“I’M SURROUNDED BY PYGMIES,” Dr Finkel informed me, “And you are the biggest pygmy of all.” Was there the hint of a compliment? “Ever since I can remember I longed to be a concert violinist. The idea I’d end up being a bloody psychiatrist never even entered my head.” He was pacing up and down the consulting room. “I yearned to spend all my days practising violin, in the vain hope I might be able to play Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto in D major with the all dexterity of David Oistrakh, one day. Marvellous, absolutely marvellous.” He gazed longingly into space for a moment. “What a genius.” But only for a moment. “Now, all I get to listen to is a bunch of lunatics, whinging about their dads and how they made them wet their beds. ‘My dad was a tyrant! My dad was a tyrant!’ they go and on. One damned malcontent after the other. If any of you want to know what a real tyrant is like, you should’ve met my father. Too late now. He was a tyrant, all right. If it weren’t for him I would’ve studied violin at the conservatoire in Vienna. Bloody Vienna. These days, every time I think of Vienna, it reminds me of Freud. When I used to think of Vienna, I used to think of Mozart.”
“Vienna always reminds me of cakes,” I said. Having recently discovered passive aggressive behaviour, I’d become a firm adherent of the art.
“Cakes?” The word stirred Dr Finkel out of his reverie and into mine.
“They have the most wonderful patisseries in Vienna. I could stare in their windows for hours. Lots of cakes. Full of chocolate, strawberries and fresh-whipped cream. Mmm.” Probably a bit too passive, a bit more aggression was needed.
“I’m talking about Mozart, and you’re talking about whipped-cream and chocolate?” Still, it seemed to work.
“Yes, amazing, isn’t it? Amazing, how colourful and infinitely varied our conversations are.” Dr Finkel’s face reddened. The veins in his neck began to bulge. Definite signs he should steer well clear of chocolate and whipped-cream cakes. He also ought to watch his blood pressure.
The summer after my mother went down to the lake, never to return, grandfather takes me to the island of Værøy in the Lofotens. We stay in a fisherman’s hut by the harbour. I spy the fishermen come down to look at their boats each morning, and each evening. They don’t set out to sea much in summer. It’s not the season, grandfather tells me.
As regular as clockwork, two fishermen come to the quay where we are staying. One old, the other middle-aged. They never come together, but sometimes exchange grunts about the weather when their paths cross. Each has a boat moored at our quay. When not messing about aboard them they stand and stare out at sea and sky. I can’t see what’s so fascinating to look at, as so little seems to change. Apart from the weather. Maybe they aren’t looking at anything. Maybe there’s a smell on the air, or something. There’s certainly a very strong stink of fish about the place. Grandafather says what else can you expect living in a fishermen’s hut.
He tells me the older fisherman is retired, yet can’t stop going out to sea. One day, grandfather asks him if he likes fish. Seems a stupid question. Then what do I know, I’m just a boy.
“Hardly ever eat it,” comes the old fisherman’s unexpected reply. He prefers meat. He explains a lifetime of being forced by poverty to eat fish, made him grow to dislike it. And yet he still can’t give up fishing. It’s in his blood. He chooses his days carefully. He won’t go out even if there’s hardly enough of a breeze to ruffle his wispy hair.
“Too windy,” he says to my grandfather most days. My grandfather nods his head in agreement.
“It’s too windy,” he says to me.
“What’s the point in risking your life at sea when you’re as old as I am?” the old fisherman says. For him, those days are over. “Haven’t got so much life left to waste. Only fools go out to sea in bad weather if they don’t have to.” My grandfather nods his head again.
Most fishermen that do go out set sail in the evenings, while we are there. North of the Arctic Circle you can fish at midnight in midsummer. The light is almost that of broad day. They don’t catch much; they don’t stay out long enough.
The old fisherman supplements his pension by drying the few cod he catches and selling them to the islanders. Occasionally, he gives a freshly caught codling to us.
“One for the pot,” he says, tossing the glistening fish across to my grandfather. My grandfather nods his thanks. In the north of Norway people are never effusive in giving thanks. That’s for southerners.
That my grandfather is a farmer and the old man is a fisherman gives them mutual respect. They are at an age they have nothing to prove. Sometimes, the old fisherman stops for a longer chat while exercising his little dog. The dog usually appears first, yapping loudly, as it scampers after the feral cats and kittens that live by the quayside. They flee, this way and that, beneath the fishermen’s huts suspended on piles of stones. And then the old fisherman comes into view. He joins my grandfather and they sit on a wooden bench for a smoke. Mostly, they talk about the German occupation. It’s almost as though they miss it. The war is inextricably tied up with youth in their eyes. During the war, they speak of, they were both young.
The middle-aged fisherman hardly speaks at all. He sometime drives up in a battered, old Peugeot and sits inside rolling a cigarette. Then he gets out, lights the cigarette, and examines the sea and sky. He still fishes for a living.
Some days, he strolls down to the quay with his wife. She looks like a witch to me. She has a gimpy leg and a cast in one eye. She wears glasses with one lens so thick it makes her left eyeball look as though it might pop out at any moment. I know she can see into my soul with that eye, and try to avoid its mesmeric gaze. The couple uses one of the neighbouring fishermen’s huts to prepare their fish for drying. Nothing is wasted. The entrails are fed to the cats and kittens. There must be twenty or thirty living beneath the huts. Grandfather tells me they are very important to the fishermen.
“If it wasn’t for the cats there’d be a plague of rats,” he says. They all look too skinny to me, and so very frightened. They run away as soon as anybody gets anywhere near them. I can’t see how they can put up much of a fight against a decent-sized rat. Manyof them have damaged paws and limp. It doesn’t seem like much of a life when I think of the pampered existence of grandmother’s tabby.
The middle-aged fisherman and his wife both have greasy hair. They greet my grandfather whenever they see him. They are kind to the cats, and the woman seems to have a particular fondness for the kittens, but she won’t stroke or touch them. When I ask my grandfather why, he tells me it doesn’t pay to get fond of working animals. If you get too fond of them you begin to spoil them, and then they have no reason to go out killing rats.
“But why do they want them to kill the rats?” I ask.
“It’s what cats do,” he laughs, and tells me the rats will eat all the drying cod if the cats don’t kill them. I ask why the cats don’t eat all the drying cod, instead of catching rats. He laughs even more and shakes his head.
“I hadn’t really thought of that one,” he says. “But it seems the cats have struck up an alliance with the fishermen against the rats, and as long as the fishermen give them only just enough fish to stay alive, the cats will make up the shortfall by killing the rats.”
“And what about the gulls?” I ask.
“What about the gulls?” he says. I stare, my face full of question.
“Why don’t the cats kill the gulls?”
“The gulls dine on fish scraps, and any other old rubbish they find.”
I set to wondering. The island, the fish, the gulls, the rats and the cats. It says something about life itself. I can’t figure it out. I’m too young. And the fishermen, to this day I can’t forget the two fishermen.
I’m crossing the road. Something’s wrong. I know instinctively. Turning my head, the chrome grill, the headlamps. A shadow behind the driving wheel. At first, I think he’s slowing down, and then I see he’s speeding up. In that moment, my body freezes and he hits me.
I’ve had the same recurring vision since childhood. It started as a premonition but, at some point in time, it became a flashback. I’m sure I mentioned this somewhere before. They’re exactly the same, both premonition and flashback. I’m always in the same place.
It begins with me walking down a road. The road is empty. On either side there are small houses, blocks of flats, shops and offices. It’s in the suburbs, perhaps, because there’s lots of space between the buildings. They nearly all have car parks or gardens. It could be a town or city anywhere in Norway. There’s a McDonald’s, a garden centre, and a takeaway pizza. In the distance there’s a Rimi supermarket. I reach a pedestrian crossing, and see a car approaching. Too far away to worry about, it’s travelling at normal speed.
The premonition and the flashback, they’re always the same in every detail, so ordinary, everything looks so normal. The winter sun hangs low but shines bright; bare black trees silhouetted against it. Just as everything always is in winter. The only difference between the premonition and the flashback is, sandwiched somewhere between, the real event took place. The car knocked me down. I have the injuries to prove it. Otherwise, it would just be a recurring premonition. Or a dream. Yet I can’t quite place the exact point the premonitions stopped, the accident happened, and the flashbacks began. It shouldn’t really matter, but for some reason it does. Which is which, when they’re all exactly the same? Are some of the flashbacks premonitions? Or is that too absurd?
A low humming rouses me from deep sleep. My sticky eyelids part. A tented interior flickers to life in the soft glow of a log fire. Long splayed branches wrapped by deerskins stretch up from rock-hard ice to meet above my head. I am in a lavu, a Sami tepee. I am boy.
Exaggerated by firelight, shadows waver, as branches and hide begin to form the ribcage of a great whale in my childish mind. I am Jonah swallowed.
Upwards and inwards the slender branches bow, striving to part, one from the other, eventually yielding into a reluctant triumph of gothic arches. The vaulted roof of a cathedral. I am blessed and pure. There, where the flames yearn to reach, branches poke this way and that, like spindly witches’ fingers, like crossroads leading nowhere, into the small patch of velvet blackness that is night.
Strands of blue haze rise as restless veils of gossamer stirred by draught, drawn out of confinity, into the endless universe beyond. Hearth to heaven, earth to heaven, into the black velvet studded with pinpricks of glittering ice diamonds. And in that vast dark vacuum, of which I can see just a tiny part, three pure white crystals shine out from the rest. Equidistant, and of equal brilliance, Noush, Anoush and Nuvard, as I call them, gaze down from the heavens to look over me.
Darkened forms flicker and dance as the golden firelight chases them about the lavu. In the centre, an old man crouches before the flames, his high cheekbones rendered sinister by the proximity of their glare. He hums softly to himself. A strange, nasal hum that emanates from the depths his chest, resounds inside his bony skull, before he finally parts his lips to release the chant that is the song of the Samis. Joiking, as old as the North itself.
Deep and full, his chant rises with the woodsmoke to fill the lavu till tautened hide and branch resonate as a giant drum. Instrument and orchestra, he, and all around him, are made one.
Wave upon wave the restless tide of joiking comes, sailing across aeons of time. Without recognisable words or structure, his chants convey more than any language. They are both inside and outside of him. They are the very soul of the land.
On them is the story of a people who have roamed the northern wastes since the beginning. They echo the endless snowy emptiness outside. On them are carried sounds of gale and snow, the howl of wolf, the call of deer, the eternal day of summer, the endless winter night. On them are borne the still grey lakes, the calls of waterfowl, the trumpeting geese as they head south. On his ululation is the susurrus of sledge rail on snow, the rock hard lichen covered with first frost cracking beneath footsteps, the hum of myriad mosquitoes, the first sight of bloody sun to herald the coming spring, when the snows melt and the tundra breaks out in a soft carpet of tiny coloured flowers. On them, the wind whistling through the lavu at night, the steady sound of reindeer chomping, bells clanging. In his mantra are all these things and more. On and on the timeless calls well and rise from deep inside him, and I feel a strange comfort come over me, as I pull my bearskin cover further up to my chin, and snuggle down into its warmth.
The polished pewter clasps of the old man’s blue felt tunic glisten in the fire glow. He wears a four-cornered hat fashioned from blue felt and embroidered bands of red, white, blue, and green. Out of the bands sprouts a pair of reindeer antlers. From each corner of the hat, a blue wool pommel dangles. A scrub of thin, wiry beard trails from his chin. A high, stiff collar sticks proud from his tunic, edged with fancy stitchwork running down to break out in a bib of panels across his chest. Draped over his broad back, a full deer pelt. Deerskin trousers tuck in to deerskin boots stuffed with straw for warmth. Hair outwards, curled toes pointed, the boots are trimmed with black felt and bound by more embellished bands.
Crouched beside him, an old woman stirs a potion in a small smoke-scorched metal cauldron hanging from a wooden beam.
At the end of his joiking, at the end of the chant, at the point where it seems time stands eternally still in awe, the old man pauses before taking a deep draught from a ladle in the cauldron. And then my paternal grandfather rises up from the fire, comes across to my bed of bearskins, to tell me his dreams, the dreams of shaman.
A Sami boy lies locked in a cycle of eternal dreams, from which he can never, ever wake. An evil witch has cast her spell upon him. The only way he can ever wake, she says, is if he makes the long journey south to meet three old women who live in a cave high in the mountains near Gyumri. Only they can lift the spell. But you said he could never ever wake. Hush, this is the world of dreams, isn’t it? Anything can happen in dreams. The three old women have the key to his destiny, the key to unlock the door to his never-ending cycle of dreams. Go on, go on.
So his mother and father set out on the long journey south to the mountains near Gyumri carrying their sleeping Sami boy on a sled pulled by a single reindeer.
Through days that turn into weeks, and weeks that turn into months, and months that turn into years, they go. Through snow that turns into sleet, they go, and sleet that turns into rain. Through rain that turns into sleet, they go, and sleet that turns into snow again. Through countless springs, summers, autumns and winters, they go. Never stopping, never pausing to rest, they grow old and grey, till eventually they die to be replaced by the next generation. And they are replaced by the next in turn, and so on, and so on. All the while the Sami boy remains sleeping, locked in childhood, imprisoned in his world of dreams.
Unending generations come and go, each taking over the long journey south, like those before them. Until, finally, they reach the cave high in the mountains of Gyumri where the three old women live. The three old women, who have the key to his destiny, the key to unlock the door to his never-ending cycle of dreams. There, outside the mouth of the cave, the reindeer drops dead from exhaustion.
And there, my grandfather stops.
Go on, go on. Is that all?
It’s a dream isn’t it? Dreams never have beginnings and endings like stories do. Go back to sleep, my boy, go back to your own world of dreams.
Far from being the unpleasant experience you might imagine, I am starting to enjoy my own endless cycle of dreams. The only thought that really disturbs is waking into the real world eventually. A world with real pain and real suffering. A world of dead kittens and dead mothers – it’s not cruel, Grandad says so.
As far as I’m concerned I’ll be happy for this constant waking to go on for perpetuity, just so long as I never have to wake properly again. I enjoy its confusion trickery. I know I’m safe within its borders. Each counterfeit awakening is a postponement, a false dawn where I can live forever. The terrible difference between dream and reality being that, whereas in dreamtime I can do anything, in real life, I am restricted by the physical constraints everything, and everyone, places upon me. Anything is possible in dreamtime. Anything, that might lead to nightmares in the real world, goes in dreamtime. The consequences are never the same. There are no clear beginnings or endings. Repetition and déja vu happen all the time, but you’re never quite sure which and when.
But then, my landlady has to go and interfere. She taps me lightly on the shoulder, and I wake into the flat at Sinsen a final time. I wake to my landlady tapping my shoulder, into a world that appears to be normal. I wake into a world that stops changing. My landlady is telling me something. I’m not listening, desperate to wake into dreamland again. She shouldn’t have done it, I don’t want to be here; I don’t want to be in her world. This dream is her dream; this dream is my nightmare. I want to wake into my own dream. She shouldn’t have woken me like that. It was too abrupt. I want to keep waking forever into different worlds; I want to be the Sami boy on the long journey south.
To read the third installment of Pedersen’s Last Dream click here
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming Conil de la Frontera