FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER had arrived on Værøy. Dance night at the pub with a local band playing. When you’ve been living on a tiny Arctic island for some time little things like that get your pulse racing. I felt like a seventeen-year-old all over again. Oh, how the memories come flooding back.
At seventeen I was a rebellious student at Loughborough Art College in England’s Midlands. My grandmother and the rest of my mother’s Norwegian family lived in Oslo. Having had strong ties with the country since early childhood, I’d taken to spending my summers in Norway. Like everyhere else in the western world, things had changed drastically from the 1950s when my parents took my sisters and I on the family holiday I describe in Reflections in a fjord.
Not every Friday night was dance night on Værøy, far from it. So, if the school dance on the day of my arrival was anything to go by, a sizeable proportion of the islanders would be there to shake a leg. Having learned from experience things start late in summer, north of the Arctic Circle, I took my time preparing. By the time I’d showered and shaved it was just after ten. Grabbing the rusty, old, hostel bike Ann Ulrika had bequeathed me before she left, I steamed on down to the pub. It wasn’t until I’d paid my 70 kroner, and was through the door, I saw the place was virtually empty. Apart from a small knot of young drunks, who’d peaked too early, I was the only other person present. They might even have peaked at lunchtime by the state of them. Hardly able to stand, one of them tore off his shirt to give his scrawny chest an airing, as he staggered about looking for someone to lean on. It wasn’t going to be me. I took up a stool by the bar as far away from him as possible. Luck was on my side. Given his condition, his eyesight was probably so distorted he saw me as being two or three people. A few of the drunks were girls talking so loud you’d have thought the place was crowded.
To my relief, the bar soon began to fill, and the more-or-less sober, began to outnumber the completely-off-their-heads. The doors to a large, adjoining room were opened to reveal a stage and dance floor, I hadn’t know was there. More more islanders arrived, the majority young women dressed up for the big occasion.
During my entire stay that summer, it never failed to surprise how many young blondes in Norway colour their hair black. Then again, it shouldn’t have, when at the other end of Europe so many women with beautiful black hair, bleach it blonde. Purely by accident, I soon found myself surrounded by beautiful young women. But it had nothing to do with my fatal attraction. The yawning space around me was the easiest place to order drinks. Though I’d donned a fresh shirt for the occasion, and changed my underwear, I could’ve just as easily been invisible.
In common with their male companions, a good number of whom looked as though got a head start, the girls appeared to want to get as wasted as possible, as quickly as possible. The way they were lining up the strangest selection of expensive cocktails, I surmised they’d probably just got paid. Most people on the island fish, or work in the cod-drying industry. There’s almost nowhere for them to spend their money, unless they like buying Norwegian postage stamps. For shopping trips and evenings out, they have to make the ferry trip to Bodø, which takes a couple of hours, and can involve an overnight stay. So when the chance to splash out on the island comes, they take full advantage of the opportunity.
As the band took to the stage, people began moving from the bar into the dance hall area to sit at tables arranged along one side. The band seemed hardly out of school, nevertheless they were good musicians, playing a mixture of rock and pop. Long, dark, winter evenings, with little to do, must give them plenty of time to practice.
A very attractive woman in her late thirties or early forties, kept getting up to dance. She smiled all the time, greeting everyone she saw, as though she was the hostess of a party. The way she was trying to get everyone on the dance floor, I worked out she was probably the mother of, or related to, one of the band. Not surprising on an island as small as Værøy, where chances are, if you’re not related, you live up the road from anyone you run into.
Just late enough to be among last to arrive, but not to miss too much, Anita and Line made their big entrance dressed to the nines. Anita completely in black and Line all in white. Obviously, there had been some consultation. The impact they made was well worth the effort. They sat at a table with another woman. Paal, the owner of the bar, arrived not long after accompanied by three drunk young men. And when I say drunk, I mean more drunk than most of the others. They sat at on of the tables by the dance floor. After a while Anita and Line went over to join them. Fuelled by yet more alcohol, one of the drunks got up on the table to dance.
Line came up and stood next to me, as she ordered drinks. We chatted and she invited me to join her, Anita and their friend. For the moment, though on the neighbouring table, they were maintaining a discreet distance from Paal, her boyfriend, and his boisterous companions. We got up to dance.
As I walk back to the bar to order a last drink before closing, a woman with red hair came across and started talking to me, as though she knew me. Most of the islanders must’ve known me by sight, as I’d been cycling and walking round the island for some time.
Turid introduced herself as Paal’s sister. After chatting for a while, she invited me to join Paal and the rest of the crowd on a trip to Måstad in Paal’s boat, a small cabin cruiser. I’d been wanting to see the old, abandoned fishing village on the other side of the island for some time. Anita had told me of the weekend drinking parties there that went on well into the early hours. By that time the band had already taken their final bows and the pub was emptying.
Turid was also on a bike. After taking some beers from behind the bar, we cycled to the other side of the harbour, where Paal’s cruiser was moored. Line, two of the three drunks and he were waiting. Line had changed clothes. Anita had gone off somewhere else. Probably for a tryst with the mysterious boyfriend I was so curious to see. But theirs wasn’t the only tryst of the night.
Lars, Ketil, and Nils had sailed their own cabin cruiser down from Svolvær, the capital of the Lofoten Isles. They were on a ‘guttetur’, a young men’s drunken outing or piss-up. At the same time their wives and girlfriends were on a ‘jentetur’ somewhere else. The idea of the outings is for the separate groups to keep an eye on one another to make sure nothing untoward goes on. That’s how the theory goes. In practice, it means all participants keep quiet about what really went on, as they become complicit.
Things had started to go untoward when Nils went AWOL, with their cruiser and a young girl. Lars and Ketil were convinced the assignation had been pre-arranged. They were angry, feeling they’d been taken for a ride. They suspected him of suggesting a weekend on Værøy as a cover for a secret affair he’d been having with the nineteen-year-old daughter of a wealthy man from Sørland. Tiny islands with small populations aren’t the ideal places to conduct secret affairs. But that doesn’t stop them from happening. Nevetheless, that’s not the way gutteturs are supposed to work. Any meetings with girls are supposed to be by chance, not pre-arranged. Nils had landed his best friends into the position of having to lie for him, without consulting them beforehand. They felt bulldozed into a conspiracy without being given the chance to voice any reservations they might’ve expressed had they known. When it became blatantly obvious he wasn’t going to turn up with their cruiser we all boarded Paal’s and set off.
It never gets completely dark in July in the Lofotens, as the sun only dips below the horizon for a couple of hours before rising again. In the small hours of the morning, a lazy, orange sun trailed in our wake gifting us a profusion of the most beautiful tones, ranging across sea and sky. In the distance, silhouhettes of dusty lavender mountains showed where the Lofotens lay. The closer range of craggy peaks that form the backbone of Værøy appeared as misty blue. A gently rippling sea was transformed into a flashing kaleidoscope of turquoise, orange, blues and yellows. Closer to the shore, black and brown rocky outcrops stood proud. The engines shut down to almost a crawl, we entered a small, sheltered bay shaded by dark grey mountains cloaked in moss green. Sheltered from the light wind the sea appear as polished glass, just the smoothest of slow, liquid waves to tell it was water at all. Subdued into silence by the sheer beauty of it all we were privileged witnesses to something unique. Barely breaking the silence, Line whispered to me the sea was rarely so calm. Paal inched the cruiser further into the little bay, for the shadowy village of Måstad to take shape before us. A few abandoned wooden buildings stood dwarfed by a backdrop of dark green mountains.
It was three o’clock in the morning. The guttetur boys’ cruiser lay anchored in the bay. A teenage girl in white shorts stood on deck drinking beer from a can. Nil’s paramour. Suddenly, another small boat with an outboard motor set out from the shore with a very angry man at its helm. He started shouting and buzzing the boys’ cruiser. The very angry man also appeared to be very drunk. There was some disagreement about the mooring. The dispute settled, as soon as the angry man realised there was a crowd of us. He steered his boat back to one of two jetties formed from stacks of large, flat boulders before disppearing into a delapidated house.
Too shallow to moor the larger craft alongside the jetties, we boarded a small motor dinghy, we’d been had been towing for the purpose of getting ashore. The jetties were very slippery with seaweed and water. Once ashore, a path through tall, summer grasses led to the small, old schoolhouse Paal had bought and converted into a hostel for summer tourists. The only classroom had been divided into two to form a kitchen and sitting room. The walls had been pasted with annaglipta painted white, up to a wood dado, at waist height, running round the room. From the dado to the ceiling the walls were deep red. The attic had been made into a simple dormitory with ten bunks for visitors and tourists.
We drank beer and chatted. After Paal, Ketil and Line had all gone to bed, Lars took a sleeping out to sleep in the open. Turid and I stayed up talking. Nils stayed aboard the second cabin cruiser with his girlfriend.
A teacher at the school on Værøy, Turid had a small daughter of nine. The girl’s father was Austrian, but the couple had separated amicably some time before. He still lived and worked in the north of Norway and visited from time to time. Turid and her daughter lived in a small first floor apartment of a building Paal owned not far from the fishermen’s rorbu in which I was staying. She had probably spotted passing by on my trips to the supermarket and Post Office. She told me some of the history of Måstad.
Up until they finally abandoned the village more than thirty years before, the people on Måstad had been almost entirely self-sufficient. They kept cows sheep, and chickens. They fished, and grew their own vegetables. Each spring, tens of thousands of puffins returned to the islands of the Lofotens to nest on the rocky cliffs after months at sea. Accompanied by little dogs, the women of Måstad climbed the cliff faces with baskets strapped to their backs. The dogs were known as Måstads, or Lundhunds. Puffins nest in little caves and holes in the steep cliff faces for protection against predators. But they weren’t able to protect themselves from all. The dogs of Måstad were trained to hunt them and their eggs out, as they formed an important part of the villagers’ diet.
The Lundehund, which tranlsate into puffin dog, had been used for hunting puffins in Norway since at least 1600. By 1900 the only remaining specimens were to be found in the tiny village of Måstad on Værøy. Now specialist clubs breeding Lundehunds can be found in many parts of the world. What sets the breed apart is the suppleness of their joints, which allows them to negotiate narrow passages. They can also bend their head back along their spines and turn their forelegs to the side at a 90-degree angle to their body, in a similar way to the human arm. Their ears fold shut to form a near-tight seal by folding them forward or backward. Instead of the four toes per foot, the Lundehund usually has six fully-formed toes. On occasion some possess more than six, or less than six. They have rough dense coats with soft undercoats. They were ideal for hunting puffins.
Turid told me not quite all of the population abandoned Måstad in the 1960s. An old man, who came to be affectionately known as ‘The Last Viking’, for his obstinacy, had stayed on with his wife. Even after she died he remained. Refusing to leave right up to the point he could no longer look after himself, he was finally persuaded to move to the old people’s residential home in Sørland on the sole condition someone would fetch him water from the well at Måstad. He’d never drank water from anywhere else during his entire life and wasn’t about to start. But the carers at the home weren’t stupid, they filled bottles with tapwater and told him it had been drawn from the well at Måstad. It was enough to make him happy. To his dying day he maintained there was no better water than came from the well in Måstad, and he would never drink water from any other source.
Turid was a dog lover and had recently lost a Pomeranian to illness. With a small animal population there wasn’t much demand for a permanent vet on the island. The nearest one was in Bodø, and there was no chance to get there in time. She and her daughter still kept a pair of cats. Their cats don’t stray into the territory of the feral cats down by the quayside. I was curious about the feral cats and their role in the life of the island. She told me that the fishermen feed the cats scraps because they keep down the rat population, which was quite large and had been expanding over the last few years. An economy dependent on preserving fish doesn’t need a plague of rats.
It was interesting to hear some of the history and day to day life of the island and islanders from someone, who’d lived there most of her life. By the time we retired to the attic to join the others it was day. Sleeping bags had been laid out on the bunks. I squeezed into one as best I could and fell straight to sleep.
Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming
Some of the names in this article have been changed.