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Life and death of an urban recluse

Life and death of an urban recluse
Life and death of an urban recluse
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By Ilkka Malmberg
      The life of a 54-year-old Helsinki man came to journey’s end in the bathroom on Friday May 27th, 2005.
      On the Saturday morning Helsingin Sanomat was pushed through his letter-box and fell to the floor.
      On the newspaper’s cover page was a bright green advertisement for Iittala design glass bowls: “When the party’s over, there’ll still be something left behind” is the copywriter’s offering.
      On page three there would have been the lengthy lead-in to a report on the suspended sentences handed down on Sonera executives over the unauthorised use of mobile phone records, but the newspaper was never opened.
Out beyond the door and the front door to the block, a beautiful summer in the capital was coming into bloom, although there were few signs of those lovely pale greens on Iso Roobertinkatu, the street in Punavuori on which the deceased’s apartment was located.
      More copies of Hesari fell through the letter-box and they filled the space between the inside and outside door.
      After Midsummer, the delivery man was no longer able to get the newspaper stuffed through the box and off his hands.
      No, there was no smell wafting out into the corridor.
The long-awaited July hot spell came.
      August turned out to be rainy, though that word is a massive understatement - the 2005 Athletics World Championships in Helsinki were ruined by a series of near-Biblical deluges.
      It is unlikely the doorbell rang even the once that summer, for the man had no friends or close acquaintances.
      If the telephone rang, it was a wrong number.
The odd invoice arrived, followed by their reminders, and then not even them.
      Direct debit arrangements handled most of the bills, including the maintenance charge on the apartment.
      The guy who comes to read the electricity meter didn’t ring the doorbell, because he didn’t need to: the meter is in the basement.
      The man lay in the bathroom doorway.
      At some point the bathroom lamp gave up the ghost, as they do, and he was left in the dark.
Autumn came. Free newspapers and junk-mail continued to be forced bodily through the slit in the door.
      One quiet day the weight of the collected mail and newspapers pushed open the inner door and the papers slithered down and spread out across the hall floor.
      There was now space for more.
      And then the silence continued.
At the turn of the year, Helsingin Sanomat started to drop through the letter-box once more. Each new paper would slide down the edge of the growing pile.
      Then Hesari stopped coming for good.
      The subscription had gone unpaid, there had been no response to the sales department’s increasingly red-edged letters.
      There was no longer a morning thud, heavier on Sundays.
      The delivery man’s footsteps passed the door.
Maybe once in a while, very seldom, the doorbell would ring and break the silence, as some religious sect attempted to strike up a conversation about eternity.
      Or perhaps a child or two, dressed in witch's outfits, attempting to cajole sweets on Palm Sunday in the Finnish equivalent of trick-or-treat.
      But nobody answered.
There was no smell, no stench of putrefaction out in the stairwell, as these old buildings have an efficient ventilation system.
      Intake air came in under the door, and the flue in the bathroom took it smartly straight out of the building.
      The dead man, an engineer by qualification, would have found it an interesting detail.
The neighbours didn’t think to miss the man.
      Nobody knew anything much about him, anyway.
      The residents in the building were for the most part a pretty transient and temporary lot, mostly tenants, with only a couple of owner-occupiers, and a lot of young singles and common-law couples.
      They didn’t know what their neighbours were up to unless they made a lot of noise. And this neighbour wasn’t in that category.
      Even though the man had lived in this building practically his entire adult life, the housing cooperative's manager recalled seeing him only on a couple of occasions. Then, he said, he had made a very favourable impression.
Outside, things went on under their own momentum - New Year’s rockets banged and fizzed, new school graduates celebrated, May Day revellers yelled drunkenly; there were Eurovision Song Contests, Finlandia Literary Prizes, Independence Day Receptions, the exodus from the city of Christmases and Midsummers, hard frosts and scorching summer days; berries ripened, leaves fell, migrating birds came and went, elk were shot in the forests.
      But in the two-roomed apartment on Iso Roobertinkatu, time stood still.
      Every now and then a bit of post would be added to the pile, as someone tried in vain to reach the deceased.
      In the space of nearly three years, eleven garbage sacks' worth of mail and papers were delivered.
There was scarcely likely to be anything growing fur in the refrigerator, as there was seldom anything much in the fridge, but there might have been some tubs of ice-cream tucked away in the freezer.
      The man apparently was particularly fond of Pietarsaari ice- cream, and on one occasion he had lived through Christmas on ice-cream alone.
Nobody missed the dead man, and in life that was exactly how he wanted it.
      He was free, single, and a recluse.
      He did not want or seek out a community, a gang, a group to which he could belong. He loathed carers and the people from the social services department.
      He had no close relatives. His mother had lived a few blocks away, but she, too, had died a couple of years earlier.
      Sometimes his mother had had fits of anxiety, and would call him several times a day. In the end, the man arranged to have caller-ID installed on his phone and he just didn't pick up.
He had no brothers or sisters. His father had died when he was four months old, and the boy had been brought up by his mother and his grandmother.
      He was from a wealthy Jewish family, but his father's textile factory in Helsinki's Kamppi district had gone into liquidation and bankruptcy, and the family had fallen on hard times.
      Fortunately there was the cushion of a number of apartment properties that they owned, just like this one on Iso Roobertinkatu.
      He had nothing to do with the rest of the broader family. As far as he was concerned, they led such a different life from his that he had no desire to mix with them.
Had the man always been alone? No, not exactly. In his youth he even got interested in dancing the samba.
      In the early 1980s he danced in the nightclub in Hotel Hesperia.
      It is very hard to conceive of him in a place like that.
      By training he was a graduate engineer. His dissertation work concerned the ergonomics of the keyboard for car-phones - don't forget that the mobile was still waiting in the wings at that time.
      He had graduated at an opportune moment, when there should have been a fair bit of work to be had, but for one reason or another he never managed to secure a permanent position, and it began to get him down.
      The young engineer became a piece worker on fixed-term contracts even then, long before it became the norm it is today: he was given projects to perform, some of them quite challenging ones.
When times got worse, he was made redundant.
      Then there were spells of retraining. He trained himself to work in IT-support, and moved from one short-term job to the next.
      His job history was ragged about the edges, but in this way he preserved a measure of independence. This for him was more important than a permanent job.
      At the places where he did work, he was apparently quite sociable, and even led training courses and seminars. Nobody would have guessed that he was a complete hermit in his private life.
      He was not a misanthropist in the classical mould: he just wasn't terribly interested in other people.
      It was not that he was incapable of forming human relationships - he could have done it if he had wanted to.
Over the years, the man had had at least two relationships with women, but he had never allowed anyone into his life.
      It rolled on like a freight train: he lived in his little apartment, he never moved, he never travelled.
      In actual fact he HAD once been to Sweden, but it did not inspire any great interest: he felt that things there were much of a muchness with life in Finland.
      He would not set foot in the countryside. He was a barefoot scion of the capital, born and raised there, and was comfortable only in Helsinki and its downtown area.
The far end of Iso Roobertinkatu, heading west into Punavuori, suited him fine.
      There the street becomes quieter and more intimate.
      There are a lot of small boutiques, bars, cafés, porno shops, tattoo parlours, antiquarian bookstores, and so on. It is a part of town that is populated by all sorts, and tolerates all sorts in its turn.
      Even though Punavuori is still pretty much in the centre of Helsinki, the traffic noise at that end of the street is not so oppressive. The walls in the old buildings are thick, and he was not troubled by rowdy sounds from the neighbours.
      This last was very important. The deceased had very sensitive ears, and he avoided situations with a lot of noise. The world of sound also interested him: he had formerly been a member of the Acoustical Society of Finland.
The apartment remained unchanged over the decades. Old, inherited furniture: a cupboard, two armchairs, bookshelves, a glass coffee-table, a television.
      Everything in the place was meticulously arranged - knives and forks arranged in the drawers according to size - but even while he was alive the place began to be covered in a thin layer of dust.
      It was important that things were always precisely in the same place and that the world was firmly under control.
      Home was his walled-and-moated world of security against the chaos that was going on outside. Nobody was going to be allowed over the drawbridge.
      He wanted to be alone.This meant freedom to him - and yet in the end it became a prison for him, a tower in which he walled himself up.
Finland is a place where you can be alone: people hereabouts respect the privacy of others.
      One doesn't go deliberately to sit next to someone, one doesn't strike up conversations with perfect strangers on a whim, one doesn't spread out picnic blankets or put up tents obtrusively close to someone else.
      One can withdraw from other people's company, there is no obligation to make conversation in the sauna, or polite chit-chat from the back seat of a taxi.
      The idea of a shared hotel-room or student bed-sit is a source of horror for many these days.
      Many have moved to the big city in order to be alone, without peering neighbours, without local gossip behind net curtains. In a big city it can be done.
Finland has always had its share of rural hermits, often doubling as the village idiot or the local eccentric, and they have been left alone to live in peace.
      Then when one day they are found dead by the postman or the meter-reader, the people living round about do not go beating their breasts and worrying about guilt and "what should we have done" - the deceased had lived the life he or she always wanted.
      But hermits living in a big city are another matter altogether. We have yet to come to terms with the phenomenon, and this is the reason it makes news and causes people to ask if it "could have been prevented", or if it is a reflection of our readiness to let the welfare nanny-state take on all social responsibilities for us, including "love thy neighbour".
But the urban hermit is a growing trend. According to the police, the discovery of someone who has been lying dead for some months is almost a weekly occurrence
      Housing co-ops have the jitters over mental cases among their residents: in many apartment blocks there are are fearful people holed up behind deadbolts in their own home, refusing to answer the phone, not daring to open the door, and unable to go out even as far as the garbage bins to take away the refuse.
      Curiously enough, there is a case just like this right now in the very same building where the 54-year-old man was found dead.
But the hermit of Punavuori was different.
      He did not hide behind four walls, but walked - long walks - night and day around Helsinki.
      And nearly every day he would go to the public sauna in Helsinki's Kallio district.
      So he did on occasion seek the company of others, when he was among naked, easily accessible people with no labels around their necks.
      He hardly ever bothered to cook for himself. The fridge was almost always nearly empty.
      In downtown Helsinki he would grab a pizza or a salad. At the same time he could pick up a video - he was a regular at the local video rentals place. Apparently one of his favourites was the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar.
The days passed - and the nights. The man's strange sleeping rhythm pulled him further and further from the world outside.
      At night he couldn't sleep, and he might stay awake two or three days on end, and then perhaps sleep through another day or two.
      The hands of the clock began to have increasingly little significance. It was often late at night that he would set off for his walks.
      Time had in fact stood still in the apartment long before the man's heart stopped beating and the newspapers started piling up.
      There are no entries in the calendar. No celebrations, no parties, no recognition even of his having turned fifty.
      As a Jew he did not of course celebrate Christmas; the days were all the same as any others.
      His Jewishness did not extend to any religious zeal, and he had no burning passion for the history of the Holocaust. He was one of those secular Jews like one finds in New York, or at least from the pages of novels or the cinema screen.
The sleepless nights must have been dreadful.
      They must have felt endless in that little apartment that looked the same from one year to the next.
      A view to the street below from a bay window. Maybe a video to watch.
      But he was not unhappy with the life he led. He had chosen this and gone for it.
      He did not want to belong to anything, but wanted to be left in peace.
      And he was.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 9.3.2008

ILKKA MALMBERG / Helsingin Sanomat

  11.3.2008 - THIS WEEK
 Life and death of an urban recluse

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