THE LAST THING you want to a pack for a small island in the Arctic is a mobile phone. And I don’t mean it’s the last thing you want to pack, I mean you don’t want to pack one at all. Leave the thing at home. Like packing a low slung Colt forty-five in Dead Man’s Gulch, packing a mobile for the tundra is begging for trouble. I know, simply because it was the last thing I packed. Every time it tinkled, booped, bipped, buzzed or vibrated I was plucked out of the wilderness and thrust back into a world I was desperately trying to escape.
It hardly merits mentioning the sudden buzzing and rattling on the bedside cupboard that heralds imminent booping, had me pulling the pillow over my head. I was in no need of being prised from sleep by a robotic tune after my weekend of hedonism lite. Regaining full consciousness, however, had me raked by feelings of guilt. The infernal thing couldn’t be ignored forever, as my ageing mother had been discharged from hospital a couple of weeks before I set off for the Lofotens. She was living with my sister and her family in Hertfordshire. Dragging myself from between the sheets I checked the phone screen. It read Lynn. The Californian woman I’d left in my flat for a few months – more than two years before – had developed a habit of filling me in with pointless details of her life whenever she got drunk or bored. Most likely she wanted to tell me the outflow in the kitchen sink was blocked with hair and spaghetti, or the bulb in the hall needed replacing. I had lost interest in hearing more of her adulterous shenanigans with AJ, or her adventures with schizoid Charlie, and certainly didn’t want to hear about the Moroccan crackhead, wanted for murder, a neighbour warned me she’d taken up with. They were the sort of problems opting for a spartan life on a remote island in the north of Norway was meant to avoid. If I phoned back she would insist on telling me. Though she probably wouldn’t mention the Moroccan crackhead, thinking I didn’t already know. Not in the mood for Notting Hill, which had begun to seem so deliciously faraway and irrelevant up until then, I determined to resist the urge to return the call. Besides, it was becoming extremely unlikely I’d ever want to live in London again.
Stepping outside for a smoke and a morning coffee, the short-lived summery interval of Sunday had disappeared. Low, grey clouds draped Værøy’s mountaintops in mist. I sympathised, as much as one can sympathise with rocky mountains, my own summit still shrouded by clouds of alcoholic aftermath left in my system from the weekend’s excesses. A day to stay indoors.
Having spent the weekend indulging myself, and considering the growing precariousness of the fraying financial high-wire I was metaphorically traversing, I vowed not to change money till Wednesday. It would be an exercise in psychological self-flagellation to assuage the feelings of guilt that inevitably follow inebriation. I wouldn’t take it as far as fasting, as there was enough food left in the fridge for a couple of days. My diet would be a tad more boring than usual. The good thing about boring is that it stifles the appetite. That was the theory, anyhow. The jumbo packet of frankfurters I’d bought a couple of days previously got boring after two. The remainder lay in the fridge untouched, apart from the one I’d fed to a friendly kitten. Less fearful than the others, it taken to hanging about outside my door. Its mother was far more wary, as was its thinner sibling, they would only snatch at tidbits when they thought I wasn’t looking. Most of the feral feline residents of the island seemed in a permanent state of paranoia and semi-starvation.
The islanders only tolerate cats because they help control the rats, Line told me, as we sat sunning ourselves on the old schoolhouse terrace in the abandoned village of Måstad, the day before. The population of rats had increased dramatically over the last few years, she said between sips of breakfast beer. Having been pretty much unaware of the rat problem up until that point, I wasn’t entirely sure it was something I really wanted to know. To my mind, the cats looked far too skinny and wimpish to catch a decent-sized rat. Far more likely, the rats had been feeding on them. The best way to stop the rats would be to kill all the cats, I thought at the time, but didn’t bother telling her, keeping to myself that no rat could possibly get fat on the island’s mangy cats, so they had to be eating something else. The very least she should do was check the pantry, of wherever she was staying, for droppings.
The week before I’d counted six little kittens under the rorbu across from mine. A couple of days later, I spotted the mother cat pass my window carrying one of them between her teeth. The kitten looked dead. There were only five kittens playing later that morning. From now on, I’d keep an eye out for a well-fed rat.
Despite my hangover, I managed to write for a few hours. The sky began to clear, along with my head, and I noticed it getting warmer with each of my many coffee breaks. But only outside, not inside. Situated on the north side of the building, the room seemed to be getting even colder.
By the time the sun reached its zenith, my legs needed stretching, so I took a short stroll to the nearby lighthouse. Sitting in the shelter of some rocks, I warmed myself. The weather reminded me of England on a very good day in April; however hot the sun gets it always remains chilly in the shade. Though it was early August, the scent of winter was already in the air. Several islanders had told me the climate had changed considerably over recent years. It’s more noticeable in the Arctic wilderness, where the ever-changing presence of nature is impossible to ignore.
The retired fisherman, I sometimes exchanged a few words with on a bench by the quay, held that the seasons have changed considerably over his lifetime. Little by little, summers are arriving sooner. The seagulls lay their eggs earlier and flowers bloom earlier. He didn’t mention autumn settling in at the beginning of August, so perhaps it was nomal.
Despite the locals’ genuine concerns there are plus sides, the main one being that fish stocks have begun to grow again after decades of over-fishing. But that could be as much due to reduced fishing quotas. Or an unintended consequence of Norway extending its coastal waters to two hundred miles to take take control of the vast oil fields lying deep beneath the seabed. Vast deposits of oil have made this tiny nation of little more than four million inhabitants one of the richest in the world. Extended waters require patrolling. And not only to oversee fishing quotas are enforced. Norway is one of the members of NATO that number Russia as an immediate neighbour. They share a frontier in the extreme north. A reminder of this can be seen in the radome of a listening station at the summit of the highest mountain on the island. While I was there it was possible to approach it quite closely, but I have the feeling it might not be the case now. Radomes are giant globes employed to conceal radar antenna, chiefly used for intercepting communications, from adverse weather conditions and public view.
On returning to my room it felt even chillier. Not knowing know where the heater might be, if indeed it had a heater, I had to suffer. It wasn’t until the end of the afternoon I spied an antiquated contraption in a corner against the wall under the window by the table. Isn’t it funny how some things escape your attention like that? I’d been working at the table for over a week without seeing it. But I couldn’t tell how, or whether, it functioned. Or what it functioned on. With all the oil and gas coming out of the North Sea it probably used one or the other. It looked as though it used gas, rather than oil. Then again, the chances of piped gas on such a small island were slim. Perhaps it came in some sort of container. On the other hand, if it were fired by oil, I couldn’t see where it went in went in. There was also the small question of where I might find some. I tried to look inside, as the cover was loose at the bottom. All I could see were some dusty, rusty pipe thingamewotsits. It wasn’t any sort of heating machinery I was familiar with. An important looking dial on the front beckoned me to turn it. Against all common sense, I obeyed. But just an incy-wincy bit, half-expecting to hear music. Admittedly, my attempt was on the apprehensive side. Sounds of hissing gas filled my racing thoughts. I pictured myself struggling to turn the dial back, as the deadly fumes overcame me. The dial could even come even off in my hand. If there wasn’t enough time to stick a finger in the inflow pipe, wherever that was, the escaping gas would build up, resulting in a massive explosion. My bloody bits and bobs would be distributed all over Værøy. Isolation on a small island does wonders for the imagination.
I looked at letters embossed into the metal front. Senking, I’d never heard of that brand before. It sounded Chinese. Come to think of it, it looked Chinese. Something that would’ve been the cutting edge of Chinese heating technology at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Whatever, it also looked very dangerous, and I decided to leave it well alone for the time being.
The best course of action in situations like these is to remember that you’re a man, stick another jumper on, and ignore the cold. After all, according to my diary, it was still summer. Summer on a cold,rocky Arctic islet, maybe, but summer nevertheless.
Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming