'Finland.’ Saul said.
Had I known I’d be hitching home alone on this deserted foreign road, I’d never have agreed.
Instead, I asked, ‘Why Finland?’
‘Why fookin’ not.’ Saul snapped.
My brother’s unexploded missile impression was wearing thin. If me or Mum tried discussing what happened, he lost it. Shouting. Doors slamming. Playing AC/DC at deafening decibels. They’d turned my loveable, funny big brother into a monosyllabic psycho cyborg.
Suddenly, he’s old sunny Saul. ‘Sorry bro. Please come. We’ll hike in the forests.
Forage. Sauna. Skinny dip.’
I hated outdoor shit that once defined Saul, but agreed cos it might help.
We were met at Helsinki airport by two blonde Vikings who drove on endless car-free roads to a forest cabin beside a glassy lake. It was nearly midnight but still light.
The lads lit the smoke sauna and showed us how to feed it with logs piled behind the cabin Saul called a ‘billet’.
‘I had a Finnish mate,’ Saul’s voice ricocheted into the woodland silence. ‘Told me he’d been born in a sauna.’
‘Cool,’ replied a Viking.
‘Surely the opposite,’ I smirked. The Vikings laughed. Saul didn’t.
They left supplies, mostly pickled stuff and Vodka, and reminded us there was no mobile signal. ‘Understood,’ said Saul. ‘No comms. Just us.’
‘Whatever,’ I yawned, eyeing bunkbeds. ‘Can we turn in?’
‘Sleep when you’re dead bro. Let’s make like the Finns and sauna’.
He stripped, discarding clothes across the floor. I’d not seen him naked since his return. Ignoring my intake of breath, he limped outside, slapping midges from his scarred shoulders. Like when we were kids, I trailed after him.
The womblike sooty sauna smelt of pinecones. Ladling water across sizzling, glowering coals, steam rose. It felt like being casseroled.
Filtered through a window, weak moonbeams, or sunshine, glinted on Saul’s engineered metal. Beads of sweat, like bloated ticks, slalomed through his chest hair. ‘Aalto, that Finnish mate I met in the trenches said telling ghost stories in the sauna was traditional. Wanna hear one he told me?’
His tale was vile. A murdered child left to rot in the forest longed to return home to his mother. The putrid corpse rose and clinging to a passing beggar’s back, urged him onward. Faltering beneath his soul-consuming load, the beggar threw himself and his dreadful parasite into the lake.
‘I saw kids die.’ Saul whispered. ‘And Aalto, blown to bits by a mine.’
He rose awkward on bionic legs and pushed open the door. I followed his roiling gait down a jetty bisecting the mercurial lake. A swooping owl hooted.
‘Aalto’s ghost perhaps,’ he mumbled, settling with difficulty on the jetty edge.
He sat silent. Then calmly tipped forward into the water.
‘Saul,’ I screamed, plunging in. Heart stopping icy water. Strangling weeds. Sucking mud. I searched for hours but Saul’s metal limbs anchored him to unfathomable, unreachable inky depths.
Won’t someone please drive down this desolate road and save me - like I couldn’t save Saul.