BY THE TIME the German couple had retired to their quarters at the guest house in the ghost town, even the two drunken soccer fans had begun to weary of their own raucous chants. As an equally unattractive substitute, they took up bouncing crude banter off one another in a verbal ping-pong match. Insults pinged at Manchester United were countered by sarcasm ponged at Liverpool City. Once they’d tired of that, Mark and I started chatting with them, and the girl they were with, about stuff they were obviously interested in. Like English football.
The legendary Norwegian striker, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, used to play for Manchester United. He scored 126 goals for the club before retiring, and appeared for the Norwegian national team a record 67 times. He now manages Molde. Under his stewardship they won the Norwegian League Championship in 2011 for the very first time.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Man Utd striker/winger, tribute video by McDance26
And Liverpool City, well Liverpool spawned The Beatles. And you can’t do better than that. Their connection with Norway? They sang a song called Norwegian Wood.
Warming to us in the routine way a good deal of drunks do random strangers, a couple of misunderstandings led to profuse apologies, rounded off by hugs within ten minutes of making their acquaintance. I love you, man, I really do. Then the fans invited us to join them at their nearby house for more drinks.
By the time we arrived, the two friends looking after the drinks had looked after them good and proper, by finishing off the whole lot. A drinking party with drunks, but without drink, isn’t my idea of entertainment. With our mutual love, destined to remain unblessed by the imbibing of large quantities of strong alcohol together, we all had cause for regret. But, whereas ours would be gone before bedtime, by the look of their pale faces and droopy eyes, the Norwegians would wake up with theirs next morning. Mark and I returned to Olau’s haven of repose, sober.
Olau’s Lithuanian workers were back at the house. They told us they were packing to set off south in a day or so. Their journey was going to take them to the sunnier climes of Italy and Greece. But first, they had a friend to pick up in Trondheim. A student at Trondheim University he’d been brewing a huge batch of homemade beer to hold a party when they arrived. After they’d helped him drink that, they planned to stop off in Amsterdam to sample some more interesting mind-altering substances. Then they would head towards the Mediterranean. All they were waiting for was for Olau to open his wallet.
The more I heard about Olau and his meanness the more my reservations grew about designing and painting the sign on the side of his warehouse he wanted. He’d avoided telling the Lithuanians how much they would get for their labours until they were ten days into the work. He hadn’t even told Mark and I how much our stay would be, just mumbling it would be around 140 to 170 kroner a day, as if it didn’t matter. In other words, as much as he thought he could get away with. He was far too cagey about money for my liking.
Nevertheless, back at the house I began doing some rough sketches for the lettering. To show willing as much as anything. With 2 metre high letters along one side of an old warehouse, it was a big job, something for which I’d expect a fair reward. Not only is professional signwriting a skilled occupation, it’s also a dying one. I’d learned it at art college, as part of a graphic design course, and had done a couple of shop signs among other things. Apart from a working knowledge of lettering styles from different epochs, doing it properly requires proficiency with special, long-haired brushes, a mahl stick and a steady hand. I could make a rudimentary mahl stick, but the brushes would have to be bought. The more I thought about it, and Olau, the less keen I became on the idea. I would have to spend long hours drawing up the letters on huge pieces of detail paper before transferring them to the walls. I doubted whether he’d stump up for scaffolding, so he’d expect me to work from an extended ladder. That would be unsafe.
Next morning was warmer than it had been. The Lithuanians told us it’d been cold most of the time they’d been there.
Back at the house, I carried on working on my sketches to the accompaniment of Mark’s continual blather about nothing in particular. For no other purpose than to fill the vacuum created by not engaging in idle chatter. It seemed. He appeared to have an allergy to quietness. That was something I should’ve noticed before.
With the window of their Transit van fixed, the Lithuanians told us they were definitely leaving next morning. As Mark had arranged for them to drop him off at Sortland on Langøya, he needed to pack. Straightaway. Suddenly, overcome by an urgency to divide the small quantity of food we had left, everything had to be done immediately. There was no other option. The fact I couldn’t see the need for hurry, as there was a whole day to go before he was leaving, drove him into a frenzy of panic. He reacted as if my refusal to participate amounted to a declaration of my desire to upset the natural order of things in order to create world chaos. Eventually, I lost my concentration and my patience. I didn’t really care how the effing food was divided. We hardly had any, and I was more concerned with my work. He could take all the damned stuff, for all I cared. He was making it impossible to sketch with his incessant twittering about a bit of cheese and half a pack of butter, or whatever. I stormed out, pursued to the door by angry mutterings on the unpredictability of the artistic temperament.
Across the causeway, on the little uninhabited islet next to Nyksund, a few grey sheep grazed on the long summer grasses under a grey sky. I found a rock to sit on and brooded over a soulfully, grey sea. Mark’s insensitivity to the priorities of others was finally becoming an issue. In common with many tasks needing concentration, design is not best conducted to an accompaniment of incessant background chatter. Fact was, I was getting as weary of my adopted travelling companion as I was of the ghost town.
Later, that afternoon, I took my rough sketches across to the café to show Olau. The Lithuanians were having their final meal in Nyksund, and Olau was preparing for having to do everything himself.
His time being obviously far more valuable than mine, he kept me waiting half an hour before deigning to look at them. He liked them, but when it came to talking about money, he became cagey again. My knowledge of how he’d treated the Lithuanians, had me making it very clear I wouldn’t be picking up a brush for less less than 120 kroner an hour. A bus driver would expect to earn more than that in Norway. Nevertheless, it had him stroking his chin, while humming and hawing in a most irritating manner. So I started imposing other conditions he’d be exceedingly reluctant to comply with. I was in Norway primarily to write, and therefore only prepared to work a few hours a day. Hardly any. Due to that, the job might take a month or more, I couldn’t be certain. Like the prices for his rooms, and the wages he was going to pay the Lithuanians, a firm commitment was just not possible. Not yet, at least. Of course, I’d expect free board and lodgings however long it took. He didn’t baulk at that, but told me 120 kroner an hour seemed like a lot of money. Not for what he wanted, I told him, and not for what I was capable of doing. I gave him a little time to think about it. Meanwhile, I mentally prepared myself to leave with the Lithuanians next morning.
Mark arrived, buying me a beer to make up for disturbing my work earlier in the day.
Olau had taken to whistling the type of quiet, tuneless whistle that signals a mad axeman is about to strike in horror films. The sound, like someone blowing air through tightly clenched teeth, started to get on my nerves. Walking up to the counter he was pretending to wipe, the very same counter Jurga had spent most of her summer pretending to wipe, I told him I wasn’t going to do it. If making a such simple decision, one way or another, gave him so much trouble, it was a sure sign there would be trouble all along the way. It wouldn’t be worth the angst. He’d better forget about it. I already had, and would be leaving in the morning. He said there was a signwriter in Myre, who could do the job for much less. In that case, the answer was staring him in the face. Get him to do it. His reply to my suggestion almost had me in stitches. The reason he hadn’t asked the signwriter from Myre to do it was because he was continually drunk, he explained, and couldn’t be relied on. If that was the case, I could give much a cheaper quote than even the man in Myre could. I had a mountain of experience of getting drunk to draw on, and it would be easy to for me to become unreliable. I’d just not bother turning up. In no time at all the job would never get started, let alone get done. Irony wasn’t one Olau’s strong points. He stared at me blankly. With that I picked up my designs.
Enough was enough. Mark and I asked for our bill. Again Olau got a bit busy while he thought how much he could screw us for. So Mark and I went back to the guest house to cook dinner. We finished off the frankfurters we’d bought, and Mark finally divided our remaining food without further consultation.
Suddenly, Olau rushed in, without knocking or excusing hmself, asking if Jurga was about. He’d bought some bread, but didn’t know where she’d put it, and there were customers waiting. I offered him threequarters of the old loaf I had, to help him out. He took it without thanks, saying it would do as they were only Swedes. The callous observation summed him up. Little doubt, the Lithuanians were ‘only’ Lithuanians, to him. Mark was ‘only’ an Australian, and I was ‘only’ English. I can imagine the people of Nyksund were ‘only’ Northerners.
We went back to the café to pay up. Olau still hadn’t worked out our bills. It couldn’t have been that difficult. We’d only stayed two nights. My patience was ebbing further. This mean, old Norwegian skinflint had used up quite enough of my time already to keep me waiting yet further. I said I wasn’t going be kept hanging around waiting a second time, and would call back later. That made him find the time to make up our bills. But even then he couldn’t be straightforward, telling us we’d agreed on 170 kroner. It was an outright lie. Mark said it was too much for a place that wasn’t properly finished. Olau suggested 140-150 kroner. Well, if he was going to make it a matter of choice, I’d choose 140, which I did. There followed a short discussion about how much we’d agreed on paying in the first place. I decided to also lie and say said we’d initially agreed on 140. He said he thought it was 150, but then he’d have upped the figure 10 kroner whatever we said. There was no question he would even think of offering to pay me for the bread I gave him to get him out of a mess. Nor would it occurr to him to offer part of the loaf Jurga had put somewhere, when he found it. It’d been all the bread I had, and there were no breadshops for miles. We were obviously ‘only’ foreigners and could go without. Fine way to start a tourism business. It’d never have occurred to him I was a travel journalist. Some of my stories on Norway had been published in The Independent. I wasn’t going to tell him.
I had to get out of his café, not wanting to spend any more time, or money, there.
Mark and I went for a beer at the Germans’ bar, and then back to the house. The Lithuanians were nowhere to be seen. Mark decided to get an early night, and I sat up by myself staring at the walls wondering if I’d ever find the ideal location to write Pedersen’s Last Dream. But I had an idea.
← Murder in a Ghost Town – part one
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming
As she was born on the Lofoten islands in Svolvær, here’s another Kari Bremnes number.