I figured out later he wasn’t as old as he looked. His face had just formed deep lines before its time from years of drinking. I first caught a glimpse of him when I moved in, but it was weeks before we spoke. I’d qualified for a city owned rent-controlled apartment after becoming a single mum. He lived directly above me in what I imagined was an identical place to mine: a studio with a small kitchenette and one window, which looked out to the road. When I sat on the toilet I could hear everything that went on upstairs as an echo through the pipes. Most of the time he was arguing with his wife, but sometimes I heard jazz music and laughter.
I assumed his apartment was city owned as well, though this was right around the time when they began to integrate people like us in to ‘normal’ buildings. Instead of creating a large number of welfare housing in one area, the city acquired apartments in a number of buildings across town and scattered us less fortunate people all over the city. I was told it was an attempt to eliminate ghettos from taking shape, but we just became the outcasts within better areas. Everyone knew where we really belonged.
Most of the other residents avoided Ahonen. That’s how I came to know him, by his surname. I knew it would be wisest for me to avoid him as well, but I was a young mum back then and scared shitless at having to face the world on my own. Also, he was often sitting outside smoking on the front step when I came home. He would hold the hallway door open so I could get the pram in without trouble. There was meant to be a doorstop by the steps, but it had been broken off and never got repaired in the time I lived in the building. Ahonen’s wife was in a wheelchair and though I didn’t see her much, the times I did he was wheeling her in or out and I, in turn, held the door open for him.
I’d known some mean drunks in my life, like our next-door neighbour when I was little. That neighbour got a kick out of scaring us kids and once, beaten up and bloodfaced, rang our doorbell. When I opened the door I found him lying on the landing. He reached his arm out and grabbed the side of the door, beginning to drag himself in, laughing like a maniac. I ran inside and screamed. My mother was out, my father not around anymore, but my sister was home, and somehow she managed to unhook his fingers.
I wanted to believe that Ahonen was more like my father, who’d just fucked things up too many times in life to live with himself and eventually drank himself to death. The way Ahonen looked down at his shoes while he sat on the step unless he lifted his eyes up to talk to me; I could feel he didn’t have a mean streak in him.
We talked for the first time one night when I slipped outside after I’d put the baby to sleep. I’d lived in the building for a month or two by then and been trying hard not to smoke. But then I began taking the diaper rubbish out at night and sitting down for a cigarette for a few minutes more of life outside the apartment. It was like a reward at the end of the day, me-time. It was late summer, so the nights were already dark but still warm enough to sit out in. Ahonen appeared on the step and lit up.
‘You’re a bit young for a mother,’ he said.
I avoided answering.
‘How come I never hear baby cry?’
I was standing further away by the rubbish shelter, patting my pockets to find a light, and still didn’t answer. Looking back I realise how strangely quiet my firstborn was, he really hardly cried, but I didn’t know any different then.
‘Here, I don’t bite,’ Ahonen said.
He was holding a lighter up in the air. I walked closer to him and reached for it, but he pulled it back just as I was about to grab it and laughed, then passed it back towards me.
‘Really funny,’ I said and sat down next to him. It was exactly the kind of joke my father would have made.
Ahonen told me not be so serious. ‘Life’s a shit show most of the time, you got to laugh when you can.’
Then he reached into his inside pocket and produced a flask. He offered it to me first before taking it to his lips after I shook my head. I could hear a tram passing by on the street on the other side of the building, but apart from that it was quiet.
‘Where’s baby daddy?’
He didn’t ask any more questions so we just sat beside each other inhaling nicotine, Ahonen every now and again bringing the flask to his lips. Then I said good night and went back in. The baby was still asleep when I crawled into bed.
I hadn’t realised I was pregnant until I was so far along it was too late to do anything else but have it. I’d slept with a guy at a friend of a friend’s party, but he pulled out and came all over my stomach. I had no idea I could still get pregnant. The rest of the night he avoided me and the next morning when everyone woke hung-over from different corners of the house, he hooked his arm around another girl and pretended not to know me. I thought about getting in touch with him once my stomach was big and round, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. It’s not like he had a job or anything so he wouldn’t have been able to pay child support.
My mother didn’t want me in her house after she found out. I’d been at a home for young mums for the last few months of my pregnancy and the first three of baby’s life before I got the apartment. I’d been one of the oldest at the home, so I couldn’t stay for much longer. They said I was old enough to care for baby on my own. But I didn’t want to be a mum back then and the baby felt like some strange animal I was forced to look after. When I went to show him to my mother she took one glance at him and said I’d made my bed so I should lie in it. She was not going to be a babysitter. My sister had already moved away.
While I was at the home I was paired with a volunteer doula who taught me how to change nappies and how to breastfeed, came to hold my hand at birth. She was the kindest person I’d ever met and told me she’d had her first at nineteen as well and studied later in life. Now she was a professor of some kind at the university, had done real well for herself. She told me to focus on what I wanted for mine and baby’s future, not on what we didn’t yet have.
I still attended a support group five days a week and it was when I came back from there that I usually found Ahonen sitting on the front step. Once I found him asleep, or passed out really. I watched another neighbour come out of the hallway and step over him, like he was a pile of rubbish. I should’ve said something to that person then, but I didn’t. I parked the pram – the baby was asleep anyway – and got some water from my place to splash on Ahonen’s face. When he woke I helped him inside. His wife was home and pissed with him, but I could tell she was pretty much as out if it as he was.
After that he seemed to clean up a bit. He came by to thank me for helping him the following day and instead of sipping on his flask in the evenings, for a week or so he sat there trying to stop his hands from shaking while he smoked. Our evening chats became a regular thing. I suspected he listened for the sound of my door closing in the hallway when I went out, because by the time I’d dumped the rubbish he’d usually appear outside.
‘You should really stop smoking,’ he said as I lit up by the rubbish bins.
I walked back towards him as he settled on the step. He was finding it hard to stay sitting up. I stood further away.
‘You’re one to talk,’ I said.
‘Damn right… there’s something I’m an expert in it’s addiction.’ He laughed like it was the cleverest thing he’d ever said.
‘Have you had a big day?’ I asked.
He nodded his head in short jolts, like someone who was trying not to fall asleep.
‘It’s the anniversary,’ he said.
He shook his head without lifting his gaze.
‘Nope. Not that kind of anniversary. Not that kind.’
I didn’t say anything and then he told me about his kid, and how his wife had ended up in the wheelchair. And about his father who had been one of those mean drunks.
‘She would’ve been about your age now, my girl,’ he said to me. ‘Don’t fuck your life up like I did.’
I let out a huff, not because I thought his words were worth nothing, it was more of an attempt to make him feel better about himself, to sympathise, tell him we were in the same boat. He leaned in, took my face in his hands and said: ‘Promise me you’ll look after that kid of yours.’
I could see the black around the bottom of his teeth as he spoke. His breath smelled like the decomposing rat I once found as a kid hanging from a tree – someone had tied a string on its tail, and it swung in the air, half rotten.
Later that night I woke to the doorbell. I knew it was Ahonen before I got up. I didn’t want him to wake the baby.
‘The wife won’t let me in,’ he said.
He was slurring his words, speaking through the mail slot.
‘I can’t help you with that,’ I said without opening the door.
‘Let me in.’
I didn’t answer.
‘At least let me use your phone?’
After a pause I slipped the security chain on and opened the door just a crack. Ahonen slipped his arm in and wriggled it in the air, trying to find something to hold on to, like he was drowning and reaching for something to grab.
‘Let me in,’ he said.
I stood further back from the door while I waited for him to calm down. When he pulled his arm back I inched closer, looked at him through the crack and told him to be quiet or he’d get us both in trouble. But he wriggled his arm back in and pulled on my t-shirt with such power that I knocked my face on the side of the door and my nose began to bleed. I panicked and slipped behind the door, tried to push it shut but his arm was still between it and he let out a yelp, then pulled it away reflexively. I slammed the door shut.
‘Bitch!’ he called and banged the door. ‘You nearly broke my arm!’
I didn’t realise then that he hadn’t meant to hurt me; don’t think he even knew he had. He carried on ringing the doorbell and calling me names on the other side of the door. Someone opened their door further up in the hall and told him to shut up, but he carried on.
The baby was crying now so I rushed to him holding a towel I’d grabbed from the toilet to my nose. It was hard to get the baby to latch on while trying to hold my head up. My nipples were rough and raw from all the feeding and finally I felt the familiar sting as he began to eagerly gulp. I reached for the phone on the bedside table and curled the cord around my finger. I rocked back and forth, trying to get the baby back to sleep. Ahonen rang the doorbell again and I decided to dial the non-emergency number for the cops. My nose had stopped bleeding, but I didn’t move until I heard him being escorted out of the hallway.
A month or so passed and I didn’t see Ahonen. Then one day when I got home at my usual time, his stuff was being carried out of the apartment. He was not around, but an old woman from the first floor who was heading for a walk with her miniature poodle told me that he’d got his third warning and had been kicked out. She’d never talked to me before, but now she seemed eager to share the news.
‘Was about time we got rid of him,’ the woman said. Her dog came up to me for a pat but she yanked it back with the lead.
I parked the pram outside again and left the baby sleeping in it while I took the lift to the third floor. Ahonen’s door was open and I had to move out of the way of the removal guys who were carrying out a mattress. I knocked on the door, called his name, but there was no reply. I wasn’t brave enough to walk in.
The hallway door was propped open by a box. The baby woke when I moved the pram inside and when I lifted him up he smiled at me for the first time. I kissed him on the forehead and told him mum would always look after him. That night when I went out after the baby was asleep there was a bunch of roses on the front step, not ones you buy from a florist, but those that grow in the park behind the building.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Petra Emilia Nyman is a Finnish-born writer who lives in Ōtautahi / Christchurch. She has a soft spot for the underdog and in her work often examines complicated human relationships. She completed her MA in Creative Writing at the IIML in 2020.