Chapters 1-19 from

 

The Woman at 1000°

 

by Hallgrímur Helgason

 

 

translated by David McDuff

 

 

1.

 

1929 Model

 

2009

 

I live here alone in a garage, together with a laptop computer and an old hand grenade. It is quite pleasant. The bed is a hospital bed, and I have no need of any other furniture except for the toilet, which I find incredibly inconvenient to use. It is such a long way to go: along the bed and then just as far again over to the corner. I call it the Via Dolorosa, and I must totter along it three times a day like any other rheumatic ghost. I dream of obtaining a “catheter & bedpan”, but the application is stuck in the system. There’s a lot of that about.

     Windows are few here, but the world appears to me on the laptop screen. The emails come and go, and good old Facebook just keeps on getting longer, like life itself. Glaciers melt, presidents grow darker, and people bewail the loss of cars and houses. But the future is waiting at the baggage claim, slant-eyed and smirking. Oh yes, I follow it all from my white old bed. Where I lie like an undemanding corpse, waiting either for death or for someone with an  injection that will prolong my life. They look in on me twice a day, the girls from the Reykjavík Home Care Service. The one on the morning shift is a real sweetie, but the afternoon shift has cold hands and bad breath and empties the ashtray with a vacant expression.

    But if I close my eye on the world, turn out the lamp above me and let the autumn darkness fill the garage, through a little window high up on the wall I can make out the famous Imagine Peace Tower. For now the late John Lennon has become a column of light up here in Iceland, like a forest god in a poem by Ovid, lighting up the black strait on long nights. His widow was so kind as to place him vertically in my line of vision. Yes, it’s good to doze by an old flame.

    Of course you could say that I’m loafing around in this garage like any other old jalopy that has completed its mission. One day I said as much to Guðjón. He and Dóra are the couple who rent me the garage for 65,000 krónur a month. Dear Guðjón laughed and called me an “Oldsmobile”. I trotted off to the Internet and found a picture of an Oldsmobile Viking, the 1929 model. To tell the truth I didn’t realise I had grown so damnably old. It looked a bit like a fancy horse-drawn carriage.

 

 

     I have lain alone in this garage for eight years, constantly bedridden because of the emphysema which has followed me three times longer than that. The slightest movement takes my breath away until I am on the point of choking – not an agreeable sensation,  a true bother to the unburied, as they used to day in the old days. It’s the result of decades of smoking. I have been sucking cigarettes since the spring of 1945, when a warty Swedish fellow introduced me to their glory. And the glow still makes me glow. They offered me “oxygen glasses” fitted with nose tubes which were supposed to make it easier for me to breathe, but in order to get the oxygen cylinder they told me I would have to give up smoking, "because of the fire hazard". So I had to choose between two gentlemen – the Russian Count Nicotine and the British Lord Oxygen. It was an easy choice.

    As a result, I haul my breath like a railway carriage, and trips to the toilet continue to be my daily penance. But little Lóa likes going in there, and I enjoy hearing her maiden’s tinkle. She is my help and mainstay. Back home on Svefneyjar there was a small cave called the Lads’ Abode, which had been a men’s toilet for centuries. The road there was called the Earl’s Cheek, as performing one’s duty was called “shipping the earl”. Funny people, our forefathers were.

    Ah, I’m rambling from one thing to the next. When one has lived a whole Internet of events, a whole shipload of days, it’s hard to sort things out and distinguish one from the other. It all flows into a single stew of time. Either I suddenly remember everything at once or nothing at all.

    Well, well, our national system came crashing down, a year ago it was. My Maggi received a chunk of the Bank Crash in his back garden, a massive boulder through the new veranda and a good-sized rock through the windscreen of his car. But it’s all subjective, of course. Dóra and the nurses tell me that the city is still standing. It hasn’t had any effect on Reykjavik, unlike Berlin after it fell, where I wandered around at the end of the war, a silly young lass. And I don’t know which is better – an overt crash or a covert one. All I know is that with all that trouble the self-confidence drained out of my Dundi like the air from a balloon, the little that was left of it, after his wife had been pounding on it with another man. Maggi worked at Kaupthing Bank and steered his course by the thing that flickered on his laptop screen, some kind of red line he once showed me proudly. It certainly had a nice glow, as pretty as a flame in a fireplace, and about as accountable.

   I could only take pleasure in the Crash. Throughout all the boom years I lay bedridden while the greed around me ate up all my savings. So it didn’t upset me to see them disappear into the bonfire, as by that time I had become quite indifferent to money. We spend all our lives trying to put something by for our old age, but then old age arrives and has no dreams of luxury beyond being able to pee lying down. I’ll say that it would have been nice to shop around for a German boy and have him stand half-naked here in the candlelight declaiming Schiller for an old pillow-hag, but apparently they’ve banned the flesh trade in our country now, so there’s no need to mourn it.

    I have nothing except a few weeks of remaining life, two cartons of Pall Mall, a laptop and a hand grenade, and I have never felt better.

 

 

 

 

 

2.

 

Feu de Cologne

 

2009

 

The hand grenade is an old Hitler’s Egg which I acquired in the last war and has accompanied me over the rivers and fjords of my life, throughout all my marriages thick and thin. And now, at last, would be the time to use it, had not the seal broken off many years ago, on a bad day in my life. It is of course an uncomfortable way to die, to receive a firestorm in one’s lap and let it rip one’s head off. And to tell the truth, I have grown rather attached to my blessed little bomb after all these years. I’d be sad if my grandchildren weren’t able to enjoy it, in a silver bowl, on an heirloom cabinet.

    Meine geliebte Handgranate is beautiful in its deceit, fits well in one’s hand, and cools a sweaty palm with a cold iron shell that is stuffed with peace. That is really the remarkable thing about weapons: although they can be disagreeable for those who get in their way, they provide their holders with a great deal of relief. Once, many cities ago, I left my golden egg in a taxi and couldn’t rest quiet until I got it back again, after frequent and furious telephone calls to the taxi station. The taxi driver stood awkwardly on the stairs, trying to fathom it out as he asked me:

    ‘That’s an old hand grenade, isn’t it?’

    ‘No, it’s a piece of jewellery. Have you never heard of the Imperial Fabergé eggs?’

    At any rate for a long time I kept it in my jewellery box. ‘What’s that?’ Bæring from the Westfjords once asked me as we were about to set off for a ball.

    ‘It’s a scent, Feu de Cologne.’

    ‘Really?’ the old salt gasped in astonishment.

    Men have their uses, but quick-witted they are not.

    And it never hurt to know that the hand grenade was there in my handbag when the hour grew late and some idiot wanted to take me home.

    Now I either keep it in my bedside table or between my rotting legs, lying on the German  steel egg like a post-war hen, in the hope of hatching out some fire – a thing much needed these days, as society has become so namby-pamby and totally shorn of violence. It can only do people good to lose the roof over their head or see their loved ones shot in the back. I’ve always had trouble getting along with people who have never climbed over dead bodies.

    But perhaps if I throw it on the floor it will go off? Hand grenades love stone floors, I once heard it said. Yes, of course it would be wonderful to depart with a boom and leave them to pick through the dust and debris in the hope of finding some bits of my flesh. But before I explode, permit me to review my life.

 

 

 

3.

 

Mr. Björnsson

 

1929

 

I was born in the autumn of 1929, in a tin can of a house in Isafjörður. And had this peculiar name, Herbjörg María, which always suited me so badly, hung around my neck. Pagan and Christian were mixed in it like oil and water, and those sisters still fight within me.

   Mama wanted to name me after her mother Verbjörg, but Grandma would not hear of it. In her opinion, life in the fishermen’s huts (called verbúð in Icelandic) was a wet, cold and wretched existence, and she cursed her mother for naming her after such a shameful thing. Grandma Verbjörg rowed seventeen fishing seasons in Bjarneyjar and Oddbjarnarsker, winter, spring and autumn, ‘in the rat-pissing rain they’ve invented in that hellish sea of theirs, and on land it was even worse.’

   So it was my father who proposed in a letter to us that Verbjörg should become Herbjörg, and apparently my mother did not hate him enough to disagree. I myself would have chosen the name of my maternal great grandmother, the great Blómey Efemía Bergsveinsdóttir of Bjarneyjar. She was the only woman with that name in the history of Iceland until the twentieth century:  after lying in the island’s soil for fifty years she finally acquired two namesakes. One was a textile artist who lived in a dilapidated shack on Hellisheiði, while the other Blómey departed from us young, but still lives on in my inner eye and appears to me now and then in the terrain that separates dream from reality. Blómey, “the island of flowers”,  has long been my favourite island, though it hasn’t been discovered yet.

   In reality we ought to be baptised for death, just as we are baptised for life. And allowed to choose the name that will appear on our gravestone for all eternity. I see it before me now: Blómey Hansdóttir (1929-2009).

    In those days no one had two first names. But then, just before I was born, my dear and gifted mother had a vision: the Virgin Mary appeared to her in a mountain valley on the other side of the fjord, and sat there on a rock, about four hundred feet tall. For this reason her name was added to my own, and of course it must have brought some blessing with it. At any rate, I have endured all the way to the top of that peak of life that a bedridden existence is.

 “María” softens the hardness of “Herbjörg”, but I doubt that two more different women have ever shared the same life. One dedicated her fanny to God, while the other devoted hers to a whole army of men.

     I was not permitted to be called “dóttir” (daughter), even though it is the right and privilege of all Icelandic women. Instead, I became a “son”. My father’s kin, sprinkled fore and aft with ministerial and ambassadorial titles, had made their careers abroad where no one uses anything but surnames. And so the entire family was fixed to the head of one man. We all had to carry the surname of Grandpa Sveinn (who eventually became Iceland’s first President). The result of this was that no member of the family was able to make a name for himself, and that was why we failed to produce any more ministers or presidents. Grandfather attained the summit, and  the role of his children and grandchildren was to go slithering down the slope. It is hard to preserve one’s ambition when one is constantly on the way down. But of course at some point we shall reach the bottom, and then the only way for the Björnsson tribe will be back up again.

    At home in Svefneyjar I was always called “Hera”, but when at the age of seven I visited my father’s family in Copenhagen with my parents, Helle the maid from Jutland  had trouble pronouncing “Hera” and called me either “Herre” (Mr.) or “Den Lille Herre” (The Little Gentleman). Cousin Puti found this highly amusing, and after that he never called me anything but “Herra” (Mr.). At mealtimes he liked to summon me to the table: ‘Herra Björnsson, please be seated!’ At first this teasing hurt me, for I really did look rather like a boy, but the nickname stuck, and I gradually became used to it. Thus did a Miss become a Mr.

    In small-town Reykjavík I received considerable attention when in the fifties I arrived back home after a long stay abroad, a radiant young lady with lipstick and worldly ways, like Marilyn with eighteen male dancers, and the sobriquet was almost akin to a stage name: "Among the other guests was Miss Herra Björnsson, granddaughter of Iceland’s President, who draws attention wherever she goes on account of her open and cosmopolitan demeanour – Herra has just returned home to Iceland after a long stay in New York and South America."

   Thus did an unfortunate name produce some good fortune.

 

4.

 

Lóa

 

2009

 

Well, well. Here she comes, Lóa, my little dungflower. Like a white rose out of the morning darkness.

   ‘Good morning, Herra. How are you today? ‘

   ‘Oh, spare me the compliments.’

   The grey light of day has only just begun to show. And grey the day will be, like all its brethren. Daggry, say the Danes.

   ‘Have you been awake for long? Had a look at the news? "

   ‘Oh yes. It’s still rolling on, the rubble of the Crash... "

    She takes off her coat, shawl and hat. And sighs. He must be cold today, his royal unpleasantness who reigns outside. Better in here alone in a garage with a wig for a hat and a laptop for a stove. If I were a sex-willing lad with a shining soul I would do myself the favour of marrying this girl. For she is goodness and gentleness personified. And her cheeks are a heavenly red. The red-cheeked ones never deceive one. I, on the other hand, was pale with deceit from the very start, and now I sit here yellow as a corpse, in a coffin-white nightshirt, like a Jew waiting for the gas.

    ‘Aren’t you hungry?’ Lóa asks me as she turns on the light in the kitchen alcove, pecking  around with her beak in the shelves and cupboards. They are visible on the starboard side of my bed-wide ship. ‘It’s porridge as usual, isn’t it?’ She says this every morning, as soon as she bends down to the small refrigerator that Dóra gave me and sometimes keeps me awake with its ice-cold murmur. It must be admitted that she is a bit broad in the bottom, little Lóa, with legs like forty year-old birch trunks. That is probably why she never gets laid, poor little thing, and she still lives with her mother, childless. Who can fathom men? Letting all that goodness and beauty pass them by? And all that smooth, soft skin.

    ‘Well, what have you to say for yourself? What did you get up to at the weekend? Did you get laid?’ I say from the scrabbling of the laptop’s keyboard, and take a deep breath. For the emphysema patient this is a very long speech.

    ‘Eh?’ she asks, a blue-and-white milk carton in her hand, like the idiot she can quite often be.

   ‘Yes, did you go out anywhere? To cheer yourself up?’ I ask without raising my eyes. Damn me if there’s not a death-rattle in my voice.

   ‘Out on the town, you mean? No. I was just helping my mother. She’s replacing the curtains in the living room. And then on Sunday, yesterday that is, we went down to visit Grandma. She lives in Hella.’

   ‘You must think of yourself too, Lóa.’ I pause for breath before continuing. ‘You mustn’t waste your youth on an old woman like me. The breeding season will be over before you know it. ’

   I am so fond of her that I inflict this torture on my organs of speech, my throat and lungs. The dizziness that follows is like a swarm of flies behind my eyes and then they all make a concerted attack on my optic nerves and squeeze them with their leaden wings. May God rejoice.

   ‘Breeding season?’

   ‘Yes. Good Lord, what’s he replying to me now?’

   ‘Who?’

   ‘My Bakari.’

   ‘Bakari?’

   ‘Yes, that’s his name. Ah, now I’ve really got him going.’

   ‘You have so many friends,’ she says, as she starts to do the washing.

   ‘Yes, yes, I have well over seven hundred.’

   ’Eh? Seven hundred ...? "

   ‘Yes. On Facebook.’

   ‘Are you on Facebook? I didn’t know you were on Facebook. May I see?’

   Fragrant, she leans over me and I call up my page from the magic world of the Net.

   ‘Wow. Nice picture of you. Where was it taken?’

   ‘In Baires. At a ball.’

   ‘Baires?’

   ‘Yes, Buenos Aires.’

   ‘And what’s this? Is this your status? …is killing dicks? Ha ha.’

   ‘Yes, that’s an old saying from the islands. When your eyes start blinking on their own.”

   ‘Ha ha. But here it says that you have a hundred and forty-three friends. You said you had seven hundred.’

   ‘Yes, that’s just me. I have all kinds of IDs.’

   ‘Lots of IDs on Facebook? Is that allowed?’

    ‘In my view nothing in this world is not allowed.’                        

    ‘Eh?’ she says with good humour, and returns to the kitchen alcove. It’s strange how good it makes one feel to be near people who are working. It brings out the aristocrat in you. Half of me came from the sea and half from a palace, and because of that I had to spread my legs early. My aristocratic Danish paternal grandmother was a first-class slave-owner. Though she was also rather hard-working, since she was our first First Lady. Before each gala dinner she would dance around the banqueting hall from noon to night with a cigarillo in her mouth and another in her hand, trying to remember everything and get the seating arrangement right. Nothing must be missing, nothing out of place. Otherwise our land and people would be up the spout. Had the American ambassador got a fishbone stuck in his throat, the Marshall Plan aid would have been in danger. She knew quite well that the negotiations meant next to nothing. ‘Det hele ligger på gaffelen!’ (It all sits on the end of the fork!).

    Had it not been for Grandma Georgía, Grandpa would never have become President – and someone should have told him that. She was the perfect gentlewoman: gave everyone, high and low, a sense of well-being in her presence, had what the Danes call takt og tone (tact and tone), and treated all men equally, from the local bum to Eisenhower himself.

    Three cheers for the political wisdom of those days, which chose that couple to represent the newborn republic, he an Icelander, she a Dane. It was a polite gesture towards the old master race. Though we had severed our links with the Danes, we were still bonded with them.

 


 

 

5.

 

Bakari

 

2009

 

Bakari Matawu lives in Harare, the capital of former Rhodesia, which according to Wikipedia is now called Zimbabwe. He is a thirty year-old gas station attendant, black as oil, with cheekbones like an Inuit, and a heart of soft cheese. Bakari is mad about the corpse that I’ve become. He lusts after these ninety pounds of female flesh marinated in cancer which are those of yours truly. Now he writes in English:

Hello Linda,

  Thanks for the email. It is good. When I see a picture of you it is good. Your face is like an ice cube. It is good that your broken leg is better. It is also good to leave the city when you have something like this. Your Nordic eyes follow me to work in the morning like an ice-blue cat.

   Saving is going well. I get two dollars yesterday and three the day before. Hopefully I have enough for next summer. Is this not too cold?

   Now I told the guys at the gas station about you. They all agree that you are a beauty. One man who came in a car said he remembers you from beauty contest. He says that Icelandic women are beautiful because women keep best in a cold place.

   Love, Bakari

    He is saving up to travel here. The poor soul! And is doing his utmost to learn Icelandic, gobbling frozen nouns and conjugating ice-cold verbs. As a minimal requirement, Linda demands that her suitors at least learn the language, and she now runs a correspondence college that spans the entire globe. All for Iceland. “Linda” is Linda Pétursdóttir, who was Miss World 1988.

    In my clowning I use her name and face.  Bóas the male nurse (who has now gone abroad to study) created an email address for me: lindapmissworld88@gmail.com. It brings me plenty of good stories to shorten the long, dark autumn evenings of my life.

    Bakari is extremely romantic, but quite free of the Western clichés and stereotypes that I have of course seen enough of after fifty years on the international romance market. The other day he wrote:

When love is away, in my country we say that you eat flowers of loss. And this I have now done for you, Linda. Today for you I eat red rose which I found in the Park. Yesterday I eat white carnation which Mama got at the market. Tomorrow I eat a sunflower that is here in our garden.

He’ll be sad when he learns of the beauty queen’s death, which of course I shall have to invent sooner or later. Then flowers and wreaths will be eaten in Harare.

 

6.

 

Cape Town

 

1953

 

I once spent a summer in Africa myself, though it was really a winter. The weather could often be cold in Cape Town, and never have I seen such wind-bent trees as I did on the shore there, not even here in our land of gruesome gales.

    To tell the truth I had a dreadful time in South Africa, found myself constantly overflowing with guilt towards the good black folk who inhabit the land, because of course they all thought that with my pale skin I must be a Boer and a supporter of apartheid, even though I did not share their hideousness. While I was there I rediscovered the racist in me, whom I thought I had left behind in Denmark. If there are two nations in my life that I have hated, they are the Danes and the Boers – the former for their small-minded arrogance which left its mark on me as a child, and the latter for all their world-renowned obnoxiousness, which I understand still continues despite the good work of Saint Mandela. Nor is it hard to despise that race, which has the grimmest exterior appearance of all the Earth's children. Their inveterate hatred of black people fermented for so long that the final result was a canker of the spirit which eventually took material form and began to distort their physical appearance. Their faces are ravaged by the sins of their fathers.

    What surprised me most about Africa was how clean and bright it is. To tell the truth, it reminded me of Iceland. Driving along the gravel road in Kruger National Park was almost like following the twisting roads through the scrub at Thingvellir. But the Kruger Park is a zoo without bars, and people are free to drive around the lions’ lairs, though they are advised not to wave to the hyenas from an open window unless they want to rid themselves of an arm. The Boers created this great natural paradise by eliminating several tribes from the territory. For the white man to be able to look at creatures that are more bloodthirsty than himself, he first had to eat a few black men.

    Even so, it was a wonderful summer. Bob was still entertaining (one of those men who are splendid for six months but unbearable after that) and managed to sell me off to a model agency. I did the photo work for two weeks and slept with biscuits and tyres for a decent wage. It has long been proven that things sell better if they are placed beside the oldest and bestselling product in the world. I found the work loathsome, and turned down further photo opportunities where I was supposed to display my naked thighs on the slopes of Table Mountain. But I must admit that the thought of my legs becoming lustmakers in tyre shops all over South Africa did tickle my female vanity, though as a thinking being it horrified me.

    Here it is – one of the main problems of being a woman: we want to be looked at without being heard, but also listened to without being seen. We want to run around free, but also to be followed by eyes and lenses –  as long as the glow of our youth lasts, at least. When at the age of thirty I began my studies in photography, I lost interest in all that beauty business. People who make themselves into an image lose their tongue by doing so, for though an image can say more than a thousand words, those words are not theirs but those of the observer. That is why most men dream of women who can’t talk, though they all prefer them to have good hearing. I’ve seen many women who while they were arranging to get married said not a word, but when their beauty faded began to blab. Dear Dóra is one of those former beauties who now talks so much that Guðjón spends most of his time in the off-roader. Of course the best solution would be if men could simply treat us equals, as if we were men except with more attractive skin. They might mention that fact now and then, but otherwise keep mum about it. Until the drinks, anyway.

   But it never occurred to me, when Bob was ferrying me around the bars of Cape Town, or when I received three proposals of marriage on a liner south of the equator, or when I sat in the bosom of the family at a gala dinner in Bessastaðir with my eyes glued to Marlene Dietrich, that I would end my days alone and abandoned in a poorly heated garage out in the east end of Reykjavík, mouldering on a pillow, with unkempt hair, a wretched laptop on my bed and death’s paw on my shoulder.

 


 

7.

 

Svefneyjar

 

1929

 

As I already mentioned, I was born out west in Isafjörður, in a small house in Mánugata, on the ninth of September 1929. Mama had been sent away out of sight in order to acquire what no one wanted to see and should never have existed: me. There was a minimum age limit for entrance to my father’s upper class family, and so Mama and I spent the first seven years alone together in the home of Eysteinn, a farmer in Svefneyjar, and his wife Ólína Sveinsdóttir. Mama worked for them as a serving maid.

    Lína was a splendid woman, strongly built with large breasts, always with a song on her lips, though her voice was rather shrill. She was soft of heart but exceedingly strong of arm, as women were in those days, and over time became somewhat stiff-kneed, due to arthritis. She steered the large house like a sea-captain, with one eye on the waves and the other on the stove. To my mother she was like a mother, for though Grandma had many good qualities, motherly warmth was not among them. By the will and whim of the Creator, Grandma had ended her life’s voyage in Svefneyjar, though she did not live in the house but in an old boat shed out at Ladies’ Landing, together with three other women. Mama and I, on the other hand, dwelled in Lína’s fiefdom.

    Farmer Eysteinn was of Svefneyjar stock, with clear-cut features and a downy beard, sea-red cheeks and eyes as calm as a tranquil bay. His hands were large, his shoulders broad, and with the advance of the years and the growth of his paunch he used a walking-stick. In the mornings he was cheerful but in the evenings exceedingly stubborn, all smiles at home but pig-headed in the matter of contracts and of anything to do with “foreign affairs”. He was famous for having ordered some Danish land surveyors off the island aboard their vessel after they tried to move the southernmost skerry on his land three yards to the south.

    He was ‘good and a good man’, Grandma Vera liked to say. She was of Breiðafjörður stock on both sides of her family, and had made hay on more than a hundred islands. She always repeated her praise. ‘Oh, that one is fine and fine,’ she would say of a stick of candy, or a serf. Grandma was a hundred years old when I was born, and a hundred years old when she died. A hundred years old for a whole century. Baptised by the sea and hardened by trawling, no man’s daughter and married to Iceland, mother of my mother and eternal hero of my thoughts: Verbjörg Jónsdóttir. Soon I will meet her, in age and rage, and knock at her door. ‘Oh, is that you, my little dungflower?’

    My goodness. I have begun to look forward to death.

    Yes, so I enjoyed seven blissful years in Breiðafjörður, until my father got his memory back and remembered that he had a daughter and wife in this part of Iceland’s coast. My youth was strewn with islands. Islands full of burly trawlermen and seaweed-eating cattle. Sun-bright and grass-yellow islands, sea-beaten by gales from all directions, though in my memory it is always “the calm of the four winds”.

    It is said that the one who has visited all the islands in Breiðafjörður is a dead man, for many of those islands are underwater. And it can probably be said that if they are countless at high tide, by low tide they are inconceivably numerous. It is like that with many things in life that are hard to tell. How many men did I sleep with? How often was I in love? Every remembered moment is an island in the depths of time, some poet said, and if Breiðafjörður is my life, then these islands in it are the days I remember and now go chugging between on my boat of a bed, with this new-fangled outboard motor that is called a laptop.

   Chug-a-chug-a-chug.

 

 

 

8.

 

A Boat Called the Lie

 

1935

 

I want to go through this on the Lie. Dear god of memory, how I remember that boat. And the man who owned it. It was Big Mangi, Mangi the Seal-Singer he was also called, or just old Mangi of Máney.

   He was a ‘hermit-man’, as they called it in Breiðafjörður dialect, lived alone on one of the smallest inhabited Western islands, off Skarðsströnd. There he kept sheep and an ancient and enormous oil tank he had found on the shore and had spent three weeks dragging to the mooring on the eastern side of the island, a man of great stubbornness. The tank was so big that he only had to fill it once, and still he was a great consumer of oil, (some said that he drank the black stuff himself ‘to loosen his tongue’) for he was constantly at sea, or out coffee-hunting as the workmen back home in Svefnó said. He was unlike a hermit in that he was never able to be alone, but longed for company and was forever making up errands for himself. ‘Want some twine? I found this great load of it down south. Well all right, I’ll just take the cup of coffee, then.’ But despite his longing for sweet pastry, Mangi was never an unwelcome guest, as he always had news to relate. The eider ducks might have started to lay their eggs in his house – ‘I made a room for them next to my living room, and now they’ve moved their nests in there’ – or the seals had become so meek and mild that all he had to do was lie down on the seaweed and raise his voice in song in order to make them come home with him.

    Mangi was a tall man, clean-shaven and smooth-skinned, with a juicy afterglow in cheeks that looked as soft as the feathered breast of a full-grown guillemot. Salt sea-wind had beaten that dried cod to silk. He had a cataract in one eye, and he wore the fixed expression of a man who is hearing a story he finds hard to believe but believes anyway, for Mangi was so naïve that he even believed his own nonsense. His voice was slightly shrill and screeching, and the words rattled inside him like loose teeth. ‘Oh yes, now I’ve started to grow my own coffee behind the shed. I planted nine beans there in the spring. And now I’m waiting for a nice cuppa.’

    Mangi’s boat was a shapely little vessel called the Lise, but while he was on a visit to Rúfeyjar, munching sugar cubes in the kitchen of the house, the farm lads took it upon themselves to correct the boat’s name with tar and brush. Mangi, however, took no notice and continued to sail around the fjord in the Lie.

    One Sunday in late autumn he came to us fresh from the sea, told stories and drank coffee. I remember it well because my father had sent me a new dress, checked with white cuffs. I was able to wear it for the first time that Sunday and felt like an unblinking doll. When darkness fell the new generator started up and Mangi stared at the electric light bulb that burned above the table. Had he never seen electric light before?

    ‘Oh yes, yes, I have it at home.’

    ‘Do you have a generator on Máney?’

    ‘Yes, yes.’

    ‘But no one ever sees any lights on Máney,’ said Skarpi the winter workman, a realistic Northlander.

    ‘I’ll turn them on for you tonight. Just wait and see.’

    That evening the farmhouse on Máney burned down. The tongues of flame were as tall as a beacon, reflected smoothly in the calm water, and could be seen throughout the islands. That was the last we saw of Mangi, as he steered westwards, out to sea, aboard his Lie.

 

 

9.

 

A Thousand Fathoms

 

2009

 

And now I sink with him into the depths of my bed, downy soft and cold as ice, deathly blue and short of breath, where drowned sailors, women and the lone lost poet go about their business on the flatfish-covered bottom. My dear bottom-dwellers: look, now I am sinking with all my load, my sails and oars. With all my lies.

    My eyes squint, and I can hear bubbles of air coming out of me. The wig slides off my small head and turns into a rather solid jellyfish, waving its tentacles in front of the cod and haddock, while the lanugo on my head flutters like malnourished plankton and the hospital pyjama bottoms swell up to my groin, exposing the horror of fleshless legs: the skin on them flutters like fish gills and the heels are convex like ancient electrical sockets attached to my calves by cable-thin tendons, but there’s no electricity in them any more, they don’t dance the tango as they did in Baires of old. And the sail-stiff pyjama top clings to the tubular frame which once was modelled with firm white flesh and desired by strongly-built seamen of every land. From the long, open neckline flows a condom-shaped sack of skin called breast ... Oh dear, oh dear.

    Here sinks a skew-backed shadow of itself, a sinking garage god, a marble-heavy mummy, which deserves no gravestone, deserves no nothing, nothing but the shovel.

    Yes, look at how wretched I am, and hear me sing as I sink:

 

    Sea, sea

    Behold my sea

    Now sink I down to the deepest me

 

    But what should I see as I float about in the darkness of the deep? Yes, I see the depths of life, I see my ice-cold, saline life, all my eternal cursed confusion. Beneath me I can spot cities glowing, islands and countries. Men grin like sea-wolves, sharks marked with German iron crosses roam by, and far away you can hear the wail of air-raid sirens.

 

    And out of the green twilight my relatives come sailing, like a shoal of tuna fish. Grandpa and Grandma and all her upper-class Danish pharmacist family, and Grandma Vera in sodden wet Breiðafjörður woollies, Eysteinn and Lína, happily exhausted as ever, and Great Grandma Blómey (!) like an old, sea-beaten sailboat mast but not at all mouldy, and there is Mama… and Papa… they swim together, in evening dress, and they are followed by Papa’s siblings, with solemn expressions: Beta, Kylla, Henni. Prince Óli and Puti … and right at the rear comes a little girl .. a little, little girl … with her blond hair fluttering round her ears like gently flapping fins. Oh woe is me! Just look at her expression, so pretty, so peaceful, yet she caused more damage than a Berlin night of bombing …

    They go by, all with the same wonderfully shoal-like look, like sleeping souls in a painting by that fellow… that Norwegian painter who wanted to buy the house on Skothúsvegur, but I refused to sell, didn’t like the rotten way he dressed, couldn’t conceive of an unwashed man strutting around, naked and Norwegian, in a home where my parents had lived for decades… But oh my, there they swim, my people.

     And leave me sinking, alone.

     Down into those thousand fathoms that comprise a human life. And now I see beneath me a city in the middle of a war, all in black and white, but glowing red in the flames. I take a ride on a bomb, a falling bomb. I am a Norn on a crater, a witch on a broomstick transformed by witchcraft into rain… yes, I’m being dissolved into thousands of drops, I am falling, falling ...

     Now I am falling on Thingvellir. I am spreading all over Thingvellir. On the 17th of June 1944, the day of the Inauguration of the Icelandic Republic, day of excessive rain. I drench the flags and wet the spears and drip down the shields and swords, the balustrades, the hats, the brims and the backs of the chairs, and yes, I also drip on the document that my grandfather Sveinn Sveinn Björnsson is signing. (He wipes away those trembling tears of Iceland’s future and thinks they are rain, but tastes the salt and looks out over the wet field: sees that he is taking over a nation under water.)

     And on I trickle, through the grass and further down, far below Grandpa’s signature, down into earth and down into chasm, through a crevice there and into the quick of the land, the flowing lava, where Hitler thunders on a rostrum, spewing the fire that cast its flames about my life…

    ‘You want the porridge now?’

    ‘Eh?’

    ‘You want the porridge now?’

    ‘Nobody eats in hell.’

    ‘Eh?’

    ‘Nobody needs to eat in hell!”

    ‘My dear Herra…’

    ‘I’m not Herra.’

    ‘Herbjörg …’

    ‘My name is Blómey!’

    ‘My dear Blómey, here’s your porridge. Would you like me to help you?’

    ‘No one can help me.’

    ‘Do you want to eat it by yourself? You need to eat.’

    ‘Who says so?’

    ‘We all need to eat.’

    ‘You’re only stuffing me with it so I’ll need to shit. Of course you want to make me shit. So you have something to do. To wipe my arse. That’s what you want. I don’t want to need to shit. I’ve had enough of shitting!’

   By the end of this speech I am gaspingly, mumblingly out of breath.

   ‘My dear Herra…’

   ‘Blómey! Blumeninsel. Die Blumeninsel im breiten Fjord. Das bin ich.

   ‘I don’t know German. You know that.’

   ‘You don’t know anything.’

   She looks at me, at this cat-hissing woman, this wrinkled creature in a ridiculous wig, and stands silently for a while with the porridge bowl in her hands, like stupidity itself, with eyebrows. I deserve better, damn it. I deserve so much better. I thought that at least I would be allowed to die in my own bed, even with what they call ‘my people’ in attendance. But the boys don’t seem to know whether I’m being dressed or dissected. They don’t seem to realise that for them to be brought into the world, a mother was needed. They would never have got here on their own. No, it needed a spread-legged, hairy-crotched mother to push their sheep’s arses through the tunnel and out into the light. Honour your father and mother, it is said somewhere, but who remembers such scripture in the computer age? It’s three whole years since I last heard from them or their saggy-titted spouses, though actually I now have ways of keeping an eye on them.

    ‘Perhaps you’re not hungry, then?’

    ‘No estoy cinco años.’

    ‘Eh?’

    ‘I’m not a five year-old.’

    ‘Should I perhaps take the laptop so you can eat your porridge from the overbed?’

   ‘Overfed?’

   ‘No, overbed. That’s what a bedside table is called in a hospital.’

    ‘Don’t talk about hospitals. I’m not in a hospital.’

    ‘Yes, yes, I know,’ she says, and without waiting to be asked raises the headboard for me and adjusts my pillow, raises the quilt and catches sight of the war-egg. Damned carelessness, I forgot to put it away. She takes it out from under the quilt. Were I still able to blush, I would.

   ‘What’s this?’ she asks.

   ‘This? It’s ... It’s a so-called cooling-ball that I used to use in hospitals in the old days.’

   ‘Yes?’

    She swallows this, the innocent maiden, and puts my treasure away in the bedside table drawer, like the humblest of property masters. I regain my composure:

   ‘You must get some man on top of you. Or do you want to become a mouldy old maid?’

   ‘I know. You’ve already told me.’

   ‘Your mother isn’t going to make you pregnant.’

   ‘No, ha ha, I know.’

   ‘I could find you a chap. How does my Bakari strike you?’

   ‘I think I’d rather have an Icelander.’

   ‘Pah. They’re just wooden fish. It’s all about mixing the blood. A little golden plover like you ought to mate with a pelican, then there will be something new.’

  ‘The golden plover waits for the spring and the right one, too.’

  ‘Yes, you’re a clever girl. You know it all better than I do, I who wasted my virginity on barren stones. All right, you cheeky girl, give me the porridge.’

 

 

 

 

10.

 

‘The Taxi Is Here’

 

1959

 

I always had trouble with the feet of Jón the First, or Pre-Jón, as I called him later. He would frequently put them in front of me in the evening and tell me to take off his socks and rub his toes, soles, heels and calves. It was quite impossible for me to love these Icelandic men's feet that were shaped like birch stumps, hard and chunky, and screaming white as the wood when the bark is stripped from it. Yes, and as cold and damp, too. The toes had horny nails that resembled dead buds in a frosty spring. Nor can I forget the smell, for malodorous feet were very common in the post-war years when men wore nylon socks and practically slept in their shoes.

    How was it possible to love these Icelandic men? Who belched at the meal table and farted constantly. After four Icelandic husbands and a whole load of casual lovers I had become a vrai connaisseur of flatulence, could describe its species and varieties in the way that a wine-taster knows his wines. The howling backfire, the load, the gas bomb and the Luftwaffe were names I used most. The coffee belch and the silencer were also well-known quantities, but the worst were the date farts, a speciality of Bæring of Westfjord. 

    Icelandic men don’t know how to behave: they never have and never will, but they are generally good fun. At least, Icelandic women think so. They seem to come with this inner emergency box, filled with humour and irony, which they always carry around with them and can open for useful items if things get too rough, and it must be a hereditary gift of the generations. Anyone who loses their way in the mountains and gets snowed in or spends the whole weekend stuck in a lift can always open this special Icelandic emergency box and get out of the situation with a good story. After wandering the world and living on the Continent I had long tired of well-behaved, fart-free gentlemen who opened the door and paid the bills but never had a story to tell and were either completely asexual or demanded skin-burning action until the morning light. Swiss watch salesmen who only knew of “sechs” as their wake-up hour, or hairy French apes who always required their twelve rounds of screwing after the six-course meal.

     I suppose I liked German men the best. They were a suitable mixture of belching northerner and cultivated southerner, of orderly westerner and crazy easterner, but in the post-war years they were of course broken men. There was little you could do with them except try to put them right first. And who had the time for that? Londoners are positive and jolly, but their famous irony struck me as mechanical and wearisome in the long run. As if that irony machine had eaten away their real essence. The French machine, on the other hand, is fuelled by seriousness alone, and the Frogs can drive you beyond the limit when they get going with their philosophical noun-dropping. The Italian worships every woman like a queen until he gets her home, when she suddenly turns into a slut. The Yank is one hell of a guy who thinks big: he always wants to take you the moon. At the same time, however, he is as smug and petty as the meanest seamstress, and has a fit if someone eats his peanut butter sandwich aboard the space shuttle. I found Russians interesting. In fact they were the most Icelandic of all: drank every glass to the bottom and threw themselves into any jollity, knew countless stories and never talked seriously unless at the bottom of the bottle, when they began to wail for their mother who lived a thousand miles away but came on foot to bring them their clean laundry once a month. They were completely crazy and were better athletes in bed than my dear countrymen, but in the end I had enough of all their pommel-horse routines.

    Nordic men are all as tactless as Icelanders. They get drunk over dinner, laugh loudly and fart, eventually start “singing” even in public restaurants where people have paid to escape the tumult of the world. But their wallets always waited cold sober in the cloakroom while the Icelandic purse lay open for all in the middle of the table. Our men were the greater Vikings in this regard. “Reputation is king, the rest is crap!” my Bæring from Bolungarvík used to say. Every evening had to be legendary, anything else was a defeat. But the morning after they turned into weak-willed doughboys. Icelandic women are certainly not averse to managing their marriages: some run them like businesses, and of course they can be unlucky with their staff. Quite often I had to fire my personnel and did not always find others who were any better.

    But all the same I did succeed in loving them, those Icelandic clodhoppers, at least down as far as their knees. Below there, things did not go as well. And when the feet of Jón Pre-Jón popped out of me in the maternity ward, it was enough. The resemblances were small and exact: Jón’s feet in bonsai form. I instantly acquired a physical intolerance for the father, and forbade him to come in and see the baby. All I heard was the note of surprise in the bass voice out in the corridor when the midwife told him she had ordered him a taxi. From that day on I made it a rule: I sacked my men by calling a car.

    ‘The taxi is here,’ became my favourite sentence.

 

 

11.

 

The Jóns

 

1959-1969

 

In the years after the Second World War and before the Cod War, every other man in Iceland was called Jón. One literally could not move for Jóns. You only had to step out on the dance floor to be sure of conceiving a little Jón. In the space of ten years I had three baby boys with three Jóns, and some people called me the “Jón-tamer”.

    Jón Haraldsson was the first one to come along, a brilliantined wholesale merchant with a double chin and black-peppered cheeks. With him I had “Harald Fairhair”. Both were deaf and dumb.

    Then came Jón B. Ólafsson, known in the sixties as Jómbi. He was a red-haired scribbler on the Tíminn newspaper, hard in bed but soft outside it. With Jómbi I had the Smorgasbord King Ólafur who nowadays lives in Bergen, Norway, and gets along best with bread, but finds few things as annoying as a visit from his mother.

    Lastly there was Jón Magnússon, the attorney and genealogy genius known as Nonni Magg, the podgy, placid teddy-bear who knew the art of carpe diem, which he did every day with a glass and much passion. With him I had my Maggi, “Magnús the Law Reformer”. Both father and son had very extensive families, as Jón’s father had three “fathers”. Jón himself boasted of being the only living Icelander who was related to every citizen in the land. ‘Hello cousin, hello niece,’ were his favourite words. The worst thing he could say about anyone was: ‘We’re related at six or seven removes.’

    For added convenience I call my Jóns “Pre-Jón”, “Mid-Jón” and “Post-Jón”.

 

 

12.

 

 Große Freiheit

 

1960

 

And then there was Peace-Jón.

     After ordering the taxi for Pre-Jón I travelled to Hamburg and stayed there for two years, I recall. I was still too young for the Icelandic everyday, and needed to sup more of life before accepting ‘infant mortality’, but women know that as soon as their children are born, they themselves die. I had actually had a child before and refused to die for it, and instead went on living, which was the biggest mistake of my life. I didn’t plan to repeat it. But after six months I had had enough of trudging up Bankastræti in a gale of sleet from the north. I was not made for greyness. I left my newborn son at Mother & Johnson on Bræðraborgarstígur. Mama had made herself comfortable in this warm and cosy coffee family. She lived with Friðrik Johnson for seventeen years while Papa whittled down the swastika he had brought home from the war.

    This was my last attempt to make something of myself. I was nearly thirty and had learned nothing in life except how to handle hand grenades and dance the tango. In Hamburg I wanted to study photography. I had always enjoyed drawing, and in New York Bob opened a door for me into this new form of art. His father owned an original picture by Man Ray and books on the work of Cartier-Bresson and Brassaï which caught my eye like ink-black claws. I was always more interested in snapshots than in posed photos. Later I got fascinated by the work of Lee Miller, especially her photographs from the Second World War. Back home in Iceland there was not much worth seeing except Kaldal, and I did my best to keep up and sometimes bought Vogue and Life Magazine when they were obtainable. Back then few Icelandic women had made a career as a photographer, and Papa said that if I had a talent for anything it must be ‘the art of the moment’.

     I had stayed in the Hansa city in der Kriegszeit. In those days it lay in ruins, but now it had all been cleared up and rebuilt. Always quick on their feet, those Germans. But there was a housing shortage, and soon I became a Mitvermieter in the Schanzenviertel. There I rented a room in an apartment with a German girl and her French girlfriend Joséphine. They were a lot younger than I was, go-getting girls who took the nights fast and the days slow. None the less I was sucked with them into the bright lights, and I have a rather hazy memory of my time in the city: I roamed between nightlife and darkroom.

     Josie was one of those city girls who only know ‘people who matter’. And Astrid Kirchherr had then become something of a star among the young people in the clubs of the St Pauli district, a short-haired blonde of fragile beauty who, like me, was smitten with photography. In those days the main places were the Kaiserkeller and the Top Ten Club, and one night we dropped in at the former and saw the boy band from Liverpool playing their electrifying numbers. There was no explosion in the cellar, that came later, but one realised that this music was bringing a new sensibility with it. They played American rock music in a European way. The young folk in Hamburg, brought up on Bach and beer jazz, had never heard anything like it. Of course I didn’t know much about pop music, but fell for these long-haired lads’ innocence and joy in playing. They radiated a kind of newly won freedom: at last we had put the war behind us.

    At any rate I hadn’t heard jokes made about it before. In the middle of the concert the bandleader turned to the audience and said: ‘You Krauts, we won the war.’ No one laughed. In those days no one in Europe knew English. Its emissaries had not yet signed their first recording contracts.

    But Fate had decided to bring four British offspring down to Hamburg after the war as compensation for the relentless air raids of the war years and have them explode people’s eardrums, and with them all barriers. Große Freiheit (‘Great Freedom’) was the name of the street.

    They played there eight days a week. And somewhere I read that this was how they had attained their mastery. They were kept constantly in training. For there was much competition. Entry to the Kaiserkeller was free of charge, and people were quick to leave if they were bored. There was a striptease joint next door, so it was probably a rivalry with sex that brought all those tunes into the world. That is the secret of the Beatles. One could probably say the same thing about Shakespeare and all the tons of genius that he left for us to enjoy. While he didn’t have striptease to compete with, there were all those bear-fights and dog-fights in the next building. Yet people say that sex and violence are the enemies of art.

 

13.

 

Beatles Party in Hamburg

 

1960

 

It was through this company, of Astrid and my fellow lodgers, that I got lucky enough to attend a party with these conquerors of the age. It was of course a remarkable moment for an Icelandic girl, though it could all have ended differently.

    Astrid had taken up with the extra Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe his name was, a shy and sensitive art student whom John, the devil, bullied, making constant fun of his clothes and stage appearance. Poor Stu soon left the band, wasn’t made for the circus that lay ahead, and died of a headache only two years later. I don’t think he had an ounce of talent, but he was just a sweet boy.

    After one of the concerts Astrid invited us all back to her place. In those days the Fab Four were five in number, and of course it was a real adventure to stroll along the Reeperbahn with them, that famous street of prick-hard prostitution, adorned with millwheels and red lights. John was clearly the leader of the group. He was the senior one and did all the talking, asking the prostitutes if they were tired and did they want to come to a party, he would pay them the same as they’d get for the other thing. On the way there John also made fun of Astrid’s German accent and the street names we saw, but we girls just laughed as we were expected to in those years, and I probably laughed the loudest: he gave me the glad eye.

    Of Paul I don’t remember much except for the kindness in those big eyes. It was obvious that he was a good boy. Jón had demons, but Páll was quite free of them. In combination those two were unbeatable. John was sharp and cut like a knife till the blood came, but Paul healed the wound with his singing.

    Astrid was a Twiggy clone. She had painted her room black, white and silver, and from the ceiling hung twigs with no leaves. It was on the verge of what I could tolerate by way of affectation. But there were drinks and music. Old Platters records, I remember, and Nat King Cole. Lennon asked our host if she had inherited her record collection from her grandfather. I detected a certain tension between him and Astrid, and most probably his teasing of Stuart, whom he sometimes called Shutcliff or Stuffclit, was inspired by jealousy. As the Beatle stooped sputtering over the record collection I saw my chance and said I had been in the States. I asked him if he knew Buddy Holly, for with all that brilliantine of his, this was who he reminded me of. “Buddy Holly” turned out to be the magic word, because now John began to ply me with questions about the singer, of whom I knew nothing except that he was dead. But the ice was broken, and before long John and I were dancing together, though it was said he never danced. Someone turned the lights out, the Platters sang as we danced cheek to cheek, and soon a Breiðafjörður girl received a Beatles kiss. A person born in the nineteenth century arrived slap bang in the twentieth.

    Only later did I see that that this was a notable event in Icelandic history, though of a kind that was not supposed to be mentioned. I couldn’t possibly imagine it in Our Century: ‘She Kissed British Beatle in Hamburg.’ At the same time it was such a trivial one that it was hardly worth reporting. One dance, one kiss. I guess I must feel like the girl who kissed Jesus before he had his great breakthrough and who bore her fate in silence, even after her relatives began to worship him as a god. My last husband, Bæring, wanted me to tell The Week or some other tabloid about this kiss, thought it was quite remarkable, but I refused to, even after John’s death. I found it too glitzy, as Mama would have said.

    But I keep him in my collection of Jóns, as “Peace-Jón”, though I later read that he was no angel of peace. He himself admitted that all his great work for peace was due to the conflict within him, and even confessed that he had assaulted women. That is how they are, these visionaries: always with some pot boiling on the stove at home.

    But although he was young he already had the humour of the grown seaman, radiating self-confidence and was of course magically charming. Was a wonderful kisser, asked me if the British would beat the Germans in a kissing war, and was amazed when I said I was Icelandic.

    ‘Oh? So that's why I’m so cold. ‘

    ‘Are you cold?

    ‘No,’ he grinned. ‘I’m from Iceland, too.’

    ‘What? Iceland? ‘

    ‘Yes, that's what Mimi calls my room: Iceland.’

    ‘Whatever for?’

    ‘Because it's always so cold. The windows are always open.’

    ‘Why?’

    ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,’ he hummed, miming the Platters song we had just finished dancing to. ‘Mimi doesn’t like me to smoke.’

    ‘Who’s Mimi?’

    ‘My aunt. Or my Mum. My mother died in a car accident. She was run down by a drunk bastard.‘

    ‘Oh? But that’s terrible.‘

    ‘Yes. I still have to kill him.‘

    To my own surprise this sentence exploded like a bomb in my soul. Everything went dark, my eyes filled with tears and I excused myself, went out to the balcony, gripped the ice-cold railing and looked out over the buildings and the river. The lights of the big city gleamed through the tears that my pride was suppressing. I wasn’t going to start crying in front of those youngsters. My sensitivity took me aback. Was I still so fragile, then? He poked his head cautiously out to the narrow balcony:

  ‘What happened? Did I say something…?’

  I turned round.

 ‘No, no, I… it’s just… I also lost someone … like that…’

 ‘Your mother?’

   No, my little … little…’

  ‘Sister?’

   I was unable to reply. Merely shook my head. It all hurt so dreadfully. It still does hurt so dreadfully. I thought I would gradually get over having lost my daughter in a car accident, but there I was seven years later, unable to hear even the mention of such a thing. And now I lie here, fifty-six years later, wiping the tears from my wizened cheeks. But what a disaster, to get that lump in my throat in the presence of that young man, on precisely that evening. He kept his cool, but of course our ‘affair’ was over. Young men don’t go to bed with old problems.

   ‘You mean… a child?’

  I nodded, swallowed and tried to smile the tears away. Through the music I could hear a train rattling through the darkness. The Beatle smiled back, came out onto the balcony, lit a cigarette and said, as he exhaled the smoke:

  ‘You’re much older than me, aren’t you? How old are you?’

  To my surprise this gross impertinence had a refreshing effect on me. I asked him for a cigarette, and found myself able to speak again:

  ‘A gentleman… a gentleman doesn’t ask a lady her age. You’re a gentleman, aren’t you?’

  ‘No, I’m from Woolton, how old are you?’

  ‘Thirty-one, and you?’

  ‘Twenty,’ he said, and smiled. ‘But this year I’ll be thirty.’

    There was a lot contained in that. For it was the start of the decade that flashed by more quickly than any other decade of the twentieth century. I watched him open the balcony door, which was really just a large window, return to the cheerful atmosphere of the party and then grow into the long-haired, world-famous ex-Beatle who had rewritten the musical history of the age and taken half the world with him into hippiedom, in a bed in Amsterdam. 

    I remained alone and turned round towards the city again, all my unfortunate life.      Somewhere out there was the Hauptbahnhof where in the midst of the war I had ‘lost’ both my father and my mother on the same day, and somewhere inside me was a little blonde girl playing on a pavement in another city. I could still hear her laughing, laughing as I entered the bar and then heard the crash in the back of my head, the most terrible sound that life can make. It changed me into the most terrible woman who has ever lived. I heard that crash (which was caused by a two-year-old skull meeting the steel bumper of an American car at twenty miles an hour on a narrow street in the capital of Argentina) inside my head every month, sometimes every day, for the whole of my life. A mother who loses her child loses half her reason.

    And yet I had had another child, and left him with Mama so I could run out here and kiss a boy. Now he slept in Grandma’s house, one year-old Haraldur whom I felt had nothing to do with me. Far away from both children, I missed the one who was dead more than the one who still lived. Perhaps I myself was gradually dying? Had I abandoned the little boy out of a fear of losing another child under a car?

    I pulled myself together, wiped my tears and then noticed that I was holding an un-smoked cigarette, the one the Buddy Holly boy had given me. I rummaged in my coat pockets for matches, without result, but did not feel like going back inside right away, and let the cigarette fall down to the street.

    I can see now, as I lie here bedridden, warming myself on that ice-cold Imagine Peace Tower, that I should have kept that cigarette from Lennon’s pack, an un-smoked reminder of what might have been. Now I could sell it on eBay, along with one wet Beatles kiss, and redecorate the garage nicely with the proceeds, put in some furniture and wallpaper and a flat screen TV that would show nothing but movies based on my life.

 

 

 

14.

 

My Own Herra

 

2009

 

As a woman I was of course quite lonely in my generation. While the other girls of my age were in high school, I was wrestling with the Second World War. I graduated from it at fifteen, with the life experience of a thirty-year-old woman. In 1949 I was twenty, and according to the schedule of the times I should have been applying to go and study in a women’s college in Denmark or pursuing plans of marriage back in Iceland, a well-bred girl from the President’s family grooming her hair for balls in the Independence Party headquarters on Austurvöllur. Gunnar Thoroddsen would have invited me, and together we would have ended up in the Presidential residence at Bessastaðir (with me he would have won) surrounded by children and reporters. Instead, I threw myself into yet more adventures, danced on the deck of a liner south of the equator and never waited for men to ask me out, but went after them myself.

    To all my other advantages was added the fact that during these years Iceland was a good sixteen years behind the trends of the day. So I always found it hard to cope with the small town life of Reykjavík. I was a war child in the sense that I was not brought up in the war: rather, the war brought me up. I was at a woman of the world before I became a woman. I was a party girl and drank all the men under the table long before the poetess Ásta Sigurðardóttir shocked the country. I had become a practising feminist before the word was so much as seen in Icelandic newspapers. I had been applying "free love" for years before that term was invented. And of course I had kissed John Lennon long before “Beatlemania” arrived upon our frosty soil.

    And then I was expected to be "like most people".

    I was independent, had few scruples and did not let anything hold me back, neither bullshit theories, men nor gossip. I travelled around and took casual jobs, looked after my own interests, had children and lost one, but did not let the other tie me down, took them with me or left them behind, kept moving on and did not allow myself be drawn into marriage, did not allow myself to be bored to death, though that was the hardest part, of course. Long before the hippie girls appeared on the scene and began to hand their children to their mothers so they could continue their slutty existence, I had devised the concept of the long distance mother.  ‘One doesn’t let the fruits of one’s previous sex life spoil the next one,’ said one of the heroines of the sixties, or was it me? Of course you could say that I did live a kind of hippie existence, but I put it together all by myself and not by following any fashionable prescriptions from Paris.

    Simone de Beauvoir, or Simone de Bovary, as my dear Mid-Jón called her, had an easy time of it, for she had no children to complicate her female freedom. On the other hand she was always a prisoner of love, and had bound herself early on to Jean Paul Sartre, that ugly dwarf philosopher who strangely enough was one of the heart-throbs of the century and turned his love affairs into a branch of sport that made Simone jealous for the rest of her life. She tried to get her own back by practising what the wags called “Secondary Sex”, but with little success. She could not manage to "fuck away from love" as they say in the Westfjords, and ended up sleeping with the corpse of the famous midget, like Juliet with her Romeo; then finally she got him for herself. It does not say much for the position of us wretched women that the woman who was supposed to be our supreme leader never became man-free. Complete liberation for women will never be attained until all the men have perished in their wars, and all danger of childbirth is past. Then we women will live happily for a generation and lick one another’s crotches, pat one another on the cheek, and stab one another in the back in between.

    The relationship of Sartre and de Beauvoir was of course heavily advertised as a modern relationship between a man and a woman and was supposed to be a model for us all, but behind the film of paradise lay a hell filled with other people. For a time I was interested in this famous relationship and even set up a Yahoo! Alert for the couple on my laptop here in the garage. Hardly a month went by that did not disburse new concubines who had been battered at the hands of the dwarf or the lady, and sometime both. It came to light that the pair had helped themselves to female students who were underage, and then rejected them when the deflowering was over, and some of the students took their own lives while Jewish girls ended in the gas ovens. Others they threw to and fro between their two beds like stuffed animals. In the end I gave up reading these reports of old bed news. There is a limit to what old age can consume of such things. Jean-Paul and Simone seem to have been like tennis players who played with souls instead of tennis balls. If life has taught me anything, it is that only creeps become world famous. And in the case of writers it appears that the more boring their works, the more interesting are their private lives.

    In my Paris years I was never famous enough to meet Simone, but I did once encounter Sartre in a bar near Pigalle, where our eyes met in the narrow entrance to a toilet. While there was of course a certain distinction in receiving a lustful stare from such famous eyes, I felt no response in mine, merely found that an unexpected image had stuck in my brain: his face was transformed into a set of male genitals – the round spectacles rested on the nose-shaped penis, while behind it sat the eyes, bursting with semen.

    In my Bohemian ways I never went even half as far as that world-famous French couple, though I had my moments. But I suspect that the uninhibited lifestyle I enjoyed has become more common among Icelandic women only in recent years. I recently came across a discussion of Iceland in a Spanish publication in which young Icelandic ladies praised the flexibility of life in a small country where anyone can have children with anyone, as everyone is inter-related and there are already plenty of foster mothers and fathers. According to this view Iceland is like one big orgy of divorces and relationships in which children are able to choose their home and family for themselves.

    I am still waiting for a call from these modern women, and for the bouquet of flowers which they may present to me, as a pioneer, at a short ceremony here in the garage. Just as long as they don’t bring former President Vigdís with them. She always turns me into a lump of shit.

 

 

15.

 

Over the Fjord and Far Away

 

1962

 

My photography studies in Hamburg gradually petered out. While perhaps I was able to "capture the moment" sometimes, it more often succeeded in capturing me. I met Kurt and lost touch with the Art und Party scene in St. Pauli, eventually moved in with him and got a job at the bar owned by his brother. Kurt had a fast car, and we enjoyed zooming over the Elbe Bridge and out through the yellow fields, sometimes even to Cologne and Amsterdam. His father had occupied a high position under Hitler, and this was his way, and mine, of running away from an all-too recent past. There weren’t any speed limits on the German motorways.

   One fine day, by the forceps of the Lord, I was plucked out of my turbulent young life on the Continent and dumped on an offal-smelling motorboat in Iceland, looking very much like Greta Garbo in Greenland. Because of my high heels I had great difficulty keeping my balance, and it is only now that I can see how beautiful and beautiful it all was.

   Grandma Vera had suddenly taken it into her head to pass away. We could not have been more surprised had Mount Esja disappeared. After a hundred years of living among peasants and skippers in Breiðafjörður she had finally hired herself out to "the farmer at Upper Farm", as she called the Almighty.

   The corpse was placed in Ranakofi, which, as not many people know, is the oldest house in Iceland, situated on a mane of grass between the farm and the landing, a small hut made of turf and stones. It was appropriate that the country’s oldest woman should end up lying there.

    I was able to spend a twilight hour with Grandma there, and felt that she had not completely disappeared. I had seen hundreds of corpses in the war, but only twice before had I stood next to the corpse of someone close to me. Although four days had passed since her death, there was still something of Grandma Vera in this thin, toil-worn body. The life still remained in it like a kernel of sap in a withered flower. So long had her soul dwelt among these bones that she was not freed from them in a single day. A few moments later I heard her voice inside my head:

   ‘Well, that’s this day gone to feathers and down.’

    When I came out again the islands lay on the western sea like a veil on a pond, it was the most peculiar picture. My hair got in my eyes, and round the corner came Mama. She stopped and for a tiny while we stood in silence, in front of the oldest house in Iceland.

    ‘She’s so ... hard,’ I said.

    ‘Yes, mother was hard,’ she replied.

    ‘No, I mean ... I touched her and she felt as if she were made of wood.’

    The death mask was like a masterly carving, and the hands on top of the broad cloth like household utensils from antiquity. And there was no smell at all. In fact I felt that we ought to preserve her, not bury her. She was a holy relic, the history of Iceland itself. The oldest house in the country was only twice as old as her.

    ‘Yes’ said Mama, and went on standing at the corner of the hut. I could go no closer to her, and we stayed silent. There was a whole ocean between us. Life had separated us at the outbreak of the war, and it had taken a centenarian to bring us together again: at last she took a step towards me and we fell into each other’s arms for the first time since January 1941, a full twenty years earlier.

    None the less, at the funeral I was not allowed to stand in the first boat. I had to accept being put in the last one, as a punishment. In spite of our embrace, Mama was still resentful because I had not spent the previous night at home on Bræðraborgarstígur. When I finally appeared at noon she had brusquely put the baby boy into my hands.

    I have seen  few things more beautiful than a funeral cortège in my Breiðafjörður days. The coffin was taken in the first boat in a line of many boats which all took the same course together in a slow procession between skerries and flat rocks, all the way to Flatey, and always there was this white calm which the Upper Farmer had given to the funeral, with not a cobbler’s patch of cloud in the sky, as it was said. In silent sympathy the distant blue mountains of Barðaströnd had lined themselves up in a similar cortège, and bowed their heads and shoulders as they stared into the depths, with eyes full of spring-hard snow, weeping gentle meltwater brooks.

    ‘Well, she chose the right day,’ was heard from the stern.

    The sound of schnapps could now be heard in the voices of the men, who were never too busy to accompany a stiff across the Fjord. Sometimes they did not return home until a few days later and received a telling-off from the mistress of the house.

   ‘How many days does it really take that many men to bury a poor devil from the outlying skerries in unsalted earth? And in the middle of the haymaking season, too!’

 

 Mama and Friðrik stood in the first boat with the coffin, together with Eysteinn and Lína. I can see Mama’s face now on my imaginary flat screen: a cold and salt-surf expression that always recalled a Breiðafjörður eider drake: her face was snow-white and her hair black as pitch, slightly curly, scarcely moving in the grieving current of air that breathed through her inner being, while the most delicate moustache in the world trembled ever so slightly as the coffin was lowered into the smell of the earth. And yes, I am there too, in sixties mourning dress, with lipstick and handbag, staring actress-like at the brand new white cross: Verbjörg Jónsdóttir, house-woman (1862-1962).

 

 

 

 

16.

 

Mrs. Breiðafjörður

 

1862

 

House-woman. It really has the same meaning as house-fly. And yet she never lived in a house. Grandma Vera was a “native born and bred” of Stagley, a convex, surf-rimmed little island in the middle of the fjord that men and boats avoided like a skerry; the island in Breiðafjörður that was hardest to farm. And there never was any "house" there. No. She came into the world like a young puffin, crawling out of an earth-dark burrow in the middle of the fjord; a fjord-child who all her life never stayed on land but travelled between islands as in later age women did between men. Thus Grandma was all of them in one: Miss, Madam and Mrs. Breiðafjörður, though she never actually married. Sweaty Gunna once asked her why she had only had two children. ‘I only felt cold twice in all my days,’ came the answer. (Perhaps she was more interested in the clit than the clodhoppers, God bless the good woman.)

   At the age of ten she acquired her own lumpfish net, and at sixteen had become a fisherwoman in Bjarneyjar. Eventually, as I have said before, she rowed seventeen fishing seasons there and in Oddbjarnarsker, and had drunk shark liver tran oil with men who ‘were not the rubbish that’s on offer nowadays.’ Once when she was working for Thórarinn in Sviðnur she got stranded out at sea. The waves were up to her neck when the farmer came to rescue her. Then she said, as the water lapped about her chin:

    ‘This is far too much trouble for you, dear Thórarinn.’

    Soon she had a daughter, Sóley, who died young. That was in Bjarneyjar. And then quite unexpectedly, at an advanced age, when she was ‘frazzled and forty’, she got pregnant with Mama. According to her the child had been conceived at sea, during the fishing. ‘And I rowed the whole fishing season with that child under my belt until I threw it ashore on Flatey.’ Mama was never seasick, a trait I unfortunately did not inherit. My stomach is a purely Danish devil, acquired through Grandma Georgía, and is only accustomed to horse-drawn carriages and rocking chairs. But I have always been hard-headed. That is something I got from Grandma Vera, who only knew how to work her fingers to the bone, the island scribe Bergsveinn Skúlason told me long after. ‘She worked her fingers to the bone for a hundred years, your Grandma.’

      To illustrate this, he told a story: one day Grandma took a boat ride to Ólafsdalur, where she had hired herself for the haymaking. The boat made a stop at Hrappsey, and the old woman was asked if she would like to use the opportunity to take a look round the island, which many people consider to be the most beautiful one in Breiðafjörður. ‘No, I cannot,’ she said. ‘In Ólafsdalur the fields are waiting.’ And yet people think that ‘stress’ is a modern invention.

 

17.

 

In Gunna’s Lodge

 

1935

 

The house-woman ended her days in Gunna’s Lodge, which stood, and perhaps still stands, by Ladies’ Landing in Sandvík in Svefneyjar. The Lodge was originally built as a boathouse, but later converted into a ladies’ hostel. As well as Grandma, three Guðrúns lived there – two ‘girls’ of seventy, Guðrún Jónsdóttir and Guðrún Sveinsdóttir, as well as a younger woman who was known as “Sweaty Gunna”, and had had a hard time wandering around the country districts until old Gunna (Jónsdóttir) rescued her and took her to the islands.

    That girl snored like an ox, as Grandma said, and had such a wonderfully high body temperature that she heated the loft in Gunnubúð with her ever-sweaty and seal-like form like the best of central heating stoves. And that was the only heating in the shack after the fire fell asleep in the hearth at night. ‘I don’t mind the smell as long as there’s some warmth, too.’ Sweaty Gunna was always so clammy with sweat by the end of the day that she didn’t take off her clothes, and often slept in them. For festive occasions, however, the old women managed to strip the garments from her glistening white body. It would have taken a Degas to capture that steamy image on canvas. ‘Th-th-this is goo-good,’ the girl would say quickly and stammering, and no one knew if she meant it as praise or command.

    Sweaty Gunna was what was called a poor numb thing. Her body was whole but her expression numb, the eyes rather deep set and dull in their sheen : the Creator had skimped a bit in the area of her head. The expression of her eyes led some to think that she was from Greenland, while others thought she hailed from the Land of the Sea: she was the offspring of a seal and a shepherd, and had been found on the shore wrapped in seaweed. But she must have carried a magnet within her, for although when she came out to the islands she was childless, all through her girlhood she had been pregnant.

    Sweaty Gunna worked in the farmhouse (she had to cross a marsh to get there) but the others seldom went anywhere and sat for long days making textiles on the ground floor, where they had a loom that was called the Vatican (I can’t remember why), a spinning wheel and several gadgets for down and wool. The old women were short of stature and did not need much headroom. So they had been able to divide the boathouse horizontally in two with a low ceiling: downstairs was the wool room and upstairs the sleeping loft. Few men entered Gunna’s Lodge, and no men at all got into the loft, which contained four simple beds and a stove. The menfolk had to content themselves with standing in the loft hatch and chatting there with the four coffee-swigging women, each of whom sat on her bed under a steep roof: Sweaty Gunna, Gunna, old Gunna Sveins and Grandma Verbjörg. The floor of the loft was at chest height for the male visitor, and thus he always looked like a stately bust (I saw this with my own eyes on more than one occasion) as he stood in the hatchway and made his speeches.

   Most often the man who stood there was Eysteinn’s servant, an old white-bearded fellow called Sveinn Elliðason, lank and veiny, his temples throbbing with blood, and his thin hair in such close contact with the heavenly bodies that at high tide it rose from the top of his head like algae in the ocean. He was known as “Sveinki Romance”, though he had never had a woman, but was obsessed with the concept of love and kept detailed yearbooks which he called Breiðafjörður Maidens. There were lists of childless house-women in the islands and on all the farms in the surrounding coastal counties of Barðaströnd, Skarðsströnd, and Skógarströnd, and there were marks against each name, in four categories. The aged fellow assessed the girls according to parentage, practical ability, beauty and playweight, a concept long discussed but never quite understood. Sveinki Romance had a tremendous respect for women who were childless, but did not consider other women worthy of a glance, and asked each visitor who came ashore about all the farms where the man had stayed: ‘And Dómhildur Eiríksdóttir, she’s still at Valshamar, you say? Twenty-eight winters and childless, yes? And ... and still retains her beauty, her beauty, eh? ‘

    It was said that as a young man he had a crush on old Gunna, but she had taken another man who subsequently drowned at sea off Látrabjarg. But Mr. Romance had never given up, and often came down to Gunna’s Lodge in the evenings, bringing stories and rhymes, poetry and wisdom.

   ‘Did I ever tell you the story of the shepherd of Krókur?’

   ‘Oh, yes. You did, ‘ Grandma replied.

   Grandma Vera was really fed up with this man who was still stuck in the infatuation of his youth like a frozen flower that still expected its bee and who now stood here spoiling their evenings with insipid genealogies and tales of game-keeping. He also stood with his head through the hatchway making himself look like a bust, as though he were a German count and not an ordinary Icelandic snuff-sniffer. But he never heard Grandma’s censure. She was not a virgin.

   Grandma taught me early on not to have too much respect for male bullshit and to see through things like long beards, busts and uniforms. But it is a strange folly in us women to always be goggling at them, the tie-wearers. And to take their every word as gospel. It is one of the most persistent delusions of our time that men have more sense than women, based solely on the fact that they know a few verses and get sexually aroused at the sight of a wooden podium. This superstition slumbers in the greatest heroines, let me tell you.

   Of course this great woman had an influence on me. I sat in Mama’s lap and gazed at Grandma. Sucked in her frankness and severity, worshipped her forwardness and especially admired her masculinity. Much later I was accused of having more of that than was fitting for a woman. But at the end of my life I have concluded that the only way for a woman to survive in this world is to become a man.

 

18

 

Blitz Cancer

 

2009

 

Grandma ended up in a boathouse, I in a garage. That was what fate had in store for us two old women. But at least she had company, oh yes. Though the laptop is stuffed with knowledge and is hot and sweaty as well, like the blessed Gunnas, I have not yet succeeded in teaching it to laugh. On the other hand I am of course delighted to be free from snoring, farting and chattering. Not to mention the white-bearded eternal suitor. Yes, it's absolutely brilliant living here in the garage. And now come the drugs. Now come the blessed drugs. Oh dear, all those things they’ve invented for us.

    ‘Well, shall we start with the Sorbitol?’ she says, my girl, in a short-sleeved outfit, pouring the sugary stuff on to a spoon. To ease my bowels.

    The taste reminds me of Grandma Georgía. She was fond of sweet liqueurs. Then came my mother’s generation, which loved port wine. My generation just drank vodka. Then came others with different glasses. Poor Lóa says she only drinks beer on the few occasions she takes her butt out bar-hopping. That shiny thing before my gaze is probably beer fat.

    ‘Well. And then there’s the Femar. Isn’t that next? ‘

    ‘Oh, I don’t remember.’

   ‘Yes, you take two of those with a little water….Like that, yes.’

  ‘May I touch it?’

  ‘Touch what?’

  ‘Your arm. It looks so soft ... ‘

   ‘Ha ha. Does it? Yes, yes. It’s too fat, that’s all, ha ha. ‘

    Now I'm the slobbering witch feeling Hansel and Gretel’s arms. Come now, Lóa, and let a dried-up old woman chew your soft maiden’s flesh. With her last real tooth. Oh, how nice and soft that is.

    ‘I’m sure it tastes very good,’ I say. That’s the sort of thing I say.

    ‘I certainly hope you’re not going eat me up!’

    ‘Oh, just you wait.’

    These are obviously the long-term effects: the drugs seep down into me like toxins into the soil, where they meet their colleagues of the analeptic family, so that a lot of different things come bubbling out of me. They’re putting so many polluted corpses into coffins nowadays that bluish graves have been seen in Gufunes Cemetery. Blue grass and two-headed dandelions. But poison must be met with poison, say the doctors, to bring about a lifelong ceasefire in the intestines. I personally have no interest in the toma de medicamentos. I am only doing it for Lóa. She loves to poison me, the little devil. .

    It was in 1991 that I received the medical diagnosis telling me that I would be dead by the end of the spring. It was a most beautiful spring. I had been panting with emphysema for seven years, all over the place, which was not exactly recommended, and had fed it assiduously with nicotine, which had almost led to mass protests in the healthcare system. But then the cancer suddenly came along and occupied my chest cavity like a German army.    ‘This is blitz cancer,’ I explained to the doctors as soon as they admitted me.

    They would give me the spring, they said, and then I would pass under the green of summer. I was not to see the new century, and yet I was only sixty-two years old. I couldn’t believe it, as young people say. But after treatment and therapy, injections and speculations, drugs and more drugs, it was as though the Russian winter passed through me, and the German army had to retreat. For a while. It always came back, the swine, and still does.

    In the hospital I also caught a virus of the very worst kind, and thanked God for getting me out of there alive. I have never been hospitalized again since then. My health won’t permit it.

    For eighteen years I’ve been carrying little boy Cancer under my belt, though as yet he is neither born nor dead. Cancer Björnsson is a stubbly eighteen year-old lad with acne who could take his driving test if he wanted to. But of course he will only come crawling out when he is a fully qualified doctor, in order to pronounce me dead. Some people think I am the only Icelander who has lived this long with the illness. And yet the President has not yet invited me to Bessastaðir to have a medal pinned to my one-breasted chest.

    The Second World War still rages in my body, for this is a never-ending struggle. The Germans reached the liver and kidneys just before Christmas last year, with their metastasis, and although they still hold those areas yet, they had to give way to the Allies in the stomach and colon during the previous spring. (The struggle for the breasts has long been over, and one of them now sits in the League of Breasts in a better world.) The Russians, however, continue to attack the chest cavity and are moving rapidly down to the heart, where the red flag will eventually fly. And then I will be done for, and peace will reign throughout this part of the world until Stalin brings the autopsy knife and cuts my body in half.

    Then I will be cremated. Of that I am pretty certain.

    So there we have it: eighteen years have passed since I was given three months to live. I have survived, and continue to do so, though I’ve been on heavy medication all the time. When I am tired of being Linda Pétursdóttir I sometimes post under my own name on the lonely hearts website einkamal.is:

 "One-breasted woman with cancer of the lungs, kidneys, liver, etc. seeks acquaintance with healthy man. Facial blotches no problem.”

 

 

19.

 

The Fires of Purgatory

 

2009

 

Lóa lent me her phone yesterday while she went out to the 7/11 to get me a light-bulb. I used the opportunity to call the crematorium at Fossvogskirkja and get some information about the process. They say they burn seven to ten bodies a day, each of which produces 2-3 kilos of ash (depending on their weight, I presume), and the temperature of the furnace goes up to a thousand degrees Celsius. One probably needs to stay in it for an hour. ‘Or possibly an hour and a half, I would say,’ a young girl told me in a monotone. She seemed a whole life away from ash and fire, though she stood there in the middle of death’s smelting works. I had actually thought it would take less than that, but I suppose I won’t be in such a great hurry when the time comes. The girl was incredibly stupid.

    ‘I want to make an appointment with you for a cremation.’

    ‘Make an appointment?’

    ‘Yes.’

    ‘Yes, and ... what ... what is the name?’

    ‘It's Herbjörg María Björnsson.’

    Now there was a slight rustling of papers.

    ‘I’m afraid I can’t find it on the screen here. Did you send in an application form?

    ‘Oh, no, no. I want to make an appointment for me. For myself. ‘

    ‘For yourself?’

    ‘Yes.’

    ‘But ... you see ... you have to fill in a form first.’

    ‘And how do I do that?’

    ‘You can just fill it in online and send it to us, but we won’t process it until… Er….’

    ‘Until?’

    ‘Er, we don’t really, you know ... until people are… dead, you see.’

    ‘Yes, yes, I shall be dead then, you may rely on that.’

    ‘Yes? Er ... ‘

    ‘Well, if things don’t work out I’ll just come along and you can put me into the furnace alive.’

    ‘Alive? N- no, it ... That’s not allowed, you see. ‘

    ‘Well, I’ll just have to try and arrive dead. When would it suit you?’

    ‘Oh, um ... when do you want ...’

    ‘When do I want to die? I’d been thinking of before Christmas, during Advent, around the middle of December.’

    ‘Yes, that’s ... yes, we’re quite free then, I think. ‘

    ‘Yes. Can you make a reservation for me? ‘

    ‘Er ... yes, yes. When? ‘

    ‘Let's say just the fourteenth of December. What day of the week is that? ‘

    ‘Er ... It's ... It's a Monday.’

    ‘Yes, that’s ideal, an ideal way to start the week, by having yourself cremated. At what time?

    ‘Er ... Well, we’re free right from nine o'clock onwards. You could also come in the afternoon, if you prefer. ‘

    ‘Yes, I ... It’s probably safer to have it done after lunch. It may take some time. ‘

    ‘To ... You mean to get here?’

    ‘No. I may have to cut my wrists, and that I won’t do on a Sunday night. I simply mean that it might take some time until I bleed out ... ‘

    ‘Hmm… I’ll put you down, then ... But are you ...’

    ‘Yes, what?’

    ‘Are you quite… . I mean ... Are you quite sure you want to ...?’

    ‘Yes, yes, but I want the furnace to be properly heated, I don’t like to be only partly cooked. A thousand degrees, you say? ‘

    ‘Yes. Yes, don’t worry, we can just heat it well in advance and ... ‘

    ‘Yes, and you go in head first, don’t you?’

    I prefer the oven to the grave, although I could well afford a coffin and wreaths. Of course the boys might take it into their heads to show a desire to carry their mother down the church steps, but I don’t really know if I feel like letting them do that. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that they will attend their mother’s funeral. They are busy men, and it’s not at all certain that they still listen to all the obituaries on the wireless.

    Yes. I have firmly decided to depart at Advent. I couldn’t endure another Christmas here in the garage. We had such a lonely Christmas in here last year, me and the laptop, and a cold one, too, even though dear Dóra had some roast meat and gravy brought for me. Actually, it’s quite strange that the council hasn’t thought up some form of recycling for us folk who want to gladden the world with organic waste. They could grind us down for fertiliser to give the flowers, instead of killing them in our honour. But I probably wouldn’t be eligible, with all these toxins in my body. Yes. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of those thousand degrees. The fires of purgatory can scarcely be any hotter, and they ought to work well on what I myself have been unable to remove from my skin.