On being chased out of a Helsinki graveyard by a squirrel
Have I ever told you about the time that I was chased out of a Helsinki graveyard by a squirrel? If so, stop reading now, because the rest of this describes the time I was chased out of a Helsinki graveyard by a squirrel. I think you will find it a tale that is at once strange, unnerving and – perhaps most of all – deeply boring. It is also, in every detail, perfectly true.
I went to Helsinki for a wedding. My friend and employer Robert Taylor was marrying his Finnish wife*, Tinka Tschamurov (she was keen to marry him in order to make her name sound more like the beginning of a children’s rhyme).
The night before my flight I did not sleep, but stayed up all night to hit a deadline for editing a big publication for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister**. I enjoyed the money I was paid for this, but the work was awful and – it turned out – pointless. The publication had been written by lots of different civil servants, which meant it was baffling. The civil service exclusively employs people who write either like a) functional illiterates or b) people who have been asked to do a parody of Henry James (but without actually having read anything by Henry James).
Every so often a person high up in the civil service thinks it would be nice if normal people could understand what civil servants write, and then someone like me is brought in to translate their stuff into Normalese. Unfortunately, in this case the civil servants who had originally written it were allowed to decide which of our changes they wanted to keep and which to throw away. The problem with this is that the functional illiterates have no idea whether the chanje wot hav bin made are corect and the Henry Jameses cleave and hold fast to their preference for clauses, phrases and extended verbal strings, used singly or in combination, nested, fastly thicketed and thickly interwoven, which may, and indeed have, been described as i) dense; ii) verbose; and iii) prolix; according to the accepted definitions of these words and combinations of words wheresoever they may be found or located.
But none of this is getting me any closer to the Helsinki graveyard.
I arrived in Helsinki at about four in the afternoon, having been awake since eight the previous morning. I knew that if I sat around at the hotel then I would wake with a start at two in the morning and wouldn’t be able to sleep again until exactly the time the wedding started, so I decided to keep myself awake till bedtime by walking around Helsinki.
In the summer Helsinki is light for about 22 hours a day, with an hour for dusk and another for dawn, and the darkness in between lasts about as long as it takes to turn off the TV when Anne Robinson is on. The daylight there is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before: everything is so clear and bright that it somehow doesn’t look real. It feels like you’re walking around a holo-deck looking at a computer-generated city. I found myself trying to catch it out by turning my head suddenly or looking at the underneath of unlikely things, thinking that perhaps they’d just be a mass of unprocessed ones and zeros. I never caught it out: those Finns are damned thorough, I’ll say that for them.
Anyway I was walking around (Christ, I haven’t even got to the graveyard yet) when I came upon a pleasant, lightly treed (is treed a word?) expanse of grass that sloped gently uphill and promised great views of the city. I went in and soon surmised (because of the gravestones dotted about) that this was a graveyard (at last, we’ve reached the graveyard). Nevertheless, (Are there too many brackets in this bit? Perhaps I should go back and delete some? (No, don’t do it yet – press on.)) I pressed on with my walk. It was the least densely populated graveyard I’ve ever seen. There were no people there at all, except presumably for the dead ones, and even they had plenty of space. In London unscrupulous developers would have pressurised some of them into selling, and the place would be dotted with tiny towers of luxury executive residences. But, this being Helsinki, it was entirely unspoiled.
I was on the lookout for something that might tell me what the graveyard was called and what was going on, so when I found a big noticeboard, with a map, opening times and whatnot, I seized upon it like a man who hasn’t slept for a long time finding some information about the graveyard he’s wandered into. I couldn’t entirely understand what it was trying to tell me, partly because I was so tired and partly because it was written in Finnish. But having made sense of the civil servants I was sure I could deal with Finnish, so I stared at the noticeboard for quite some time. The blue denoted water, the green was clearly grass, and the Finnish numbers seemed to correspond almost exactly to our own English numbers. I felt I was making headway.
However, at that moment I spotted something – or rather someone – out of the corner of my eye. That someone was standing beside me. Ostensibly he was also looking at the noticeboard, but it was clear from his demeanour that he was more interested in sizing me up. His body was turned toward me, and his quick unnerving eyes glanced over at me every second or two. He was by far the largest, the blackest-eyed and the reddest squirrel I have ever seen in my life.
I tried to pretend that I hadn’t noticed him, but we both knew that I had. I glanced away, but when I looked back again I saw that he had turned to face me square on. I boldly turned to face him. After all, what had I to fear from a giant, brave red squirrel who had no compunction at all about looking me dead in the eye? Just as I was contemplating the answer to that question, the squirrel took three deliberate steps toward me, stood on his rear legs, raised himself to his full height and flexed his arms like a bodybuilder, keeping his eyes fixed on me the whole time. I realised, with a flush of shame, that I was being intimidated by a squirrel.
I’m the sort of person who needs a largeish amount of personal space around me in order to feel comfortable, and we were standing very close together by this point, so I took a step back. The squirrel immediately stepped forward. I took another step back. Again he stepped forward to make up the distance. Another pair of steps were taken in our diabolical dance and I realised I was being driven steadily back. We now stood beside a flight of steps leading upward into a raised section of the graveyard – higher and darker, thick with trees and bushes.
I saw that it was a bad idea to keep on taking backward steps. It made it seem as though I were retreating from him. So I took half a step forward. The squirrel also took half a step forward, bringing us toe to toe. A vicious knowing glint was alight in his eye: this was just what he had wanted me to do. He was playing me like a spoon.
Backward and forward steps were clearly not working for me. What I needed was a new tactic. I needed to stop concentrating on the squirrel and just enjoy my walk in the park (it was a park after all, though one used to store dead people). I put my hands in my pockets and nonchalantly stepped up the stairs. I was contemplating whistling a merry air. But before I was even halfway up, the squirrel suddenly leapt onto the bannister rail, skipped lightly along it until he was level with me and then launched himself at my crotch.
I can still, all these years*** later, feel those rodent feet of his scrabbling for purchase on the front of my trousers. For several seconds he clung on, but I was wearing my stoutest travelling jeans and the thick cloth was impervious to his yellow claws. He fell and scurried back down the stairs. I was pretty badly shaken. What do you do when a large red squirrel who looks like he’s a CGI special effect is pawing at your fly in a secluded area of a graveyard in Scandinavia? ‘Be prepared’ has always been my motto****, but I’m afraid I had neglected this scenario.
I hurried on to the top of the steps. Ahead of me the path forked into two paths*****. I paused. Into the entrance to the left-hand path stepped the squirrel. ‘How has he got here before me?’ I gibbered stoically. He stopped, fixed me with his black, black eye, reared on his hind legs and again flexed his arms in that same body-builder stance. I may, at this point have made a sound. Perhaps something like a squeak. Not a squeak of terror, obviously, just a perfectly ordinary squeak.
Then I looked behind me, back down the stairs, and saw that I had been wrong. The squirrel that had scrabbled at my fly was on the bottom stair. As I watched, he hopped calmly up one step, then another. The squirrel on the path in front of me reared and flexed again. Behind him I noticed another squirrel, larger and darker. He absolutely did not heft between his paws a length of rubber hose filled with lead shot, but he somehow gave that impression. If there was a razor-sharp bicycle chain hidden anywhere in that clump of trees, that third squirrel certainly knew where it was. If I had gone to a rough squirrel pub to buy a gun, that third squirrel was definitely the one I would have asked my friend to talk to. The third squirrel lumbered closer, barging the one in front with his chest so that he too moved closer to me.
At this point I gave a squeak incontrovertibly of terror, and I ran as fast as I could possibly go along the right-hand path, through the bush at the end of it, around the trees that enclosed the knoll and down the hill, towards the water, not stopping until I felt gravel beneath my feet and saw the odd looks of the people sailing boats in the little graveyard harbour.
I’ve now looked on Google Maps, having begun to doubt myself that there could be a gigantic deserted graveyard in Helsinki, run by squirrels and with its own harbour. But it’s all just as I remembered. The name of it is Hietaniemi, and this site [http://dolbyarun.com/blog/a-day-in-the-graveyard/] has pictures of the terrifying squirrels, including the one at the top of this post doing his bodybuilding stance. I have added the person to give you a better idea of the scale.
* At that time she was not his wife but only his fiancée, I think, or perhaps just a very serious girlfriend. Whatever the case, it was clear even then that one day they would get married.
** A department which no longer exists. If it did I would keep quiet about how shit it was.
**** It hasn’t.
***** I’m sure forked is the right word, though I’ve never seen a fork with fewer than four prongs.