MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Erla put down her book and leaned back in the shabby old armchair with a deep sigh.
She had no idea of the time. The grandfather clock in the sitting room had stopped working a while ago – in fact, it must be several years ago now. They had no idea how to mend it themselves and it was so heavy and unwieldy that they had never seriously considered lugging it out to the old jeep and driving it down the long, bumpy road to the village. They couldn’t even be sure it would fit in the car or that anyone in the village would have the necessary skills to repair such an antique mechanism. So it was left where it was, reduced to the status of an ornament. The clock had belonged to her husband Einar’s grandfather. The story was that he had brought it back with him from Denmark, where he had gone to attend agricultural college before returning home to take over the farm. It was what had been expected of him, as Einar used to say. Later, it had been his father’s turn, before finally the baton had passed on to Einar himself. His grandfather was long dead; his father too, somewhat before his time. Farming out here, even just living out here, took its mental and physical toll.
She became aware that it was freezing cold. Of course, that was to be expected at this time of year. The house was feeling its age and when the wind blew from a certain quarter the only way to keep warm in some of the rooms, like here in the sitting room, was to wrap yourself in a thick blanket, as she had done now. The blanket kept her body snug, but her hands, sticking out from under it, were so chilly that it was hard to turn the pages. Still, she put up with it. Reading gave her greater pleasure than anything else she knew. A good book could transport her far, far away, to a different world, another country, another culture, where the climate was warmer and life was easier. That’s not to imply that she was ungrateful or discontented with the farm or its location, not really. It was Einar’s family home, after all, so the only thing for it was to grit one’s teeth and make the best of it. Growing up in post-war Reykjavík, Erla had never dreamt of becoming a farmer’s wife in the wild Icelandic highlands, but when she met Einar he had swept her off her feet. Then, when they were still in their early twenties, Anna had come along.
She thought about Anna, whose house was in a rather better state than theirs. It had been built much more recently, at a little distance from their place, originally as accommodation for tenant farmers. The worst part about the distance was that they couldn’t easily pop round to see each other when the weather closed in like this, or at least only with considerable difficulty. Einar usually parked up the jeep over the harshest winter months, since even with the four-wheel drive, nailed tyres and chains were little use when the snow really started coming down, day after day after day. In those conditions, it was easier to get around on foot or on cross-country skis, so it was fortunate that both she and Einar were quite competent skiers. It would have been fun to have had the chance to go skiing more often – even if only a handful of times – to try out their skills on proper downhill slopes, but there had never been much time for that sort of thing. Money had always been tight too; the farm just about broke even, but they couldn’t justify spending much on leisure pursuits or travelling. They rarely discussed it. The goal now, as ever, was to keep their heads above water, keep the farm going, and in the black, if possible. For Einar, she knew, the honour of the family was at stake; he had shouldered a heavy ancestral burden and his forefathers were like an unseen presence, forever watching him from the wings.
His grandfather, Einar Einarsson the first, kept an eye on them in the oldest part of the house, where Erla was sitting now; the original timber structure that he had built ‘with his own two hands, with blood, sweat and tears’, as her husband had once put it. Einar’s father, Einar Einarsson the second, presided over what Erla referred to as the new wing, the concrete extension that now housed the bedrooms and had been built when her husband, Einar Einarsson the third, was a child.
Erla didn’t feel anything like the same reverence for her own forebears. She seldom spoke of them. Her parents, who were divorced, lived down south, and she hardly ever saw her three sisters. Of course, distance played a part, but the truth was that her family had never been that close. After her parents split up, her sisters had stopped making much effort to stay in touch, and family get-togethers were few and far between. Erla didn’t shed many tears over the fact. It would have been nice to have her own support network to fall back on, but she had become a member of Einar’s family instead and focused on cultivating a relationship with them.
She didn’t stir from her chair. She didn’t have the energy to get up quite yet. After all, there was nowhere to go but to bed, and she wanted to stay awake a little longer, savouring the peace and quiet. Einar had fallen asleep hours ago. To him, rising early was a virtue and, anyway, he had to feed the sheep. But at this time of year, just before Christmas, with the day at its shortest, Erla could see no earthly reason to drag herself out of bed first thing, while it was still pitch dark. It wouldn’t even start to get light until around eleven and, in her opinion, that was quite early enough to wake up in December. Over the years, the couple had learned not to quarrel over such trivial differences as when to get out of bed. It wasn’t as if they received many visitors out here, so they had no choice but to get on with each other. They still loved each other too, perhaps not like in the old days when they had first met, but their love had matured as their relationship deepened.
Erla rather regretted having devoured the book so fast; she should have spun it out a little longer. Last time they drove to the village together she had borrowed fifteen novels from the library, which was over the limit, of course, but she had a special arrangement, as was only natural in the circumstances. She was allowed to keep the books out on loan for longer than usual too, sometimes for as long as two or three months, when the weather was at its worst. Now, though, she had read all fifteen; this had been the last one. She had finished them unusually quickly, although God only knew when she would next make it to the library. It would have been unfair to ask Einar to fetch more books when he skied to the village the other day, as they would only have weighed him down. She was overwhelmed by the familiar feeling of emptiness that assailed her whenever something ran out and she knew she had no chance of replacing it. She was stranded here. To describe the feeling as emptiness didn’t really do it justice; it would be truer to say she felt almost like a prisoner up here in the wilderness.
All talk of claustrophobia was forbidden on the farm, though; it was a feeling they had to ignore, because otherwise it could so easily have become unbearable.
Yes, it had been a really good book, the best of the fifteen. But not so good that she could face rereading it straight away. And she’d read all their other books, the ones they’d either bought or inherited with the house; some of them over and over again.
Her gaze fell on the fir tree standing in the corner of the sitting room. For once, Einar had put some effort into selecting a handsome specimen. The aromatic scent filling the little room was a cosy reminder that Christmas was coming. They always did their best to banish the darkness, however briefly, during the festive season, converting their loneliness into a welcome solitude. Erla relished the thought that during this season of peace and rest from their labours they would be left completely alone, quite literally, because no one would ever make it this far inland in the snow, unless they were unusually determined. And so far, that had never happened.
The tree hadn’t been decorated yet. It was a family tradition to do it on 23 December, St Thorlákur’s Mass, but there were already a few parcels arranged underneath it. There was no point trying to hide the presents from each other, as they had all been bought ages ago. After all, it wasn’t as though they could run out to the shops on Christmas Eve to buy any items they’d forgotten, like last-minute gifts or cream for the gravy.
There were books under the tree, she knew that for sure, and it was awfully tempting to open one early. Einar always gave her at least a couple of novels, and the thing she looked forward to more than anything else at Christmas was discovering what they were, then settling down in the armchair with a box of chocolates and a traditional drink of malt brew to read late into the night. All the preparations had been done. The box of chocolates was lying unopened on the dining table. The malt and orange brew was in the larder and no one was allowed to touch it until the festivities officially started, which, according to Icelandic tradition, was at 6 p.m. on the twenty-fourth, when the bells rang for the Christmas Mass. It went without saying that they would be having the customary dish of smoked lamb, or hangikjöt, for their main Christmas dinner on the evening of the twenty-fourth. Like last year, and the year before that; like every year …
Erla stood up, a little stiffly, feeling the chill striking into her flesh the moment she emerged from her warm cocoon. Going over to the sitting-room window, she drew back the curtain and peered out into the darkness. It was snowing. But then she knew that. It always snowed here in winter. What else could she expect in Iceland, living so far inland, so high above sea level? She smiled a little wryly: this was no place for people, not at this time of year. The stubbornness of Einar’s ancestors was admirable in its way, but now Erla felt as if she were being punished for their decisions. Thanks to them, she was stuck here.
The farm had to be kept going, whatever the cost. Not that she meant to complain – of course not. Several farms in the neighbourhood – if she could call such a wide, sparsely populated area a neighbourhood – had been abandoned in the last decade, and Einar’s reaction was always the same: he cursed those who moved away for their cowardice in giving up so easily. And, anyway, if they gave up the farm, what would they do for a living? They couldn’t be sure the land would be worth anything if they tried to sell it, and other job opportunities were thin on the ground out here. She simply couldn’t imagine Einar wanting to work for somebody else after being his own master for most of his life.
‘Erla,’ she heard him calling from the bedroom, his voice hoarse. She was sure she’d heard him snoring earlier. ‘Why don’t you come to bed?’
‘I’m on my way,’ she said, and switched off the lamp in the sitting room, then blew out the candle she’d lit on the table beside her to create a cosy atmosphere while she was reading.
Einar had turned on his light. He was lying on his side of the bed, ever the creature of habit: the glass of water, alarm clock and Laxness novel on the nightstand. Erla knew him well enough to realize he felt it looked good to have a classic like Laxness by the bed, though in practice he never made much headway with it in the evenings. They owned most of Halldór Laxness’s works and she had read and reread them herself, but what Einar really looked at these days were old newspapers and magazines, or articles about the paranormal. Of course, their newspapers were always out of date, some much more so than others: at this time of year, months could pass between papers. Nevertheless, they kept up their subscription to the party mouthpiece, copies of which piled up at the post office in between their visits there, and to several periodicals as well, like the Icelandic Reader’s Digest.
Although Einar’s interest in current affairs was perfectly understandable, she couldn’t for the life of her see the attraction of ghost stories or books by psychics about the spirit world, not when they lived in an eerie place like this.
In winter, not a day passed when she didn’t witness something that sent a shiver down her spine. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but the isolation, the silence, the damned darkness, they all combined to amplify every creak of the floorboards and walls, the moaning of the wind, the flicker of light and shadow, to the extent that she sometimes wondered if maybe she should believe in ghosts after all; if maybe that would make life more bearable.
It was only when she sat reading a book by candlelight, immersed in an unfamiliar world, that the phantoms in her head lost all their power to frighten her.
Erla climbed into bed and searched for a comfortable position. She tried to look forward to the morning, but it wasn’t easy. She wanted to be as enchanted by this place – by the solitude – as Einar was, but she just couldn’t make herself feel it, not any more. She knew that tomorrow would be no better, that it wouldn’t be very different from the day which had just ended. Christmas brought a slight variation in their routine, but that was all. New Year’s Eve was just another day too, though they always had a special meal then as well, smoked lamb, like on Christmas Eve, but they hadn’t let off any fireworks for donkey’s years. Since fireworks counted as hazardous items, they were on sale only for a limited period, which meant they were never available when she and Einar made their pre-Christmas trip to the village to stock up. This was usually in November, before the worst of the snow set in, and it would be hard to justify making another special trip in the depths of winter, just to buy a few rockets and sparklers. Besides, they both agreed that letting off fireworks in the middle of nowhere was a bit pointless. At least, that’s how Einar had put it, and she had humoured him as usual, though in her heart of hearts she missed the explosion of colour with which they used to greet the New Year.
‘Why are you up so late, love?’ he asked gently.
She saw from her alarm clock that it wasn’t even eleven, but here in this perpetual darkness, time had little meaning. They lived according to their own rhythm, going to bed far too early, waking up far too early. Her silent rebellion, which consisted of staying up reading, didn’t achieve anything.
‘I was finishing my book,’ she said. ‘I just wasn’t sleepy. And I was wondering if we should ring Anna to see if she’s all right.’ Answering her own question, she added: ‘But it’s probably too late to call now.’
‘Can I turn off the light?’ he asked.
‘Yes, do,’ she said reluctantly. He pressed the switch and they were engulfed by darkness. So uncompromising, yet so quiet. Not the faintest light to be seen. She could feel the snow coming down outside; knew that they wouldn’t be going anywhere soon. This was the life they had made for themselves. There was nothing to be done but endure it.
It was long past 10 p.m. Hulda was standing outside the front door, fumbling in her bag for the house keys and cursing under her breath. She couldn’t see a thing. The light bulb over the door had blown and the glow of the streetlights was too faint to be much help.
Jón had promised to buy a new bulb but, clearly, he hadn’t got round to it yet. They were half in the countryside out here by the sea on the Álftanes peninsula, away from the bright lights of the city. She had always thought of it as a good place to live, yet a sense of gloom had been hanging over the family for the last few months, as if their skies were overcast.
Hulda found her keys at last. She hadn’t wanted to ring the bell in case Jón and Dimma were asleep. She had been expecting to get home even later since she was supposed to be on night shift, but for once things had been quiet, so Snorri had let her go early. He was quite perceptive, she’d give him that, and could probably sense that all was not well at home. She and her husband, Jón, both worked too hard, and their hours were far from conventional. Jón was a self-employed investor and wholesaler, and although that should theoretically have given him considerable control over his time, in practice he spent long hours closeted in his study at home or at meetings in town. Whenever there was a lot on, Hulda was expected to do overtime, and she had to do evenings and nights when required, as well as still working the odd holiday. This year, for example, she was down to be on duty on Christmas Day. With any luck, there would be nothing to do, though, and she’d be home at a reasonable hour.
All was quiet in the house. The lights were off in the sitting room and the kitchen, and Hulda immediately noticed that there was no lingering smell of food. It seemed that yet again Jón hadn’t bothered to cook dinner for himself and their daughter. He was supposed to make sure Dimma was fed; she couldn’t live on Cheerios alone for breakfast and supper. It wouldn’t help her mood if she never got a square meal, and she had been difficult enough recently as it was. She was thirteen, and her teens hadn’t got off to a good start. She had been neglecting her school-friends and spending her evenings alone at home, shut away in her room. Hulda had always assumed that Álftanes would be a wonderful place to bring up a child, a good mix of city and countryside, reasonably close to Reykjavík but with the great outdoors on their doorstep, and plenty of clean, healthy sea air. Now, though, she had to admit that the decision to live here might have been a mistake: perhaps they should have moved closer to the centre of town, to give their daughter more of a social life.
Hulda was standing in the hall when Dimma’s door unexpectedly opened and Jón came out.
‘Back already?’ he asked, meeting her gaze with a smile. ‘So early? I thought I’d have to stay up late to have a chance of seeing you.’
‘What were you doing in Dimma’s room? Is she asleep?’
‘Yes, sound asleep. I was just checking on her. She seemed so under the weather this evening. I just wanted to make sure she was OK.’
‘Oh? Has she got a temperature?’
‘No, nothing like that. Her forehead feels quite cool. I think it’s best to let her sleep. She seems so down in the dumps at the moment.’
Jón came over, put his arm round Hulda and more or less walked her into the sitting room. ‘Why don’t we have a glass of wine, love? I went to the Ríki today and bought two bottles of red.’
Hulda hesitated, still worried about Dimma. Something didn’t feel quite right, but she pushed the thought away. The fact was, she needed to unwind after a tiring day at work; her job took it out of her enough as it was, without her having to be on edge at home as well. Perhaps Jón was right, perhaps she just needed a drink to help her relax before bed.
She took off her coat, laid it over the back of the sofa and sat down. Jón went into the kitchen and returned with a bottle and two antique glasses that had belonged to her grandparents. He pulled out the cork with an effort and filled them. This was an unusual luxury. Not only was the tax on alcohol prohibitive, but it was hard for either of them to make it to the Ríki, as the state-owned off-licence was known, during its restricted opening hours.
‘Red wine! We’re very extravagant all of a sudden. What are we celebrating?’
‘The fact I’ve had a good day,’ he said. ‘I think I’ve finally managed to sell that building on Hverfisgata that I’ve been struggling to shift. The bank’s been on my back, threatening to repossess it. Bunch of bloody bean counters, the lot of them – they have no idea how business works. Anyhow, cheers!’
‘There are times when I really wish we lived abroad, somewhere with proper banks. It’s so frustrating trying to work in an environment where everything comes down to politics, and the banks are all run by former politicians too. It’s crazy. I’m in the wrong party and I’m being made to suffer for the fact.’ He gave an aggrieved sigh.
Hulda only listened with half an ear. She hadn’t the patience to keep up with all the ins and outs of Jón’s endless financial entanglements. She had enough problems of her own at work but made it a strict policy not to bring them home, as he was inclined to do. She had every confidence in his skill at wheeling and dealing; he seemed to know all the tricks. One minute he was buying a prime piece of property, next thing she knew he’d sold it for a hefty profit, and the rest of the time he was busy building up his wholesale business. She had to hand it to him, he had certainly secured them a comfortable income over the years. They owned this attractive detached house, two cars and could afford to treat themselves to the odd luxury as well, like taking Dimma out to dinner once or twice a month, usually at their favourite hamburger joint. Reykjavík, only ten minutes away by car, had so few restaurants that even going to a fast-food place counted as a special occasion. Come to think of it, it was quite a while since they’d last been for a meal as a family. Dimma seemed to have grown out of wanting to spend time with her parents and had refused several invitations to come out with them in the last few weeks and months.
‘Jón, why don’t we go out for a meal tomorrow?’
‘On Thorlákur’s Mass? Everywhere’s bound to be heaving.’
‘I was just thinking about our usual place, about going for a burger and chips.’
‘Hm…’ After a brief pause, he said: ‘Let’s wait and see. It’s bound to be packed and the rush-hour traffic’s always so bad this close to Christmas. Don’t forget we still need to decorate the tree too.’
‘Oh, damn,’ she said. ‘I forgot to pick one up today.’
‘Hulda, you promised to take care of that. Isn’t there a place selling trees right by your office?’
‘Yes, there is, I drive past it every day.’
‘Then can’t you go and buy one first thing tomorrow morning? I suppose we’ll be stuck with some spindly little reject now.’
After a moment’s silence, Hulda changed the subject. ‘Have you got anything else for Dimma? We talked about getting her some jewellery, didn’t we? I bought that book I think she wants – she always used to like reading at Christmas, anyway. And I happen to know that my mother has knitted her a jumper, so at least she’ll be safe from the Christmas Cat.’ Hulda grinned at her own joke, a reference to the evil cat that, according to folklore, ate Icelandic children who didn’t receive any new clothes at Christmas.
‘I don’t know what she wants,’ Jón said. ‘She hasn’t dropped any hints, but I’ll sort it out tomorrow.’ Then he added with a chuckle: ‘Do you really think she’ll wear a jumper knitted by your mum?’ Before Hulda could react, he went on: ‘This is bloody good wine, isn’t it? It certainly cost enough.’
‘Yes, it’s not bad,’ she said, though she wasn’t sufficiently used to red wine to be able to taste the difference between plonk and the good stuff. ‘Don’t make fun of Mum; she’s doing her best.’ Although she wasn’t as close to her mother as she could have wished, Hulda was sometimes hurt by the way Jón talked about her. For her part, Hulda had always been keen for Dimma to get to know her grandmother properly, and that at least had worked out well.
‘Your mum hasn’t shown her face round here for ages, has she?’ Jón remarked, and Hulda knew that the light, teasing note in his voice hid an underlying criticism, though whether of Hulda or her mother, she wasn’t sure. Perhaps both of them.
‘No, that’s my fault. I’ve just been so busy that I haven’t had time to invite her round, to be honest.’ It was half true. The fact was, she didn’t particularly enjoy her mother’s company. Their relationship had always been rather constrained, and her mother could be so suffocatingly intense, always on her back. It’s not as if they ever talked about anything that mattered either.
Hulda had spent almost the first two years of her life at a home for infants, and she longed to ask her mother about the past, about why she had been put there. She suspected her grandparents had been mostly to blame, and yet somehow she had found it easier to forgive them than her mother. Naturally, she had been too young to have any memory of her time in the home, but ever since she had learned about it later from her grandfather the knowledge had haunted her. Perhaps that explained her inability to bond with her mother: the feeling that she had been abandoned, that she hadn’t been loved, was hard to bear.
She took another sip of Jón’s expensive wine. At least she was loved now. Happily married to Jón, mother of a darling daughter. She hoped to goodness Dimma would shake off her sullen mood over Christmas.
Just then she heard a sound from the hall.
‘Is she awake?’ Hulda asked, starting to get up.
‘Sit down, love,’ Jón said, placing a hand on her thigh. He was gripping it unnecessarily tightly, she thought, but she didn’t protest.
Then she heard a door closing and the click of a lock.
‘She’s only gone to the bathroom. Calm down, love. We need to give her some space. She’s growing up so fast.’
Of course, he was right. Adolescence brought big changes and no doubt children coped with them in different ways. The phase would pass and maybe Hulda simply needed to back off a bit. As a mother, she was tugged by such powerful emotions, but sometimes she knew it would be better if she just relaxed.
They sat in companionable silence for a while, something they’d always been good at. Jón topped up Hulda’s glass, though she hadn’t emptied it yet, and she thanked him.
‘Shouldn’t we get a gammon joint to have on the twenty-fourth, as usual?’ Jón asked. He obviously hadn’t noticed the joint which was already safely stowed in the bottom of the fridge.
‘Didn’t you two have any supper?’ Hulda asked in return. ‘And, yes, I’ve already got the gammon.’
‘There was no time. I grabbed a sandwich on my way home and Dimma’s used to fending for herself. There’s always skyr or something in the fridge, isn’t there?’
‘Busy at work?’ he asked amiably, changing the subject.
‘Yes, actually. We’re always trying to juggle too many cases. There just aren’t enough of us.’
‘Oh, come on, we live in the most peaceful country in the world.’
She merely smiled, in an attempt to close the subject. Some of the cases she dealt with were deeply distressing and she had no wish to discuss them with him. Then there was the incident that wouldn’t stop preying on her mind, although it had happened back in the autumn: the young woman who had vanished in Selfoss. It was a strange business. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to look at the files again tomorrow.
There was another sound from the hallway. Hulda stood up automatically, ignoring Jón’s protest.
She went out into the hall and saw Dimma standing by the door to her room, about to go inside. She paused, her eyes on her mother’s, her face as blank as if she were in a world of her own.
‘Dimma, darling, are you awake? Is everything all right?’ Hulda asked, hearing a note of desperation entering her voice in spite of herself.
She jumped when Jón suddenly put an arm round her shoulders, holding them firmly. Dimma looked at them both in turn, without saying a word, then vanished back into her room.
Copyright © 2017 by Ragnar Jónasson. English translation copyright © 2020 by Victoria Cribb