Postcard from Værøy

Postcard from VaeroyPostcard fromVærøy

EVEN THOUGH THEY couldn’t quite fit the entire island on a postcard, you can tell from photo that Værøy is pretty small. Particularly the habitable bit. A couple of mountains, a bit of green here and there and not much else. It can’t boast much more than five miles (8km) from one end to the other. With a spine of rugged mountains running almost the entire length, once you take into consideration the harbour and its warehouses, there’s only enough room left to squeeze in two little villages, and the road that joins them.

Of course, there are residential side roads in Sørland, the main village at the southern end. But the tinier village of Nordland in the north has just the one road, which goes straight through it. You can’t see it on the postcard because it’s hiding behind the mountain in the centre, take my word for it, I’ve seen it. Quite a few times. It’s beautiful. Anyway, to sum up, Værøy’s not the ideal destination for those planning a cycling holiday. Nevertheless, I was forever riding the hostel’s rickety, old bikes all over the place. Whenever I wasn’t writing or walking, that is. Or sleeping, or eating and drinking.

There was always something new to see round the next corner. Even if only the results of the dramatically-changing weather casting everything in a different light. The chill shadows of mountains, the cool descent of clouds, the magic of a single ray of sunshine sweeping the landscape, or just a damp mist drifting in from the sea. There are myriad ways the spectacular scenery alters in an instant, over the everlasting days that are the Arctic midsummer, when it never gets truly dark enough to know night.

And an almost total lack of traffic gave me time to think in the saddle. I could meander much of the time, rather than stick to one side of the road or the other. And meandering along a lonely road in a bike saddle, is one of the simpler joys of life, in both the physical and metaphysical sense. I’m sure many a solitary child with an over-active imagination, raised within cycling distance of thinly-populated areas, can testify to that. I was one such. My bicycle became whatever I wanted it to be. Sometimes, I’d lightly bounce in my saddle, while pretending to be a medieval knight on a horse. Other times I was a speed cop on a motor bike. I was a bird, I was plane, I was Superman. Even not knowing what metaphysics was, couldn’t prevent my subconscious, metaphysical cyclical meanderings along the more deserted lanes of Leicestershire and my mind. The bent and rusty spokes of my thoughts going round in circles while I pondered the meaning of life. Saddle-sore memories of school holidays still rekindle the pungent scent of Germolene tins and their sticky, pink grease.

But I wan’t out cycling when I discovered Værøy’s ghost airport the second day I was on the island. I was pacing out its entire length as a penance for the night before. The road went beyond Norland to end the airstrip. It seemed a surreal location for an airport, especially to someone with a severe hangover, and even stranger that it had been completely abandoned in perfect condition. With its empty runway and unmanned conning tower, waiting for planes that never came, it was like something from the beginning of a Dr Who episode, where the Tardis materialises on planet Earth during an era all Earthlings have been vaporised by hostile aliens.

Later, I learned there had been a tragic accident in 1990 following a take-off. The unpredictable island winds had made it a bad choice for an airport from the beginning.

Cycling might’ve seemed a lot safer, but not so much. Of the bunch of bikes parked outside the main hostel building, there were bad bikes and even worse bikes to choose from, depending on how early you were. The ramshackle machines, and their lack of effective brakes, led from metaphysical meanderings to more immediate concerns on how to remain seated on the ancient beasts. Barely manageable, cycling downhill felt a bit like trying to stay in the saddle of a bucking bronco at a Western rodeo might. The experience of clinging to violently vibrating handlebars, as my mount hurtled down slopes, bumping and clattering uncontrollably, to the point where it almost veered off the road of its own volition, was invigorating to say the least. Rather too invigorating. There was one particular bend in the road I always feared I might plunge down a rocky incline to my death. Something to which I never became accustomed.

But it did teach me a lot about the meaning of life and its value.  Though there were times it was possible to imagine myself a WW1 pilot in an exciting ariel dogfight, there too many other moments when  my elementary knowledge of mechanics, and the laws of physics, led me to posit one of the machines might shake and rattle themselves apart. And far from being left hovering in the resultant empty space, gravity would insist on my frail structure of bones and flesh coming to a halt only upon meeting the irresistable force of an immovable object. Like an outcrop of granite mountain, with lots of sharp bits, sticking out of the ground, for instance. There were lots of those. The consequent rush of adrenaline only added to the excitement and made life more interesting. Far too interesting for the delicate condition some days found me. Those days I took to walking.

It was while going nowhere  in particular by bike one afternoon, as there was nowhere in particular left to go, I spotted a Great Black-backed Gull hopping around a piece of asphalted wasteland on the far side of the natural harbour. Difficult not to spot, the Great Black-backed Gull is the largest of the gull family. A solitary bird, its wing span can reach up to 5ft 7ins (1.7m) and its body can weigh in at up to 5.1lbs (2.3kg). Seeing it grounded makes it difficult to imagine how it ever gets airborne. And this one couldn’t.

Though able to spread its massive wings the magnificent bird was unable to lift off. By the look of its lopsided stance, one of its legs was injured. I deduced its immense weight and size meant it couldn’t generate enough speed. Not really knowing how I could help, I pedalled  back to the rorbu as fast as my legs could whirr. Bread was the only remedy I could come up with. It was all I had. Pathetic really. To judge by its size, the poor bird would’ve probably required half a side of a dead sheep just to warm up its engines.

When I returned, it seemed in an even worse state. Tearing a chunk from my loaf, I cast it as near as possible without hitting the bird. But the stupid thing kept assuming that by lobbing by hunks of bread in its direction, hitting it was exactly what I was trying to do. The nearer my aim got without hitting it, the more it kept hobbling off. However, my efforts didn’t escape the attention of a couple of wily of  herring gulls on the lookout for free grub. They were quickly joined by a couple more. And then a couple more. Each time I threw a chunk they would swoop on it, squabbling amongst themselves, till the winner flew off with its prize. There were times, of two birds neither would give up willingly, even once airborne. Usually, both beaks would lose hold at the same time, and the bread would fall to earth again to be squabbled over once more.

It took almost all the loaf before the Black-back started to realise I wasn’t attempting to bread it to death but trying to feed it. By that time I was hot, flustered and almost angry. Only then did it start hobbling towards the bread, instead away from it. But sensing the big bird’s plight, the herring gulls had lost all fear, and were too quick for it. I couldn’t throw accurately enough, and when I did get close the chunks would skitter away on the hard ground. I could see the great bird was almost certainly destined to die and felt a mixture of helplessness and pointless anger as I cycled back to the rorbu.

Rising early next morning, I took to writing  before anyone else got up. After breakfast I cycled over to the other side of the harbour again to see if the black-back gull was still there. Scanning the wasteland it was gone. I even scoured patches of sparse undergrowth for feathers or bits of flesh. Nothing remained. Yet, I doubted it had managed to fly away. There was an outside chance someone had found it and managed to catch it in order to take it in until it healed. Still the fact I didn’t see it made me feel annoyed at both it and myself for our shared impotence of the previous day.

By the time I got back to the rorbu I was filled with pity for the poor, old creature. Seeing the latest guests were out I recorded the episode while it was while it was still fresh in my mind. Adapted for a scene in Pedersen’s Last Dream it would become a metaphor for Knut Pedersen’s tragic loss of his mother while a young boy. While staying on Værøy with his grandfather he comes across the same bird. In his case, his impotence makes him so angry he kills the bird by smashing a rock onto its skull. Perhaps that would’ve been the most merciful thing to do.

I suppose I was taking out my anger at the cruelty of nature through fiction. I’d hardly been at it for more than an hour when the other guests returned for lunch, adding to my feelings of forlornness. Without talking to any of them, I hopped on one of the bikes again and cycled down to the bar to buy some cigarettes for the perverse comfort of punishing myself out of despair.

Outside the pub, I saw Anita. The barmaid was back from a weekend party at the abandoned village of Måstad, on the other side of the island, she’d told me she was going to a few days before. She was sitting in the sunshine on the terrace with some locals. I might’ve paused for a chat if she’d been alone. I assumed she must’ve been hung over again, because she didn’t say anything, even though she glanced in my direction. He eyes were almost blank. I was learning to understand the ways of the islanders. They were a bit like me, sometimes they didn’t feel like communicating, and that was a kind of communication in itself. In our own different ways, on occasion,  we are as helpless and vulnerable as the old seagull had been.

Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming


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