IT WAS HALF AN HOUR into Sunday afternoon by the time my gooey eyelids managed to wrench themselves apart. The resulting sensation was a bit like having fine sandpaper coated in blear drawn across your eyeballs. An ensuing blitz of excruciating light had my frontal lobes throbbing like they were attempting to break out of my skull, as the unwelcome attack of sudden consciousness made me retch to the point I almost threw up onto the pillow. At least, I could derive some comfort from the fact I was safely at home tucked up in my bed. Only to have that illusion instantly dispelled by the recognition it wasn’t my bed at all. Nor my home. For a disconcerting few minutes the exact location of that bed on Planet Earth, wasn’t very clear. A realisation that filled me with panic and feelings of extreme insecurity. That panic was only amplified when the knowledge of exactly where I was struck like a misused frying pan.
I was in a bed on a very small island north of the Arctic Circle. Along with that dawning came a strong desire to die. Wretched memories of making an idiot of myself, at a schoolhouse dance the previous evening, had me pulling the bedclothes up over my head in the forlorn hope I might be transported back in time to some happy day before it all happened. As might’ve been expected, the simple manouvre didn’t work. Anymore than clenching my eyelids tight together in a vain attempt to persuade my molecules to disassemble before reassembling in some other distant part of the universe did. More than one or two embarrassing flashes were already trickling back, in the same portentous way a couple of particularly heavy drops of rain can eventually lead to a devastating flood. These were the sort of drunken memories we drink to forget. That thought only served to make me aware of how thirsty I was
Nothing I thought could convince me I hadn’t done anything too stupid. Dancing maniacally by myself had probably appeared to the locals as a little bizarre. In semi-sober retrospect it appeared to me as far more than a little bizarre. But had I done anything even worse? To justify my behaviour I tried to convince myself the majority of the islanders present had been at least as drunk as I. Probably more. I could only hope, on waking, their memories would be more hazy than mine. Failing that, at least as uncomfortable.
With a throat as dry as a desert sand track in a drought, my brain pulsated the message my body was in dire need of liquid. Painfully so. Or pharmaceutical relief. As a last resort, a lobotomy might do the trick. I recalled possessing the first antidote somewhere, but not the second, or the necessary sharp surgical instruments to carry out the third option. If only the island roads were far busier I could’ve thrown myself in front of a passing car. But having seen the lightness of traffic the day before, I’d probably have to wait at the side of the road a good few hours.
After tumbling out of bed, and picking myself up from the floor, following a few failed attempts, I finally managed to get my limbs through the right holes in my clothes before stumbling down a rickety flight of wooden stairs, clutching the bannister with both hands, into the kitchen, and on towards to the fridge, in a wibbly-wobbly kind of fashion. A carton of apple juice I’d bought in Bodø just a couple of days before awaited me there. At that moment, I knew apple juice to be the chosen beverage of the gods. Guzzling it like a piglet at sow’s teat, liquid nectar spilled down my chin and onto the floor. Luckily, there were no witnesses to further increase my discomfort.
My alcohol-induced paranoia had me wondering whether I might’ve done anything that warranted a hurried escape to the mainland on the next ferry. It’s hardly the sort of thing you can ask people. Besides, there was no-one around to ask. My fellow hostellers were all out. I pondered whether their absence might’ve had anything to do with me.
By the time I’d got my main senses back, albeit it in shambolic order, I was startled by a painful buzzing sound like a giant bee trapped in a metal pail. Lynn, the Californian who’d taken over my small flat off Portobello Road in London while I was away, had sent me a text message asking where I was. I hardly knew myself. Or even quite who I was. One thing was certain: I was nowhere near the same incredibly cheerful soul who’d somehow tumbled onto a mattress the night before. I’d aged considerably since then. Knowing she wouldn’t have the faintest understanding of where I was metaphysically, even if I took the time to work it out properly myself, I tried to give her a basic idea of my geographical bearings. We exchanged a few messages before I wearied and pretended my phone battery had failed.
The last thing my body needed was a cigarette, so I went outside and popped one between my lips. It tasted like charred cow dung, but that didn’t stop me hoovering up the fumes. I deserved punishing. The more severe and damaging, the better. As there was nobody else present to do it, I’d have to do it myself.
Outside, I was so alone, as to almost believe the island had been completely evacuated overnight. Certainly, everybody from the hostel had vanished. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have to explain myself to anyone. However unlikely, the thought was consoling. So, as it was sunny, I decided to work off my hangover by cycling to the only other inhabited village on the island. But, on seeing all the bicycles taken, I had to set out on foot.
The road from the unimaginatively named Sørland (Southland) winds northwards up a small mountain before hugging the coast all the way to the equally unimaginatively named Norland (Northland) at the far end of Værøy. The island is more or less horseshoe in form. Near the top of the mountain it begins to descend towards a series of little bays and inlets. Some of them have beaches of white sand. All were deserted. I chose one to sit in the sunshine, and lit another cigarette. A surfeit of clean air was killing me with feelings of guilt. I didn’t deserve it. Caws of ravens echoed against the granite rock face they spiralled before, to the accompaniment of a muddle of screeching gulls. An ever-present mist draped itself lazily across the mountain top it obscured as its ragged skirt swished gently down towards the sea. A collection of wooden houses stood on a stretch of flat land between the foot of the mountain and the beach. In front of one, painted dark blue, a woman bent, weeding her garden, oblivious to my presence. Turquoise sea, fringed with brown seaweed licked at granite rocks. While nearer the shoreline, clear, shallow wavelets gently lapped at sands sparkling myriad silver reflections of sunlight, like handfuls of diamonds being cast across the waters. Green pastures of knee-high grasses dotted with yellow, pink, blue and white flowers grew in abundance right down to the beach.
It’s just over four kilometres to Nordland. The tiny village, a sprinkle of houses with a little cemetery by the seashore. An old wooden church, painted oxblood red with a dark onion-shaped dome in the Russian style, is the oldest church still in use on the Lofotens. Built in Kabelvåg on the island of Austvågøy near Svolvær in 1746, it was moved to Nordland in 1799, after the previous church blew down in strong winds. A few trees grow alongside. I peeked through the windows at the rows of wooden pews. Above the door an large ancient iron key hung from a nail. Though tempted, even in a state of post-drunken anarchy, I didn’t try it in the door. Three small boys played by the roadside. They call out ‘hei’ and I return the greeting. As the old airport runway came into view, I turned back. A path beyond the runway leads up the mountains and on, to the abandoned fishing village of Måstad on the other side of the island. I thought it best to leave that for another day.
I returned to Nordland to see a christening party ending. Women in traditional, long, black skirts, red bodices embroidered with silk, and pure white blouses of finest lawn cotton emerged from a large house. One was carrying a baby wrapped in a blanket. They paused in the road to have a few photos taken by a relative or friend.
By the time I arrived back at the hostel it was late afternoon. The German family were packed and ready to leave. The judge sat on a folding stool before a small easel outside the hostel splodging a grotesque little watercolour. I remembered his comments when telling him I did a little travel writing, and just managed to stop myself from advising him to stick to judging, as painting wouldn’t offer him much of a future. The work was as pretentious as I’d expected, serving only to impress the inexperienced. He packed away his paintbox and easel as the hostel owner turned up to drive them to the quay on the other side of the harbour. Ann-Ulrika, the Swedish hosteller I’d met on my arrival, accompanied them. It didn’t seem the news of my big night out had reached anybody’s ears so far. I was safe for the moment.
When Ann-Ulrika returned from waving them goodbye we had the place to ourselves. Speaking almost no English, she began chatting merrily to me in Swedish. The little Norwegian I speak helped me understand a good deal of what she said, but not all. It didn’t seem to bother her, as she obviously enjoyed having people around. I made cups of tea from teabags as she spoke. I wasn’t in the mood for talking.
Around ten, more people arrive on the evening ferry from Svolvær, capital of the Lofotens, which lies to the north. Among them was a Brazilian and two young Austrians. After exchanging greetings, I retired to my room desperate to forget the night before and wake up next morning refreshed. I’d survived to live another day, and wouldn’t have to leave the island under a cloud of shame after all. Not for the moment, at least.
Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming
A little Silje Negaard to finish with: I don’t want to see you cry