Life on a small Arctic Island – part two

Ann-Ulrika WP2

ROUSING FROM HAVING snatched a short nap, I switched on the box to watch a bit of Norwegian TV. An experience that can only be fully appreciated if you don’t understand the language. As I speak more than a smattering it only served to nudge me back into the state of semi-consciousness I’d just struggled out of. You have to see it for yourself to get the full impact. Knowing the language only ruins things. The fun goes out of it completely.

Time was moving on. News of the fishing trip had yet to arrive from Ann-Ulrika. That night would be her last chance, as she was catching the ferry to Bodø next day. She’d already been disappointed on more than one occasion.

Though we had yet to meet, I was getting the distinct impression the old fishermen wasn’t nearly so keen on the idea as Ann-Ulrika. He was probably trying to dodge her in the knowledge she would be out of his way by the following evening. But he hadn’t bargained for the dogged perseverence of the Smålander. It was almost half past nine when she came to tell me she’d just nabbed him tying up at the quay. He’d already been out fishing that evening. She had to remind him he was supposed to be taking us for an expedition. Ann-Ulrika doesn’t mess about. I could just magine how she must’ve made him feel. He asked her to give him half an hour.

As I sat waiting on an old wooden bench by the harbour, minding my own, while having a smoke, a young man came up to join me. He nodded good evening and asked if I was Swedish. I answered I wasn’t, and we fell into conversation. He was the son of the old fisherman, he told me, but no longer lived on the island having moved to Bodø. From time to time he popped over to Værøy to visit his father. On this occasion he was staying for a week. They’d only just got back from one fishing trip when Ann-Ulrika had collared his father for yet another. Though they’d had no luck that evening, his father had caught some mackerel the night before. From out of nowhere Ann-Ulrika suddenly appeared, panting, saying we had to leave straightaway as the fisherman was already on board. She’d probably snuck up on the old salt in similar fashion on more than one occasion and was fearful he might slip from her hold yet again.

We climbed down an spindly iron ladder attached vertically to the quayside and boarded the small fishing boat. As the diesel engine fired and began to throb, the old fisherman’s son untied the mooring ropes. In no time at all, the quays were slipping by, and we headed out to the open sea. The evening ferry to Bodø lay moored in the harbour. A small squall of gulls eyed us expectantly, before trailing our boat in hope of a snack.  It was a fine evening, though a chill breeze blew. Behind us Værøy shrank back into being the small island it was, with the main Lofotens Isles as a distant backdrop shrouded by thin, blue haze. On the horizon to the south, the two rocky islands beyond Røst were highlighted by a night-time sun that had yet to reach us. Røst itself was too flat to see from that distance.

In the wheelhouse, the old fisherman watched his coloured sonar screen for signs of fish shoals, as he explained how to distinguish them from other features. A second, smaller screen served as a compass. When the sonar screen showed fish he manoeuvred into position, before casting out a line punctuated by fish hooks. The winding machinery did all the rest. More accustomed to fishing from a rowing boat with only a hook and line, the imposition of all the technology and equipment between man and fish took away much of the thrill of the catch for me. But the experience of learning the modern techniques of commercial fishing in the midst of sea on another beautiful, Arctic, summer night certainly made up for some of it. Ann-Ulrika looked delighted at getting her wish at last.

Getting acquainted with the old fisherman’s life was fascinating. He was quite a talker. Looking to be in his early seventies, though officially retired, he still liked to take his boat out. Describing it as an expensive hobby, he only ate fish twice a week. He didn’t really like it much, and hardly ate meat at all. He first started working at sea in his spare time when he was twelve. At the age of fifteen he took it up as full-time employment. Back in those days there was little else for a young man to do on the island. But times had changed. All his children had moved to across to the mainland to find work in Bodø. Two were teachers, and one was a the manager of a machine shop, where most of the employees were Filipinos. Though he seemed quite philosophical about it, I couldn’t help noticing a tinge of regret in his voice. In his eyes, perhaps days were better when choice of what you did for a living didn’t exist, and young people stayed on the island. With more opportunities, the closeness of island family life had disappeared. But change was here to stay. Technical advances, such as those his boat was equipped with, required far less manpower. Coupled with falling fish quotas, opportunities of finding full-time work on the island, even for those not wanting to leave, had diminished considerably.

Yet, despite the sonar equipment, the screens and machinery, we didn’t catch as many fish as I’d done with Mark and the French girls from a little rowing boat in Stamsund a few weeks previously. Sometimes, the old ways can prove best.

All this time Ann-Ulrika kept snapping photos. She didn’t talk much to the old fisherman as she couldn’t understand the local accent too well. He could hardly understand her at all. Though it was difficult for me to get the gist of everything he said, I got a fair idea of most of it. Sadly, one story about the war went over my head almost completely. The noise of the engine didn’t help. Neither did the fact Ann-Ulrika expected me to translate everything he said word for word as he went along. Into broken Swedish at that. All I mananged to learn was that he and a friend had played tricks on the German occupying forces, but not exactly what they were. When Ann-Ulrika wanted me to translate some questions she had, there almost occurred one of those unfortunate losses at sea when someone slips overboard. Things were already difficult enough and I had enough of my own questions to ask.

After little more than an hour, the old fisherman turned the boat about and we headed back to harbour. Once on land, he gave us two sizeable codling for supper. Back at the kitchen in the rorbu, I set a large pan of water on the stove. Two new couples had arrived on the evening ferry from Bodø. One was sitting at the kitchen table; a young Canadian girl with the Danish boyfriend she’d hooked up with in Copenhagen. The other was a French couple. After poking their heads by the door to say ‘hello’ they retired to their room.

There is little more tasty fish than cod straight from the sea. Plopped into a pot of boiling water with a few pinches of salt it only needs cooking for as long as it takes to reach the point where the flesh will fall from the bone in chunks with the slightest encouragement. Smeared with lashings of butter, and a little fresh parsley, if available, it’s absolutely delicious. As there was more than enough for all, I invited the couple to join us. They were students travelling together, and the inevitable travellers’ tales came out. By the time I got my head down it was way after midnight. And no sooner had it hit the pillow than it was time to get up.

The couples from Denmark, and France were already awake having breakfast. Following that, they went out for the day. With the kitchen table to myself I could get down to some writing. Apart from Pedersen’s last Dream, I had a novel the film director, screenwriter and producer Franc Roddam had asked me to rework. At the End of Tobago Street is set between Brighton, London and Wiltshire and tells of the relationship beween two young students, one of who is schizophrenic. Having lugged the hard copy of the manuscript up to the far north of Norway I still wasn’t exactly sure what Franc wanted me to do with it, so I wrote up the fishing trip instead.

As she was leaving that day, Ann-Ulrika came to give me some food she had left over. Before saying goodbye she asked me to think about writing in Älmhult. The basement of the house where she lived included a storage area, which could be fixed up as a bedroom with a desk at which I could work. She wouldn’t want any rent. It was a tempting offer I’d have to give some serious thought. But I could see problems. We hadn’t known each other long, yet I was under the impression she might have already formed a romantic attachment to me. Of course, I could’ve been wrong, nevertheless, I wasn’t going to commit myself to anything we both might regret, on the spur of the moment.

Thanking her for the offer, we said our goodbyes. Agnar drove her to the ferry, while I took one of the hostel bikes to buy a pack of cigarettes and have a coffee in the cafeteria. Seeing postcards I bought one to send to Solveig and Geggen in Hammerfest and wrote it over my coffee.

It was a sunny, bright day, there was a bit of a breeze blowing as usual. The weather didn’t matter, despite growing fond of Ann-Ulrika, I was glad to be alone, at last. Only alone, would I be able to get down serious writing on a day to day basis. So far, I’d only managed to adjust to the pace of the island, more or less. For Pedersen’s Last Dream I had to immerse myself in northern Norwegian culture as much as possible. I knew the south, having visited so many times since I was a child. When I saw Agnar, I paid him rent for another seven days. I was on Værøy to stay for the forseeable future.

Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming

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