified. Your caretaker work was no longer what it used to be. Now they had different brushes and sponges and pastes and powders, polishing wax for the floor and all kinds of machines, and everywhere they said you had to speak the official language. If the client said or asked something in the official language you had to be able to answer – it was the same for shop assistants – you had to be able to understand and reply! But the moment she was asked a question and had to reply, Natalya Filippovna understood nothing – her face went red, she bit her lip, and a rushing sound filled her ears, muffling her hearing. It always happened just when she was asked a question that required an answer and because of the swishing sound it was impossible to understand anything or think of a response…
The only thing she got at the job centre was depression… Then one day Kiira arrived with some news: there was A WAY OUT! There was a job, although not a permanent one – a temporary job as a replacement so it was only definite for a couple of months, perhaps four or five, that was the downside – but there was no need to give up the benefits, and the work was in the evenings. The job was a bit like being a carer for the sick, and it would be cash in hand every evening. And there was no need for the official language, in fact there was no need for any language. Only a patient mindset. How could it be – a job like this? The new job was not far away, in fact it was right there in Lasnamäe. And not in a factory or an agency, but in an ordinary flat in an ordinary nine-storey block. Kiira said it was some kind of social work, helping people. At first sight it definitely didn’t look as if anybody was in need of help in there – it looked classy and up to European standards. It was larger than Natalya Filippovna’s, definitely three rooms, perhaps four. It was very clean and tidy but different from Natalya’s. Everything in hers was simpler, bluer, yellower, greener, with light-coloured curtains adorned with a pattern of little flowers. Here everything was darker and more luxurious. Through the door that opened into the living room – it probably was the living room – she could see a large, dark, soft sofa and dark red velvety curtains – like in some kind of palace. Or somewhere in the south. Yes, for some reason the curtains she’d spied through the doorway reminded Natalya of Crimea and she felt a frisson of warmth, as if the clock had turned back for a moment.
There were only two people in the household: a husband and wife, both around Kiira and Natalya’s ages, perhaps slightly older. The woman was as plump as Natalya Filippovna, but more flamboyant in colour – florid red lips, a square face and small black stripes of eyebrows. The man was shortish and stocky, the type whose appearance never betrays his age; he was bullnecked and fair – his eyes, brows, the few hairs that traced a thin yellowish grey strip over his bald patch – all fair. The man appeared nervously matter-of-fact. He shook Natalya Filippovna by the hand and said his name so quickly that Natalya couldn’t catch it, then introduced his wife just as quickly. Well, no matter – likely as not she could find out their names from Kiira – seeing as they didn’t introduce themselves to Kiira the three of them must know each other already. Kiira had so many friends – a whole city’s worth. “Let’s go into the kitchen,” said the man. “Kitchens are better places to drink tea in.” The kitchen was simpler with light-coloured furniture, and over the table hung a large lamp with a globe shade covered with an orange fabric. There were jugs ready on the table, small glasses and a bottle of brandy. The brandy was a Moldovan brand – Bely Aist. Everything – the glowing orange lamp and the bottle of brandy – reinforced the impression that if you looked outside you’d see plane trees and the warm dark sea… “This is good old stuff!” said the man. “A shot of brandy helps keep your wits about you. And if you can’t do that these days, you won’t cope!” The man swallowed some brandy and the woman some tea – from a large, round Thermos flask. When the woman had sat down, the man declared, “Right! I don’t like lots of chitchat and explanations, because time is money and we can’t just fritter it away!” At these words Natalya froze because she had time aplenty these days and felt guilty that she was so foolish and incapable. She had time but didn’t know how to make any money from it; she was just frittering it away, a valuable source of funds. “We have a problem,” the man continued. “Everything was fine before: I drove the taxi, I looked for clients and my wife looked after them, but now it so happens that my wife is ill. She has to go in for an operation. More likely than not everything will go well – women’s trouble – they’ll keep her in, but it’ll just take time – in hospital and at home. She’ll be over it in three or four months definitely, that’s what they said… But we have trusted, regular customers and don’t want to lose them. And they – they trust us too; these days stable businesses are all built on trust… But we’re going to have to stop providing our services for a while – and our customers won’t wait. They need the service we provide. They’ll go looking elsewhere and then, well, we can forget it.” He paused for a few moments, bowed to Natalya Filippovna and spoke to her with great conviction and intensity, “So we need someone, a replacement. Someone clean and tidy who can keep things to themselves. And of course, someone who can take my wife’s place – because our clients are shy with us, coy, and not used to new… That’s how it is!” “Keeping things to myself is not a problem,” said Natalya Filippovna hesitating, “but what will I have to do?” It all seemed too plain and simple. “Nothing,” the man replied, “just lie back – and at the right moment, spread your legs.” “What? Sorry?” mumbled Natalya Filippovna, a bitter lump rose in her throat and took her breath away, “I don’t understand…”
“What is there to understand?” said the man. His voice became a shade warmer and he explained slowly, patiently, as if to a child, “Men have needs; many men have needs but no opportunity, and they’re nervous of brothels; quiet, respectable men who are willing to pay if they can only find a small, safe place that services their need… What’s the harm in that? I know how to choose clients. As soon as someone gets in the car, I know if he’s single and desperate. I can tell straight away who the troublemakers are. I don’t accept them, I take them to a brothel. But everything is safe here, with condoms. Anyone who refuses can go and find some stupid girl, I wouldn’t offer my wife to them, and the conditions for you, Natalya Filippovna, will be exactly the same. And it’s good money: half a grand up front that we can split between us fifty-fifty. That means a quarter of a grand a time for you, six thousand a month for definite, and for only a few evenings a week. If it’s late, I’ll drive you home. You live nearby and I’ve got a car downstairs, no problem… It’s a really good offer, you think about it… It’s not something I’d offer to anyone quite frankly, just like that, but Kiira trusts you…” She heard the words as though muffled by other sounds. The man opposite her looked hazy and yet she understood every word, and saw how the man eyed her, hard-headedly, appreciatively, like gift-wrapped merchandise on a shop counter, seemingly pleased with what he saw… Everything was at the same time so hazy and so clear, as if Natalya had two pairs of eyes and two pairs of ears – in one set everything was foggy and raucous, but in the other everything was clear and sharp… “But how…” she said – Grisha! Grisha used to beat her solely because she had a… a fanny that she might… might shag other men with… “But how do you bear the idea that your wife… with complete strangers, for money?” And she burst into tears. The man seemed to find this verging on amusing.
“There, there,” he comforted Natalya, “have another drink… What a sheltered life you’ve had… Things aren’t what they used to be you know, bread always on the table, roof over your head, work easy to find. Nowadays you have to settle for what there is and use it to the best economic advantage; you can’t let anything go to waste or just stand idle these days – people need to provide a service whether it be using their brain, their hands or their crotch… What do you think it is that politicians do? They sell their brains – everyone sells what they have. It’s nothing to be ashamed of… What is it that makes a brain better than a crotch? Or any worse? Is it that one of them should be sold and the other shouldn’t? I was crippled when I was in the army, with no children, and now I can’t get it up any more. What good would it do to deprive my wife, just because I can’t get it up? If she wants sex, then why do it free of charge? She may as well do it for money if the demand’s there and there are plenty of buyers – it’s a win-win situation. The punter gets relief from his distress and my wife still has some money to put aside for her old age. Otherwise she sits here at home by herself, with idiotic thoughts troubling her…” What he said was so clear and so right. There was no arguing with it. But it seemed so awful, terrible, so dreadful – like a deep black pit… The woman brought her some more tea. And added some sugar. Very sweet, hot tea… It eased her throat… Somewhere as a very small child she’d once had very sweet tea, drunk with a cube of sugar between her teeth too in the old-fashioned way – as much as she’d wanted. A terrifying black animal had chased her along the muddy village road – a dog or a pig — and then there’d been women round her, not her mother, just some of the village women… Just like this woman and Kiira were now… “There, there!” the woman repeated her husband’s words. “You’d be doing us a great service! I can probably be back at it in three months. It’s just that Vova doesn’t like to lose clients – and they’re all respectable clients, they’re not weird, and you don’t touch them – there’s a condom between you…”
“No, I just couldn’t,” she told Kiira on the way home. “Why on earth did you put me up for the job? And why didn’t you take it yourself? Why did you offer it to me, if you won’t even do it yourself?” “Because you’re in dire straits,” said Kiira, offended, “and of course I’d take it, if I had a child to feed and rent to pay and no hint of a choice – think of the money, just weekday shifts, in the evenings… Why wouldn’t I take it, of course I would…” Then she began to giggle, “But they wouldn’t have me – they wouldn’t have me. They’re after a curvy woman, pretty and quiet, the type of woman the punters are used to. I’m as skinny as a rake and I’ve got wrinkles a prune would be proud of. Not to mention argumentative… Their clients – they treat their clients with kid gloves; they wouldn’t offer someone like me to any client of theirs or he’d be out the door pronto…”
Kiira promised to carry on looking for a job for Natalya – a respectable, decent job, she’d only have to stick it out until she found one. What’s more, she’d be helping other people in trouble as well as herself and Sofia. After this Natalya Filippovna did a great deal of thinking – the man, this Vova, was right, as was Kiira. Everything was safe, secure, and what’s more would do nothing but a bit of good all round. It would help everyone, whereas refusing would be bad for everyone, especially Sofia! Yet this was a sin. That’s what she felt, though many years, perhaps decades, had passed since she had really pondered what sin was – until now. It was all so confusing, so impossible to understand. Was Sofia really the product of sin? How could she be when she was so beautiful, so sweet and so full of her own life? What did she have to do with the sin that led to her being born?
Natalya Filippovna went to the church on the Sunday morning when Sofia was still soundly asleep. She didn’t eat before she went – just like before a blood test – because she wanted to do things properly, go to confession and take communion. She hadn’t done this for years. She was a very lax churchgoer. She did go, but only once a year for the blessing of the water. She always kept some holy water in a cupboard at home just in case, as a cure for Sofia, like in the old days when she was little and her mother and grandmother had kept a flask of holy water so they could dab some on her eyes or give her some to drink when her eyes were shining suspiciously bright and they weren’t sure whether she was ill or not… You should always have some holy water on hand. But she neither had the heart to drag Sofia out of the house on Sunday mornings nor the heart to rouse her. Anyway the child couldn’t have abided the long service. These days you could watch the church on the telly at home at Christmas and Easter. One definitely good thing about the collapse of the Union was that the church was no longer treated with hostility… So she would always go for some holy water. You could get the water at other times too, not only on the day of Jesus’s baptism. It was in the font in the corner of the church, but it never felt quite like the genuine article – it was as if the effect was always subtly different if you took some immediately, as soon as the priest had consecrated it. It had been so long since Natalya Filippovna had been to confession or communion that she had completely forgotten how the whole thing worked. But it wasn’t complicated: she had to stand in a long queue for confession and wait until the priest placed his hands on her, and then stand in a queue at the communion table and wait.
Waiting in the queue for communion meant she could see what happened when someone stood in front of the priest… But what she had to do before the priest went completely out of Natalya Filippovna’s head… She looked straight at him although she had no need to. She looked straight at him and noticed that he had a wonderful, bushy, black beard and gentle, pale eyes. And then she noticed that the deacon standing next to him was hissing quietly over and again, “Say your name… Say your name.” “Natalya,” she said. “Natalya,” repeated the priest – he had a gentle, soft voice – “what seems to be the trouble?” He did not say “Be penitent”, he did not ask “What sin have you committed?” – he merely asked, quite simply, like a doctor, “What seems to be the trouble?” And Natalya Filippovna felt everything whirling into confusion: what she’d intended to say was just that she sought forgiveness for her sins and wanted to take communion. She just couldn’t talk about what she was planning, or say that she was intending to do something dreadful and would like to fool him into blessing her for the appalling deeds she was about to do.
“Sometimes I don’t believe,” she said to herself unexpectedly, “sometimes I can’t believe that there is a God, when there’s no way out and there’s no work anywhere…” Suddenly she felt that that was exactly what she had wanted to say, that that was why she had in fact come into the church, and all at once she burst into tears as she wasn’t biting her lip firmly enough. “Just pray,” said the priest, “don’t pray for a particular thing, just pray ‘Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy…’ That will make it easier… God tests those whom he loves, those whom he trusts. He tests them harshly… Have patience and don’t worry…” The priest spoke like this at length, wholly against the convention, and Natalya felt his voice chiming out and everything around him glowing and shining with happiness as if there were no cares in the world. The happiness cast light throughout the church and accompanied Natalya to the end of the service, still in the queue for communion. She saw how the dappling sun reflected off the icon of the Madonna, directly off the Virgin’s brow… What was it the priest had said? That God tests those he trusts? Had the Virgin had troubles too? Wasn’t it true that the Virgin had sinned too? She’d had an honourable man in Joseph, but just think, she’d got pregnant by the Almighty himself. So wasn’t that a sin? Why did it have to be a sin? Did God himself help in the commission of a sin? Why couldn’t the Lord descend directly from heaven, seeing as he’d ascended directly back there? Why did he need the Virgin at all? Why had Natalya’s honourable job been taken from her? The glow vanished. Or perhaps the sun was just obscured behind a cloud and was no longer reflecting off the icons. Wasn’t it still shining through the windows? Had the priest given her some guidance? He had said to be patient and not worry. Did that mean that if God didn’t provide her with any other option, then she shouldn’t worry? “Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy…” She tried her best to repeat the phrase but it was as if Kiira’s voice kept butting in with words of solace: “Don’t worry, there’s no touching, there’s a condom between you.” As if that were really a fact of great importance…
For some reason she had the feeling it was indeed very important. She didn’t even know which sentence repeated itself more insistently in her head as she awaited her first client under the orange lampshade. However, despite this reassurance, she was trembling so much that her teeth were chattering.
“This won’t do,” said Vova, worried, “you need to have a stiff drink to ease your nerves otherwise you’ll scare the client off. This punter’s very calm and gentle. Don’t worry, he’s so gentle he couldn’t hurt a fly, but if you go scaring him off with all that din then he won’t give us any cash, perhaps ever again – even though he’s a regular client, comes every two weeks…” “Give her another swig,” said Vova to his wife Ira, “I’ll call when we set off. Get her straight into bed to wait under a thick quilt. If it makes her too hot, well at least her teeth won’t still be chattering… It’ll unnerve him…” And off he drove to the port to pick the customer up. Ira settled Natalya into the bed under a thick quilt, stroked her hand and comforted her: “Don’t be scared, Jaakko is a good man, calm and gentle… All of ours are calm and gentle… It’s no worse than having an internal at the doctor’s… Just imagine that you’re at the doctor’s. Just relax and everything will be fine… I’d say it’s worse at the doctor’s, sat on a chair with everything on show! At least here it all happens under a quilt…”
Born in Tallinn in 1947, Mari Saat is an Estonian economist and writer who has published four novels, plus a number of short story collections, children’s books and non-fiction works. She has received many awards since releasing her first collection of short stories (Katastroof) in 1973, including the Estonian Cultural Endowment’s Prose Award in 1992, 1999 and 2008 – the latter for The Saviour of Lasnamäe. Saat is known for her sharp social analyses and existential explorations. She teaches business ethics at Tallinn University of Technology. Her books have been translated into several languages, and The Saviour of Lasnamäe into Russian and Finnish.
Header image – a view of Lasnamäe, Tallinn [Creative Commons]
This extract reproduced with permission from Vagabond Voices Publishers