My new home

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Photo: Ann-Ulrika Östgård

EVEN THE sunniest of mornings on the island of Værøy can see endless low clouds appearing as a magic waterfall tipping over the mountains in slow motion. Driven upwards by the prevailing northern air currents, as the wind drops they dissolve into thin air.

From time to time, the cloud mist descends below the church tower to obscure it. More often, it hovers just above like a tattered shroud from a Victorian novel. Those days, as morning moves towards midday, the sky brightens and the air becomes crystal clear. However, whether light or strong, most days a wind blows from one direction or the other, always bearing the slightest chill to remind you it’s an Arctic midsummer. It’s the virtually constant winds that make the island the perfect place for drying cod naturally.

Suddenly, despite the cobwebs of a slight hangover clinging to my windows on the world, the clouds of yesterday dissolved into sunshine, metaphorically speaking, as the landlord paid me a surprise visit. His usual reason for turning up was to hit me for any rent that might be due. If it wasn’t the rent, he’d have a couple of tourists in tow he wanted to dump on me ‘just for one night’ of course. Trouble was, there’d often be another couple the next night. ‘Just for one night’ of course. This time, instead of hitting me for any rent  he bore good tidings. A self-contained room in the rorbu just across the boardwalk had fallen vacant and I could move into it straightaway. A room of my very own at last. He’d been promising it for weeks.

After showing me my new home, he handed me the key. Sparsely furnished with stuff that looked like it belonged to a Scandinavian 1940s movie of a poverty-stricken hermit, it suited my needs right down to the ground. Very writerish, in a Hemingway sort of way. Just the way this Hemming wanted, in fact.

Beneath a single window stood a table covered in oilcloth. A perfect size and height for working at, it looked out onto the quay. Being on the shady side of the rorbu, made it even better. Sunshine pouring through the window may sound like a lovely idea, but I was tapping away on a laptop, not wearing a curly wig and scratching at vellum with a quill. There was a old  fridge, a servicable cooker, and a shower on the other side of a storeroom. It had everything I needed, plus no more disturbance from people asking if they were disturbing me. I just hoped Agnar would keep to his promise this time and not turn up with any strays. Seeing the extra double bunk didn’t leave me brimming with confidence. It represented an open invitation for the odd stray guest. Or even two.

Still, no more excuses for not getting down to trying to complete the first draft of Pedersen’s Last Dream, for the moment, at least. If I wasn’t able to finish it in the isolation of a fisherman’s hut of my own on a small Arctic island in the north of Norway, I wouldn’t be able to finsh it anywhere.

Suffering another hangover on my first day in self-contained accommodation, probably wasn’t the best day to start. I needed to be pure in both mind and spirit. Tomorrow would do. That set me rattling down the road on a rusty, old bike to the island’s only pub. A hair of the dog might do the trick. A man of my word, where drinking’s concerned, I’d arranged to meet a Norwegian couple I’d shared a few rounds with the previous evening. When they hadn’t turned up by half past two, I cycled back. Must’ve been something I’d said. But before I left the bar, Anita told me there was going to be a dance there come Friday night. Something to look forward to on an island where little seemed to happen. Most of the rest of the afternoon I loafed about in self-satisfied mode, revelling in the sensation of being alone at last.

Despite hitting the sack at nine-thirty, I didn’t wake till after eight next morning. As soon as I’d finished breakfast, I set to writing at my new table in my new home.

When writing the manuscript of a novel, leaving it for just a matter of days, results in me having to read it through right from the beginning again. I can’t speak for other writers, but I always have to remind myself of even the tiniest details the sake of retaining continuity. Pedersen’s haphazard form wasn’t helping – if it could be said to have any form at all.

But Pedersen or not, the process of re-reading, time and time again, takes up a lot of valuable day, making it best not to leave a manuscript for any length of time. Nevertheless, either attempting to write Pedersen the way I wanted was making things much harder than I’d anticipated, or I was losing it. In going over the pages completed so far, my intention was to see if, how, and where I could stitch and weave my Værøy experiences into it.

There was one interruption. The mother of the Danish family knocked to tell me they were leaving and wanted to say goodbye. They’d turned out to be reasonably good company, even though I’d grumbled under my breath for much of their stay. As her English wasn’t so good, which is unusual for Danes, I’d ended up speaking Norwegian to her most of the time. Added to the time I’d spent trying to talking Swedish with Ann-Ulrika, the photographer from Småland in the south of Sweden, I began developing a mongrel sort of Scandinavian with a slightly odd accent and eccentric turn of phrase.

Although closely enough related to be able to communicate with each other reasonably well, in a basic sort of way, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are not as interchangeable as many think. It’s partly to do with accent and partly to do with vocabulary. Written Danish is very easy for Norwegians to understand, but the spoken language can be almost impenetrable. It’s often easier to understand spoken Swedish, even though the written language differs considerably, as do many words. And then there are regional differences, which can be very difficult, as they can in Britain. Most Scandinavians find it easier to talk to each other in the English they learn at school. My bit of Norwegian had been acquired during summer visits to the homes of my Norwegian relations over the years since I was a baby. The local accents of north Norway had proved difficult at first, but I was getting the hang of them. Watching TV for a couple of hours in the evening helped me keep in touch with the Oslo accent of my family.

Apart from a stiff breeze, the weather remained good the next few days, with hardly a cloud in the sky. I managed to get into a routine. The mornings saw me up early, to write for a few hours punctuated by short breaks, when I might cycle to the supermarket cafeteria for a coffee. After lunch, I’d take a longer break, to sit in the sunshine by the lighthouse in the hope of ridding the last remnants of the psoriasis that had afflicted me following an accident in Oslo almost two years before. Sometimes, that would be followed by a couple of hours napping, before getting down to some more writing.

I was beginning to realise that if I wanted to remain on the island for any length of time, it would becomed important to cut down on spending. Apart from rent, my main costs were food. and then the luxury of an occasional pack of cigarettes. I ate simply, but reasonably well. Though I didn’t smoke so much, it’d still be a good idea to cut it out completely. Drinking was a different matter. My visits to the pub help me observe the lives of a small Arctic island community. Alcohol played an important part of the culture. To stand aside and just watch, would leave me outside the community. That was a good enough excuse. I had to join in with the drinking. It was my duty as a writer and observer. The fact there was going to be another dance in a couple of days meant I would be able to watch even more of the islanders’ socialising. I began hoping it wouldn’t turn out like the last dance not long after I’d stepped ashore. (see The Morning After).

Before the end of the week, to my immense surprise I realised I’d come to the end of the rough first draft of Pedersens’s Last Dream much more abruptly than I’d anticipated. It worked more or less, as far as I could see. But now would come the hardest part. However finished it was, it was just a skeleton. I knew how it began, and I knew how it ended, what I didn’t know was most of what happened in between. In some ways, though I was partly satisfied, there was that feeling of disappoinment; the anti-climax. Half past one, I might as well go out and relax.

The wind had dropped and it’d got really hot outside the rorbu, compared to what I’d become accustomed. It was probably the most beautiful day I’d experienced in Arctic Norway, weatherwise. Down by the rocks by the lighhouse there was a slight breeze, I went to my usual sheltered spot to get my daily dose of sun for my chest. The breeze dropped for the heat to build even more.

At the end of the day, I sat outside the rorbu at the wooden table on the quayside for a smoke. For the first time since I’d arrived on the island the evening was still warm from the heat of the day.  I wrote a letter to my cousin Terje in Oslo, describing the trip so far.

A new family had moved in next door, to the adjoining quarters. With so many comings and goings I was starting to feel how the islanders might feel, in spite of my comparatively short stay.

Alerted by something in the corner of my eye, I glanced up from the letter. Clouds of blue smoke rising slowly up towards the mountains, indicated there was a fire on the other side of the harbour. Obscured by buildings and trees, I couldn’t quite make out what was going on. It made me wonder if there was any sort of fire fighting force on the island. It was hard to imagine there ever being enough fires to warrant a fire station. But fishermen must learn how to put out fires, as they pose a serious risk at sea. There was nothing I could do. Gradually, it died away.

Friday dawned as yet another day without so much as a breeze. Early morning and motionless sea-mist clouds draped the mountains from view again. The weather was exceptionally beautiful once more. I worked on An American Trilogy, three short stories I’d written some years before but had never been truly satisfied with. The last time I’d gone over them, I’d ended up thinking the third one needed most work. How things change. This time it seemed the best. I worked for a while on the first, The New Teacher.

Following my routine of taking a bit of sun on the rocks in the afternoon I had my first shower in a week. I’d wanted to see if too much showering might’ve been having a negative effect on my psoriasis. My skin certainly appeared to have improved, but that might’ve had as much to do with the daily doses of sun. Anyway, it was Friday evening, there was the big dance at the island bar to look forward to. I hardly wanted to arrive stinking like a Japanese sumo wrestler after a long bout in the ring.

Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming

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