An insistent knocking brings Sonja slowly back to consciousness and she opens her eyes to see an empty vodka bottle about four inches from her face. Head heavy and throbbing, eyes stinging, mouth dry with cigarettes and dehydration, stomach gurgling insistently, skin oily.
The knocking starts up again, then the letterbox squeaks and she knows it is Mrs Härma.
“Sonja? Are you okay? Are you in there?”
The alarm clock tells her it is just past midday. Tentatively, she pulls on a T shirt, surprised to find that she’s still wearing her trousers, and stumbles down the stairs.
The whiteness of outside is blinding. Mrs Härma, wrapped in a huge woollen blanket, grabs at her own chest with relief as the door opens. “Oh thank God, I thought you were dead.”
“Hello, Mrs Härma. No, I’m fine, don’t worry. Just a bit unwell.”
“You look terrible. Just awful.”
“Just a virus. I’m just trying to sleep it off.”
Mrs Härma’s face falls slightly. “I may be old, but I’m not stupid.” she says, and Sonja’s already dry mouth turns suddenly arid. “There’s no need to lie to me, you know. You can tell me. I’ve had a life, I’ve lived, I’m not just a stupid old woman. I was quite a rebel in my day, if you can believe it.” Her eyes sparkle with mischievous memories. “I know you didn’t get in until late, I heard you. Bit worse for wear, weren’t you? Had one too many maybe?” Mrs Härma chuckles deeply and a dry smile forms on Sonja’s lips.
“You caught me.” she says, suddenly fearful of what Mrs Härma might have heard.
“Next time, maybe we can share a vodka or two, eh?” Mrs Härma adds with a wink. “I didn’t have you down as much of a drinker, but maybe I was wrong! Now are you going to let me in so that I can get warm, or what?”
Nobody comes into Sonja’s home, not even Carrie, who has hinted at it numerous times. It is Sonja’s sanctuary, the only place she can really be herself. Mrs Härma blows into her hands and looks at Sonja with questioning eyes. Reluctantly, Sonja steps aside and lets her climb the narrow stairs.
Following her in, Sonja sees her home through someone else’s eyes for the first time. The walls are a cold, uneven white stone, the small kitchenette is clean but old fashioned, with dark wood cupboards and brass handles, and a mattress sits in the corner of the room, the blankets and sheets unmade. Next to the turquoise tiled fireplace is a tattered brown sofa, over which she has draped a crocheted blanket. A pile of books creates a makeshift table and the wooden floorboards are bare, but for one small rug. She rushes over to the bed and throw the blankets over the empty vodka bottle.
“Good lord, what a shithole.” Mrs Härma exclaims, patting the sofa to release a pleasing cloud of dust into the light. “You poor girl. They must pay you a pittance in that place.”
Despite her anxiety, Sonja can’t help but smile at Mrs Härma’s bluntness. Plonking herself firmly down on the sofa, Mrs Härma removes her scarf from around her face and sighs. She is old, but there is a youthfulness to her features. Her grey hair is long, wrapped into a bun on top of her head, her cheekbones are high and her now wrinkled and puckered lips tell tales of fullness and kisses. Sonja sees how she used to be sexy, smart, rebellious, that she once danced all night, got too drunk, grabbed a man by the dick and rocked his world. She sees her disappointment, her unfulfilled dreams, her dismay at looking in the mirror and seeing someone she doesn’t recognise, the people she has loved and lost, how these days people look right through her and think she isn’t important, or relevant, because she is old and small.
She swallows hard and tries to ignore the ball of emotion stuck in her throat.
“So. Where are you from?” Mrs Härma asks.
“Germany.” The lie trips easily off her tongue.
“How do you speak such excellent Estonian?”
“I’m just good at picking up languages, I guess.”
“And your parents, do they live in Germany still?”
Mrs Härma stares at Sonja for what feels like an eternity, her jaw tightly clenched. “I’m so sorry.” she finally says. “You are very young to have lost both your parents. May I ask what happened?”
“They were involved in a car crash.” The delivery is too formal, too rehearsed, but she hopes Mrs Härma considers it a feature of a foreign vocabulary rather than something to raise suspicion.
Mrs Härma shakes her head slowly. “My parents also died when I was young. When the Russians took our city, my parents were both killed in the fighting.” she looks deep into Sonja’s eyes, making her sick with guilt. “It seems we have a lot in common, eh?”
This is why. This is why she can’t let anyone in, ever. Why does she never learn?
She turns away to make tea, hoping that Mrs Härma will assume her upset by the subject matter, and busies herself around the sparse kitchenette, noticing anew how she only has one pan, one set of mismatched cutlery, two plates that she keeps on the drainer when they aren’t in use. There is only one mug, so she uses it to make tea for Mrs. Härma and instead pours herself a glass of water into her one tumbler. She loves her space, her home, her carefully crafted existence, but in the light of someone else’s gaze, it is pitiful and she is ashamed.
When she turns back, Mrs Härma is bent over the fireplace, stacking twigs in the hearth. “It’s so cold in here, child. Let’s warm it up, eh? You look like you need it. You’re too thin for the winter here.”
She pulls out a box of matches from the pocket of her giant cardigan and lights the paper beneath the twigs. It catches quickly and they watch in silence as the flames take hold. Sonja takes out her cigarettes and asks “Do you mind?” and is surprised when her visitor replies “May I? For old time’s sake.” With the cigarette lit, Mrs Härma sucks hard on it, filling her lungs, then expels two great plumes from her nostrils, her eyes closed and a satisfied smile on her face.
“It’s been a very long time since I smoked.” she says. “I thought it was bad for my health, so I stopped. Now I don’t care. I wish I had smoked more. I wish I had done everything more. Especially men.” Her cackle turns into a cough, which she cures by sucking on the cigarette again. “And you.” she says, her eyes narrowing with mischief. “Men? Or man. I think there is a new one, correct? That’s why you were out so late?”
Sonja smiles and folds herself into a ball on the floor in front of the fire. “Maybe. I don’t know yet. I don’t really do that sort of thing.”
“What, fall in love?”
Love. Why is everyone so obsessed with love? Why do they think it is the aim of life, our reason for existing, the solution to everything? Love comes and it goes, it flickers and it fades, and the pain it causes lasts longer than the thing itself ever could; yet we are told to value it above everything else. Above material things, above security, above experience and adventure and self discovery. Above our own sanity if it comes to it, even our own lives. All love has ever brought her is a gut-clenching, bottomless grief that stretches infinitely into the future. Why would anyone choose that?
“Let me tell you how I fell in love.” Mrs Härma says.
She was sixteen and living with her aunt, in a tiny apartment not unlike this one. Every evening, she would be forced to listen to someone in the apartment below practise the clarinet. At first, they played so badly that she would curse the tuneless, ear-piercing screeches that floated up through her bedroom floor. She would roll back the rug and bang her shoe on the wooden floorboards. There would be a pause, then it would start again, not louder, not quieter, just exactly the same. It drove her crazy. Every evening for three months, she listened to them practice, and every evening she would bang her shoe on the floor in a fury, almost screaming with annoyance; until one day, she realised that the sounds were no longer unpleasant. They were in fact quite beautiful. She stopped and she listened. The music bled into her soul and she knew that she loved this person, even though she had never seen them. “I didn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl” she says “but I knew that I loved that person, no matter who they were.” She went downstairs and knocked on the front door. “I must admit” she says, “I was relieved when a handsome boy answered.”
“So, what happened?”
“I fucked him silly and made him fall in love with me.” The water Sonja is drinking goes down the wrong way and she coughs it into her nose. Mrs Härma chuckles. “Don’t let it pass you by. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but you don’t know until you try. Life is a lot longer than you think. It’s not short at all, despite what everyone says. It’s long and it’s boring and you should fill it with excitement and love.”
“Did you marry him?”
Mrs Härma sighs deeply, closing her eyes, her face briefly younger. “Life had different ideas for me. It always does.”
She wraps her scarf around her face briskly and struggles out of the chair. “Right. I must go. That step won’t clear itself and it’s a damn death trap.”
As Mrs Härma passes through the doorway out onto the frozen street, she stops and squeezes Sonja’s arm. Goodbye, goodbye Sonja says brightly, and shuts the door quickly to hide her filling eyes.