TWO TRAVELLERS with rucksacks wait outside a small hotel in Myre, a nonedescript town on the northern edge of Langøya in Vesterålen. Just up from Lofoten, and beyond the Arctic Circle, it gives the impression people only go there on their way to somewhere else.
The midsummer sun has barely managed to heat the stiff afternoon breeze by the time a man rolls up in a dusty car to haul himself out of the driver’s seat. The three men shake hands and talk for a moment before the travellers throw their rucksacks into the back of the car and climb in. The driver takes them down a road leading into a deserted track at the opposite end of town to which they arrived.
A few miles out of Myre the car rounds a bend to reveal a causeway connecting Langøya to the small island of Nysksundøya. A second, shorter causeway hoves into view, the end of which lies an even smaller island. Shadowy silhouettes describe an abandoned and rotting fishing village gradually falling off little more than a rocky outcrop into the sea. Ungsmaløya and its ghost town of Nyksund. The causeway is the only way in. By my reckoning, that makes it the only way out.
The Lofotens are full of beautiful craggy mountains nature has hacked into shapes I’d always imagined only lived in fairy tales. Across on the island of Langøya more conventional mountains slope into valleys making it possible to rear livestock and plant crops on a commercial level. Masses of tall and beautiful, wild flowers poke through long grasses lining roads along the way.
A pretty, young girl wearing sunglasses almost as big as her face makes sure we get the right bus to Myre, as that’s where she’s heading too.
Mark, the Aussie from Adelaide, and I had taken the bus from Vestvågsøya, after teaming up at the best hostel in the world for the trip. Once we’d been dropped off at Myre, Mark phoned the owner of a hostel in Nyksund to tell him we’d arrived. Olau said he would pick us up by the fibre glass sculpture of a whale in front of the hotel.
Aside from the fibre glass sculpture of the whale, there are signs humans have lived in and around Nyksund for millennia. But it wasn’t until the 18th century the village started to thrive as a harbour. Cod fishing and processing soon provided most of its income. Right up until it burned down in the 1930s, that is.
However, undaunted by bad luck, the owners of the warehouses and fish processing factory built a new town on the ashes of the old one. Unfortunately, their phoenix-like confidence was both misjudged and misplaced. New hopes and dreams were shortly to fall apart.
Rowing boats were already giving way to bigger fishing boats, which soon dominated the industry. With demand for Bacalhau (stock fish: salted and dried cod) increasing rapidly in Portugal, Spain, Latin America and Africa, things were changing fast. The harbour at Nyksund was too narrow and shallow to accommodate the larger vessels, and the warehouses slowly slipped into disuse. The population dwindled over the next half century until the the last remaining family left for nearby Myre in the 1980s. From that moment on things began to fall apart more literally.
At the start of the 21st century, entering the village of tumbledown warehouses and houses was like being driven onto the set of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It occurred there was no turning back, unless we wanted to walk. In a fleeting moment, the writer in me, entertained the macabre notion one of us wasn’t going to come out alive. And if anyone was, it was me.
Once planted, nothing could stop the seed of my wild imaginings taking root and flourishing. I could sense a plot too tempting to pass up. At the heart of that plot was at least one vicious slaying and maybe more.
Taking into consideration the fact I’d rather not die quite yet, even fictionally, the victim would have to be Mark. Alone, and faraway from home, he was made for the role. Besides my presence as narrator made it essential for me to survive. Added to that, if anyone was blame for us being there in the first place it was Mark. He deserved a bloodcurdling fictional death. Without him I’d never have heard of the place. So that left Olau as his most likely killer.
Little did I realise, it would not be long before the narrator myself, might also develop petty motives for finishing Mark off in some terrible way. But let’s not jump ahead too far. Though not the novel I’d gone to Nyksund with the intention of finishing, a thriller was taking shape before my eyes. First, some of the facts.
Having come up from Stavanger, on the southwest coast of Norway, after making a fortune, sixty-four-year-old Olau had bought nearly half of Nyksund and was setting about transforming three of its quayside warehouses and four of its houses into holiday accommodation. Hardly the sort of thing to please the local community of nearby Myre, as they hadn’t thought of it first. That’s one route I’d have to consider my tale taking.
On the other hand, a ramshackle warehouse in the middle of restoration would make a fine location for an ‘accident’ involving an Australian traveller having strayed a little too far from the tourist track. A fraying rope with a great rusty hook at one end could do some lasting damage to an Aussie cranium. There were still a few about hanging from beams that used to swing out and unload boats. Who knows? Maybe one beam might swing out and knock Mark right into the drink when he wasn’t looking. Especially if some mysterious hand holding a pocket knife helped it along by cutting the tie. If nobody noticed him in his unconsciousness, he would surely drown. However sad for those left behind, things like that happen.
Before showing us our rooms in a house that had needed little conversion, Olau took us on a tour of his other properties. Boasting of his plans, he told us he needed a signwriter while showing us one side of a warehouse. Purely by coincidence, signwriting was one of the subjects I’d covered while training to be a graphic designer. I told him I could prepare some drawings of various styles of old lettering to show him the following day. If he liked them we’d discuss a price, if he didn’t he would owe me nothing. I was soon going to regret ever having suggested it.
When four young students from the former communist Baltic state of Lithuania entered the plot, I could see it was going to be more complicated than first anticipated. The geographical description itself hints at sinister undertones suited to a thriller. More potential susects. Or maybe potential victims. This was turning into hand-rubbing stuff. Working for Olau, they were converting one of his warehouses into tourist accommodation.
The four young Lithuanian students were lodging in the same house as Mark and I. We shared a kitchen, bathroom and lounge. Three of them had been sawing, nailing and painting buildings over the summer. That meant lots of sharp and heavy tools lying about. They are just as useful in rescusitating a flagging plot as in restoring old buidings.
Despite being asked countless times, the Lithuanians told us Olau kept putting off telling them how much they were being paid for their labours. When asked, he repeatedly said they would be getting some ‘pocket money’ on top of their board and lodgings. By the time we met them, they’d been sweating away non-stop for twenty days. Ten hours a day, with just two days off. They planned to drive to Italy and Greece and needed some idea of whether they’d be able to afford it.
There is a black economy that thrives, even in a wealthy country like Norway, where there is almost full employment. In the very north it borders with Russia, and the Baltic States are not so far away. All contain a vast supply of cheap labour. After ten days of humming and hawing Olau announced he’d pay the Lithuanians 50 kroner an hour. Back then, 50 kroner would hardly buy a beer. As he’d already squeezed ten days work out of them they weren’t in much of a position to negotiate. They comforted themselves by saying it was better than they would get back home. But I could see they weren’t at all happy. It was exploitation of the most cynical kind in a country, which not only is one of the richest per head of population in the world, but also one of the most expensive.
Still, it would play very well in my thriller. With such a growing cast, in such a brilliant location, motives for murder were growing by the hour, and I had yet another piece to my jigsaw. The Lithuanians had been given a very good reason to do away with Olau before they left. But not Mark. That needed thinking about. But not for long.
A visit to the deserted café Olau had opened revealed the fourth Lithuanian to be a beautiful, innocent-looking girl called Jurga. She was going to add a tremendous amount of scope to the plot. A pale-faced, blue-eyed, blonde student from Vilnius, she had that tired, early, Uma Thurman look about her. She might’ve been slipped a Mickey Finn before being auditioned on the casting couch, only to be pushed onto the studio set without quite knowing what had happened in between. My mind was overflowing with plots within sub-plots to the main plot. Most of her days were spent wiping empty tables, in a café without customers. Nevertheless, with the arrival of the beautiful Jurga, I could see my potential novel turning into a script for a Hollywood blockbuster.
An image of Mark drunk as a skunk popped into my head. Stumbling towards her, he manages to lure Jurga into one of the dark and crumbling warehouses on the pretence a tiny kitten has got trapped in the rafters. While his left hand fumbles inside the front of her torn blouse, his right hand gropes beneath her dress, just as her boyfriend rounds the corner unseen. Later, one of Olau’s axes goes missing from the storeroom, and the Australian is discovered in a pool of blood, his skull having been cleaved in two. The boyfriend has vanished, along with Olaus’s rowing boat. Jurga picks up the axe only to cover her hands and the front of her dress with blood, as she crumples to her knees in floods of tears.
I was getting very excited, my Hollywood script was taking on Shakespearean dimensions.
But there was even more to come. As if out of nowhere, the cast was about to expand into enough victims and suspects to fill an entire shelf of Agatha Christie novels.
Coyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming Next week: Murder in a Ghost Town – part two
And for a Norwegian punk ending, crank up the volume and get an earful of this from Cables. The friggin’ brilliant: Same Places, Same Faces