Island Fever!

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THE ISLAND’S ONLY PUB had run out of cigarettes yet again. Just in my hour of need. Island fever had struck. It’s  a bit like cabin fever only on an island. A contradiction of emotions had me feeling like Ben Gunn, Sinbad the Sailor and Lemuel Gulliver all rolled into one. It was like being cast ashore and marooned, only to have some old madman jump on my shoulders and wrap his legs round my neck till I could hardly breathe. Meanwhile, lots and lots of very little people were out to get me, and tie me to the ground. Well, let’s face it, that’s what very little people do. Maybe not you, but they’re out to get me, for sure. If I was in the habit of biting my fingernails, they’d all have been down to the quick. There was a hint of how Robinson Crusoe must’ve felt on those days he longed to be by himself again, after a couple of months enduring the company of Man Friday. I expect Man Friday felt exactly the same way about Crusoe. After a while they’d discover they had nothing in common and nothing left to talk about. I can get that. The last thing I’d come to a small island for was company. Like Greta Garbo, I wanted to be alone, yet the island seemed to be shrinking with the constant flow of human traffic through the fishermen’s hut, or rorbu.

In order to avoid bumping into cheerful travellers without a nicotine crutch hanging out the corner of my mouth, I dumped the bike on the pile outside the main hostel and went for a clamber amongst the rocks by the old lighthouse. Finding a sheltered niche amongst them, out of the wind, I took off my shirt to lie in the warm sunshine. A traffic accident in Oslo the previous autumn, which had nearly done for my eldest cousin and I, had left me with a bad case of psoriasis all over my back and chest. Over the intervening period it’d all but disppeared. A little sun would help get rid of the small patch still on my chest. Apart from psoriasis, the broken bones and damaged skull, the accident had also triggered some strange dream sensations over the following months. The strangeness of my dreaming had helped form the basis for the manuscript of the novel this blog is dedicated to: Pedersen’s Last Dream.

My mind still filled with pity for the poor, old and injured seagull that had vanished overnight, everything was closing in on me. I could empathise with its injury only too well, as the injuries to my right arm and shoulder were still giving me pain. Little did I know it then, but my periodic anxieties were just early warnings of the PTSD I would start to suffer later that year.

A family of four Danes who’d arrived at the rorbu couple of days previously, had taken to hanging round the place, for the rest of their short stay, before setting off for their next destination. It seems their itinerary hadn’t taken into account how small Værøy is. They’d done everything there was to be done, and seen everything there was to see. All in half a day. It was the same with the itinerary of the young German couple sharing my room. I was still waiting for the self-contained accommodation Agnar had promised and that waiting was becoming evermore frustrating. The initial request to park the first couple with me had caught me wrong-footed. It had led to the old islander abusing my hospitality. A precedent had been set. Now every new couple that turned up was being shown straight to my room. No sooner had one gone than another arrived. With so many people about it’d become difficult to write for as many hours as I needed.

What with both the Danes and the Germans deciding to mooch about the entire day, even half an hour without interruption became impossible. Using the table outside the rorbu as my desk didn’t stop them. There was always one reason or another for asking me something. Failing that, no reason at all.

My internal mutterings of discontent began to be directed mainly at the German couple, leading to a temporary, irrational hatred of the entire nation. It was the exact opposite of my feelings towards the Germans at the hostel in Stamsund, whose company I’d found so entertaining. The German couples passing through Værøy seemed a very particular sort. It was easy to imagine them spending months and months studying the British tabloid perception of how a German stereotype behaves abroad before setting out. Most seemed powerless to stifle their desire to take over whatever there was to take over. The firm boundaries they established usually overlapped, what I considered, my more flexible ones. Right up to the point where there was no elasticity left in them, and they were in great danger of suddenly snapping. The smallest thing was going to do it. My mistake had been to allow any elasticity in the first place. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I should never have submitted to Agnar by letting the first couple through the door. Just for one night, he’d said. But one night had led to a constant succession of ferry passengers passing through willy-nilly. I might as well have been living in the waiting room of a bus station.

The present couple had me contemplating the darkest of thoughts. To my way of thinking they were out to annoy me on purpose. Even though they were leaving after only a night, catching the evening ferry, they started packing not long after getting up. That was enough to set me off twitching. What’s this thing Germans coming to Værøy had with unpacking and packing? Couldn’t they just stuff everything into a bag higgeldy-piggeldy like the rest of us? Or is that just me? Whatever. The process looked like it was going to be an all-day affair, as they had nothing else to do.

I had been sitting in the kitchen for an hour or more waiting for them to get up and go out so I could begin some serious work. But my wait had been in vain. The mood I was in, what I found most irritating was the way they kept making a point of closing the door to what I considered my room. My stuff was in there, and some of it was irreplaceable. Although I couldn’t quite imagine them stuffing my unwashed underwear into their bags, they might snaffle the odd CD. Unless they were doing something very intimate, there was no need to close the door. They were just packing. Besides, it wasn’t theirs to close, it was mine. They were only there because I was stupid enough to cave in to Agnar. The thought of having to knock on my own door amounted to yet more humiliating defeat in my advanced state of anxiety. But neither did I want to burst in without knocking and catch the young woman putting on her bra. Or taking it off. Of course, I didn’t really need to go into the room at all. The problem was, that it was my right. And as soon as I felt that right being breached, I could think of a dozen reasons to go in. I needed my towel, I needed my book, I needed to lie down. I wanted to be alone. Whatever the reason, I just have to get into my room, now, or I might explode and die!

However, at the precise moment they finished doing whatever they’d been doing that demanded such privacy, to come out of the room, my desperate urge to go in evaporated. That was when they seemed to think they had to entertain me with their innane chatter. My nerves as ragged as a tramp’s trousers, it was the last thing I needed. They proudly told me about their ‘hiking expedition’ the previous day. Having got as far as the airport just beyond Nordland they’d turned back. It was embarrassing to listen, and I prayed they would stop. But they didn’t, and I had to hear every tiny detail.

Being what most regular walkers would term a stroll rather than a hike, the round trip doesn’t take more than a couple of hours. They had done the easy bit. Their hiking equipment looked squeaky clean and brand new. But you don’t need hiking equipment to walk a few leisurely miles along an ordinary road. A couple of shod feet attached to a pair of workable legs were more than sufficient. They drove me mad.

I would have to work outside again. But, if it wasn’t the German couple bothering me inside it was the Danish woman bothering me outside. As an amusing alternative to bothering her husband, I suppose. He’d brought along some work that needed doing, she explained. Pleasant enough, in a maternal sort of way, if you had time to listen. she kept asking me when I was getting my own room in a manner that reminded me of the way naïve mothers ask their teenage children when they’re going to tidy their bedrooms, as if expecting an honest or straight answer. In my case, I really didn’t know; I should never have told her Agnar’s promise. Even though it almost certainly not her intention, she made me feel as though I was the nuisance, not her, her husband, and their two brats. Wasn’t it enough I was having to move my laptop off the kitchen table as soon as they showed the slightest sign of wanting to use it? The trouble is, people who have nothing else to do, busy themselves making meals and eating all day. They were eating far too much, to my jaundiced eyes.

I didn’t usually get my computer out unless there was nobody in the house. Suddenly there was always someone in the house. They were on holiday, why didn’t they all go out and show it? To cap it all, she said something about how frustrating it must be for me to have people disturbing me all day long, in the way that made me think I was disturbing her. Paranoia was setting in hard. She couldn’t have meant it like that, as her own husband was busy working in perfect peace in their own room at that very moment. That was the most irritating part. More than likely, she was trying to empathise, as something about my demeanour was making her feel uncomfortable. So, I was that obvious after all. They were a nice enough couple, with two well-behaved teenagers, and I can be a real grumpy bastard at the best of times.

Nevertheless, despite all my complaints to myself, about the coming and goings of visitors, I had managed to do some work on the draft manuscript of Pedersen’s Last Dream. Cycling about Værøy had provided some inspiration for Knut Pedersen’s childhood experiences following the tragic death of his mother. My encounter with the giant, injured, black-backed gull had become his experience and helped me further mold him into a more solid character, as he struggled to come to terms with the loss. A more solid character on the verge of insanity. In spite of the paradox being blatant, the similarity to my own mental state went unnoticed at the time.

In my few moments free from pathological claustrophobia, I was beginning to see the island as a metaphor for the greater world beyond, as many writers throughout history have seen islands. “No man is an island ” wrote the Elizabethan poet John Donne, and yet there are many times this man was starting to feel like one. An island constantly being invaded.

Beyond the hostel and robua, the pace of life was slow and repetitive. Without mainland sophistication and daily complications, everything appeared honed to its basic essence. Yet, the idea I wasn’t seeing the full picture took hold. Beneath the apparent calm of everyday life, I suspected the presence of unpredictable undercurrents. I sensed that behind closed doors and lace cutains, there was another world to which I was not not yet privy. It seemed islanders had to learn how to exert more control over expressing their emotions in public, just in order to survive as a community. This sometimes gave the impression of being cold and distant to the casual visitor. At times, I felt like a man preparing to wade across a river in high flood. Though swift, he knows the water’s apparently smooth movement, too often belies the perilous turbulence hidden beneath its surface. My own emotions were in a state of flux that was becoming hard to conceal. What I regarded as my smooth exterior was a mask in grave danger of slipping too far.

Realising the negative thoughts I harboured towards the other guests might turn to anger on my return to the rorbu, the urge to seek refuge in alcohol had me bolting down some food before grabbing a bike and cycling to the pub.

Away from the travellers invading my space, and near to lots of beer, I was able to relax. Alone in a crowd, a couple of glasses gave me the scarcely possible notion the islanders were beginning to warm to me, in their own strange way. Most of them appeared to be ignoring my presence in a less hostile fashion. Having become inconspicuous, rather than invisible, a barrier had been crossed. I was now enough of a regular feature for them to recognise I wasn’t just passing through. However, I remained unconvinced it was a good thing. Knowing more people is not necessarily the best indication of popularity.

The initial attraction I’d felt towards Anita, the barmaid, was starting to fade. Even though the boyfriend, she told me she had on the island, never seemed to be around, her constant mood swings were off-putting. Not that it should’ve made any difference, as she had never shown any signs of attraction towards me. I suspected the boyfriend might be married, as that would go some way to explaining his constant absence and her unpredictable disposition.

Forgettting Anita, and everything else that had happened that day, I started chatting to a Norwegian couple, who were staying on the island. By that time, seen through the mist of alcohol, the world had become a much better place. We even arranged to meet up at the pub the next day at midday.

By the time I parked the bike back with the other rusting hulks outside the hostel, bolstered by alcohol, I was in a much cheerier frame of mind. To my great satisfaction, the German couple had departed and the bedroom was all mine once more. The Danes were in their room; I could reclaim my kingdom. I almost felt like knocking on their door and invited them for an audience, so benign was my mood. In the end, I managed to keep my renewed sense of love for everyone in check. Heading straight for bed was probably the most sensible option, and I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming


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