By Colin Harvey
The phone chimed when I was in the shower. I padded into the lounge, still dripping on the carpet, and took the call with a towel wrapped round my waist. It was Gudrun, looking tearful and as haggard as it was possible for her to. “It’s Egils,” She said, without preamble, chewing a nail. “He’s disappeared. He set off for a meeting two days ago, but never got there.”
“Have you called the police?”
“Oli, we can’t do that! The elections are too near, and too close to call. The publicity would destroy us.” She gave me that look. “Please help me, Oli.”
“I’ll be there in half an hour.” I said. It only took me twenty minutes.
When we were young, we were four: in rural Iceland that’s almost a crowd. We were an odd group -- I was born on September 2nd, at the very start of the school year, while Gudrun’s birthday was on August 20th. Though she was nearly a year younger than I was, she always seemed older. She was always Egil’s girl, right from the start. She was my dream-girl, while he was the guy I’d like to have been. But I was the son of a preacher man, so there was never any chance of that.
No one really liked Thor, who hung around because, like me, he was crazy about Gudrun. Unlike me, he actually thought he had a chance. His full name was Gunnar-Thor Gunnarsson, but he was always just Thor. His father was an old-fashioned Norse bigot, and christening him Thor, then filling him full of Icelandic history without separating fact from Saga, could only make him turn out one way. To Thor, to be a real Icelander you had to like hunting, drinking yourself into oblivion, and singing. If you passed on any of them, you were a faggot. Or worse, a foreigner. He was the biggest of us, a one metre ninety-six walking slab of muscle and fat and bone, who called me ‘runt’, until Egils told him to shut up.
Egils was a natural leader, despite being slighter and lighter than Thor. Lighter in colouring, too, a freckled red-headed dervish to Thor’s mountainous intensity, but both showing the Irish skein that runs through our society.
An odd group: but teenagers have few choices for friends in a small town like Hveragedir.
When I hit seventeen in a blizzard of hormones, I bought a car, a battered old Mazda with more filler than bodywork, and lifters so far gone, they barely got it off the ground, let alone kept it at constant height. But it got us out of town, and, as winter draped a thick mantle of snow over the mountains, suddenly I was Mister Popular. I even somehow managed to lose my virginity at a concert in Reykjavik, to a dumpy brunette who was quite pretty when she took her glasses off.
My new freedom wasn’t universally popular. My mother had been dead so long I barely remembered her. My father, as Pastor for the area, always had a battery of winsome matrons keen to take her place; always ready to offer advice on things that had nothing to do with them, including the folly of letting teenagers roam the countryside. Presumably they thought us bent on murder, rape, and pillage. The scorn I heaped on them, and Pappi’s gentle admonitions, was the full extent of my teenage rebellion.
I got to choose who sat up front with me. Sometimes it was Egils, and he’d regale us with his vision for Iceland: His dreams of a land cloaked in forest, as it was when the first settlers landed. It was the only thing he and Thor agreed on. When Egils advocated a multi-cultural society, the natural consequence, he said, of the refugee pressure from the Drowned Lands of Europa, Thor exploded. “We don’t want those bastard mongrels polluting our bloodlines!” His father’s views repeated verbatim.
I tried to keep the peace, but trying to see both sides only earned me their good-natured contempt, and the nickname ‘Oli Áhorfandi: Oli Spectator’. They teased me mercilessly for sitting on the fence, never getting involved, always content to let life pass me by. Oli Fence-sitter, was how I thought of myself: Oli Gardi-Settur.
Sometimes I allowed Gudrun to sit up-front with her feet on the dash, or hanging her long legs out the door while she leaned companionably against me. It was the nearest I got to ever holding her, and it was as much torture as pleasure.
Thor recited the Sagas from the back. Tales of Sarcastic Halli, Thorstein Shiver, and Raggi Skull-Splitter – of murder, incest and retribution among the Viking nobles and their Irish slaves, seemed as appropriate to the wild and empty landscape around us as a thousand years before. We could see why our forefathers thought ghosts stalked the land, and trolls lurked behind every boulder.
We drove just to escape claustrophobic Hveragedir, particularly when the days lengthened in spring. We were constrained by needing to constantly recharge the cheap battery at a power-station. But we found ways around that, though not legal ones.
Egils and Thor turned seventeen, one a month after the other, but didn’t bother getting a car; we didn’t need another. That golden summer and into another winter, we ranged across the lava fields down to Keflavik, our imagination conjuring ogres and monsters out of the deformed columns, over the plains that cover the south of the country, as far afield as the glaciers past Thorsmjork. When we grew bored with that, we followed the tourist trail, the Golden Triangle, round the Blue Lagoon, to Gulfoss, and even managed to get tickets for the return of the Althing to Thingvellir, exactly eleven centuries after the world’s first parliament first met there. But the place we loved most was the old powerhouse at Nesjavellir.
One can one can dig a hole anywhere in Iceland and steam will literally blast out of the ground. But this valley was special, the crust here thinner, the giant in the earth even edgier. The area was close to the fault dividing Europe from America and epitomised Iceland: neither one world nor the other.
Amid the mustard-coloured soils laced with blue, green, and grey veins, the powerhouse crouched like a great white beast. We’d stand in drizzle mixed with the wraiths of steam billowing from the overflow vents, with the ground shivering under our feet like a frightened animal, sometimes playing ‘chicken’ beneath the two-metre wide pipes that run hot water all over South-west Iceland, sometimes just soaking up the feeling of enormous power that was so close. It felt as if at any moment the planet itself might rise up and swat us down. We like to think we control nature, or have at least tamed it, but that’s falsehood; we only hold it at bay, and Nesjavellir showed us how fragile that hold is.
The powerhouse was almost fully automated, and only one member of staff, a janitor, was there to man it. Security was non-existent. Sometimes we’d taunt him, leaving muddy footprints on the surgical white floor of his vestibule, until he ran out bawling names at us.
The last time we all went there, that last summer before University, Egils got Gudrun to flash her tits at him, and his mouth dropped as we ran off. Then the two of them disappeared for awhile, and it was only later when I crested a hillock, and saw them on the ground, that I realised why. Egils, with Gudrun astride him, riding him like one of her ponies. I slunk away, feeling like a spy. But not before she rolled him over, and pushed her long, long legs up his back, crying his name like a bird calling across the heather, as he plunged into her again and again. And she smiled. At me.
At eighteen I couldn’t deal with the emotions that revelation conjured up. I ran back to the car, and sat shaking, with the dashboard vid blaring out, ignoring Thor’s complaints. When they returned, Egils smug and satiated, Gudrun thoughtful, we drove back in silence. Gudrun climbed out with Egils, but leaned back in and kissed me on the cheek. I looked away, unable to face her, incapable of looking reality in the eyes.
Luckily, for the next few days I was busy getting ready for University, so I had an excuse to avoid them. My course started a week before theirs.
The day I was to leave, Thor dropped by. “Brought you this.” He presented me with a bottle of expensive Brennivin, not the usual rotgut. We hugged, and I noticed his eyes were watering. “Bloddy hay fever.” He said. “Remember, you only drink this with shark, or caviar, or Icelandic salmon. Yah?”
I nodded. “You take care, you hear?”
We parted, and his simple, unexpected act of kindness stayed with me for a long time.
I discovered, when looking for Egils, how difficult it is trying to find someone whilst pretending they’re not missing. Words like ‘kidnapped’ kept nagging away at the back of my mind, though Gudrun assured me she had received no word from anyone else, which tended to eliminate the kidnapping theory -- publicity is their oxygen.
Luckily, I was owed some leave, and concocted a story about an aunt being ill, to stretch it out, so I had the time. I don’t think my team were happy at the short notice, but they took it well. I played at being a private eye.
My doctorate in Vulcanology eventually took me to the States, where I married Laura, and onto Hawaii, where she bore us a daughter, Gudrun. Laura was a typical California Tekchic, more comfortable amongst the hard edges of the Cyberworld than this, but our love survived until we returned to Iceland, where it withered in the cold like a frost-blasted vine. After two years, she took little Gudrun back to the States. “I can’t stand this Oli,” she said, at the end. “Even your summers are like winters, and another winter will kill me.” The last I heard she had taken Gudrun to an orbital habitat. They’re probably the only citizens without criminal records or psychiatric histories: the habitats have different standards from ours, and are a favourite safe haven for fugitives – extradition is not a word in their vocabulary. We still talk, at Christmas and Birthdays.
Living on Hawaii, I couldn’t attend Egils and Gudrun’s wedding, nor invite them to mine. I lost a friend the day my best man saw a picture from Hveragedir, and insisted Laura looked exactly like Gudrun. Fortunately, Laura wasn’t around to hear the increasingly acrimonious debate.
While I was away, Egils made quite a name as a journo. That he kept his political views to himself helped, and his growing reputation on the net built him a considerable audience.
There has always been a strong isolationist lobby in Iceland, and lately the strident Iceland First party, led by Thor’s father Gunnar Gunnarsson, had gained a lot of support from olders.
From the youngers came a measured, but no less insistant demand that Iceland stepped forward more into world affairs. Egils was one of the latter group. Meanwhile in the background was a growing neo-puritanism, especially about politics.
One evening I was drinking in Hofdi with friends. The old house where Gorbachov and Reagan began the end of the cold war was now a bar-cum-museum, an inglorious but not untypical end. The old black-and-white flats were a sombre reminder of how close the human race had come to extinction, when those two met to begin pulling back from the brink. The photos were a testament to them, and that we live at all today. It could have been so different; the world consumed by fire, followed by perpetual winter, until the last vestiges of life flickered and died.
I looked up, conscious of being watched. Egils’ sandy hair was already thinning, but even after fifteen years, he still possessed an air of unceasing energy barely held in check.
“Hey.” I greeted him. Then looked away; he was making me uncomfortable. “Long time no see.” I added lamely.
“Yeah.” He replied heavily. “Long time. Funny how my best friend avoids me.”
“Why, Oli?” He seemed genuinely upset, and I felt a twinge of guilt, then anger at him for that. I didn’t like it that he could press buttons, and I’d respond like a Pavlovian mutt.
“Been busy. So have you,” I grinned to remove any sting from the words. “In fact, you’re in danger of becoming famous, you’ve been so busy.”
“Yeah.” He swayed, for we were both seriously drunk. “And you know what? None of those people are worth anything, compared to you, old friend. Hypocrites, one and all.”
“Yeah, right. Steady Oli.” He looked surprised at the bitterness in my voice. “Oli the Dependable. Oli Fence-Sitter.”
We drank ourselves stupid that night, and when I awoke next morning, I was horrified to find a reminder on my organiser from Egils, looking as bad as I felt, telling me I’d agreed to dinner with them the next Sunday. I spent all week futilely trying to think of excuses.
Sunday came: when Gudrun answered the door, she looked as stunning and as unattainable as ever. I’d hoped she’d turned into a fat hausfrau, but was cheated even of that. She had become, if anything, more elegant over the years. She was slightly taller than I was -- I stand one-eighty in my bare feet --and possessed that swan-like grace that some very tall women have.
“Hello, Olafur,” Her voice was as breathy as ever, and I noticed as I kissed her cheek, her perfume was absolutely in keeping- neither too much, nor understated.
“I hear you’re living in Mosfellsbaer?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I babbled. “It’s great. There’s a real community feeling, maybe due to the dome. It’s not as bad as some claim. You can still feel the wind -- it’s just reduced a bit. And so many olders moving out brought prices down. It was probably the only way I could afford something bigger than a cupboard.”
She smiled, almost to herself, and I shut up. I was still reduced to babbling in her presence.
Egils lounged in the chair like a giant tomcat, grinning. Even in repose, I could still sense the inner dynamo working within him. “If it weren’t for the traffic, we’d move as well.” He stretched, bones cracking. “Beer?”
I shook my head, but was overruled.
“Come and meet the Horrors,” He said.
The children were lovely. Even the most embittered man couldn’t have disliked them.
Over dinner, I asked, “Have you heard from Thor? I’ve lost touch with him.”
There was a silence before Gudrun said levelly, “I think you said he’s chair of Icelandic History at the University, didn’t you, Egils?”
“So young?” I was impressed.
“Yes, he’s done very well,” Egils said, in a voice that said drop the subject *now* please.
“We heard you’d spent time in America,” Gudrun said, eager to change the subject. “What are you doing now?”
“Mapping the Kjolur Field,” I was surprised Egils hadn’t checked up on me. Or maybe he had, and this was his way of drawing me out.
So his next question was unexpected, “I thought they’d mapped The Highlands?”
“They did,” I conceded. “But as techniques improve, new questions are posed for us. We found a massive caldera beneath one of the glaciers in the very heart of the interior, where we weren’t expecting it.” Seeing Gudrun look puzzled, I elaborated, “It’s either one huge magma reservoir, or several much smaller ones, which we’ve only just discovered. The first step is to find out how big it is.”
“Not the most hospitable of places,” Gudrun smiled.
“It’s okay,” I shrugged. It was, apart from the need to thaw frozen hands out every ten minutes or so. The more robust waldoes weren’t sensitive enough to survive the conditions, and the sensitive ones weren’t robust enough. So we had to set them manually, then retire whilst the machines drilled through the snow and ice that had taken millennia to form, as the glaciers ground on in their long march to the sea.
“Is the caldera as big as the one at Yellowstone?” Egils did know more about the subject than I first thought.
“We think much bigger,” I said. “If it is one caldera, it’s maybe two or three hundred times as big as the one beneath Yellowstone National Park.”
Egils frowned. “Could it do more damage than The Big One?” The Big One had wiped out a lot of Reykjavik a few years before.
“A lot more.” I shook my head, warning him to change the subject. I didn’t want to scare the children.
Magnus, their eldest son, interrupted. “We study volcanoes,” He said.
“Oh yes?” I sounded suitably enthusiastic.
“Do you know the only country that’s getting bigger?” He asked with the air of one who knows his cleverness.
“America?” I knew it wasn’t, but wanted to humour him.
“Iceland,” He said proudly. “All the other countries are getting smaller as the seas rise. But we have so many volcanoes that we’re getting bigger.”
“He’s going to the south-east on a field trip to see them next term,” Gudrun said. Both she and Egils looked proud.
By the end of the evening, when we set off for a bar, I’d all but forgiven them. Not that there was anything to forgive.
Gudrun stayed in with the children, whilst we went for a drink. Egils outdrank everybody, and I ended the evening singing, sprawled across the back seat of a cab.
It wasn’t the start of any great reunion; instead we drifted apart again, though not so much as before.
Gudrun drew up a list of Egils’ contacts, and I spent the next day backtracking over his movements, pretending for the most part to be from out of town, or a well-wisher wanting to get in touch with him, praying there were no mutual acquaintances who might blow my cover. Meanwhile, Gudrun still followed her daily routine, itself a fourteen-hour day. Fortunately, she had sent the children to her parents, ensuring there were no awkward questions from them.
My social life looked up when I met Janna, a petite librarian with a taste for racing sno-cats across lakes to see how far they’d go before sinking. She was a social dynamo, and I found myself towed along in her wake, which was nice; I’m naturally diffident, but she more than made up for my shyness.
She was kind too: when Pappi told me of the Lupus that was devouring his body from within, she was granite in her support. I think Pappi half-hoped she’d be wife number two, and dropped hints that he’d like to attend another wedding before it was too late: without success.
For about a year I saw Egils infrequently, and Gudrun not at all. I wasn’t entirely displeased, as I was still a little awkward around them. Too many memories, I guess.
When she first met them, Janna paled. She at first refused to tell me why, but eventually relented, and admitted that her family were fey. I laughed, but she was insistent. Then added, “They stink of death, Oli. Especially her.” It was strange from someone so practical, but it’s not unknown in Icelanders: The heritage of sagas and ghost stories.
It was late the following year. We were flying home from a weekend at the summerhouse to drop Janna and my gear, before I returned to The Highlands. It was a lovely late autumn day, the long program of reforestation finally cloaking the countryside, adding dark shades of green to the dull ochres, khakis and greys of my childhood.
My glasses chimed. Fortunately the plane was on auto, so I just clicked vision on, and they opaqued. It looked as if Egils and Gudrun were having a party.
“Hi, people,” I greeted them.
“Hey buddy,” Egils called cheerily.
“Hi, Egils,” Janna couldn’t see them, but heard me. Her voice took on the girly tone it did when he was around.
“I thought you ought to be the first to know,” He said. “Gudrun’s founding a new party.”
“You’re serious?” I laughed. “I can’t see Gudrun in the public eye.”
“You may be surprised,” Gudrun blew me a kiss.
“We’re going to call it Earth First.”
“Nothing to do with wanting to upset Iceland First?” I asked dryly.
“Of course not,” Egils innocence wasn’t completely convincing. “I’m staying out of it for the time being. I can influence things more from the outside than in at this stage. But we’ve got a few more like-minded people. What do you think?”
“Yes. Iceland can’t ignore what’s going on outside any longer. We can’t turn our back on other’s problems. Sooner or later they become ours.”
“Earth First? Pretentious? Not moi,” I mocked.
He laughed, “Politics is pomp and pretentiousness.”
“Well.” I said. “You can tap me for a thousand kroner, but I’m buggered if I’m handing out leaflets.”
“I don’t want you to. You’d scare half the voters off.” He lowered his voice, turning serious, “I need to stay in touch with the real world, to talk to ordinary, normal people I can trust; like you. It’s very easy to start believing your own propaganda, surrounding yourself with toadies. That’s where our friend Gunnar Gunnarsson’s gone wrong.”
He cut the transmission and my glasses cleared. Janna was surprisingly fascinated. She’d never been remotely interested in politics before. Her parties were more drink than talk.
Gudrun checked Janna’s place for signs of Egils, though I’ve no idea what pretext she used. Whatever the excuse, we were able to quickly rule her out. I followed her discreetly for a while, just in case, but saw no sign Janna knew where Egils was.
After an initial surge of enthusiasm, many voters returned to their previous allegiance, but still the new party slowly, surely, gained ground. Earth First wasn’t going away.
Over that same year, my work changed: triggered by a routine cartography study, which showed a Col higher than it should be, and at a different angle. We checked and rechecked the figures, but there could be little doubt.
Magma was welling up, and pushing the rocks above the caldera out of position. As the extent of the threat grew clear, funding increased. My colleagues and I became concerned at the implications, and we took the name Project Ragnarok.
We all had our different ways of dealing with those implications. As our workload grew, I spent more and more time working up amongst the glaciers, and less time at home, either alone or with Janna. I came to love again the endless skies, the brazen peaks, the snow crunching underfoot. I grew to love again the sudden transformation from wind-whipped blizzards to clear skies with the Aurora Borealis dancing, flickering.
In the real world, where truth was less measurable, more elastic, the last spring before the election, Egils formally announced his retirement as a full-time journalist, and stood as a candidate for the Althing for Earth First. The elections were scheduled for October, so they had plenty of time to put the campaign together.
I had spent eighteen hours looking for Egils without making any progress. Exhausted, I called round to Gudrun to give her the bad news, and ended up holding her while she cried. The next step had a terrible inevitability.
Two days after Gudrun’s birthday, they invited me to dinner. I had missed her party, or rather, hadn’t been invited, but I wasn’t bothered. She was public property nowadays.
Surprisingly, it was to be just them and me. Janna pleaded a prior engagement. She had been preoccupied lately, and I wondered if we had run our course as a couple. There had been no drama, no quarrelling, no tears as there had been when my marriage ended, just a gradual drifting apart.
Whilst dinner was cooking, I wandered onto their patio, and admired the garden. A variety of unusual flowers grew profusely in the micro-climate, coddled by Gudrun, who gardened to relax after a hard day.
The house stood above most of their neighbours’, and I had quite a view. In the distance, Hafn, the volcano whose birth pangs had swallowed Hafnorfjordur and a lot of Reykjavik during the Big One, grumbled like a cantankerous old man. I reminded myself that after two decades, the grouchy old man could still kill.
I felt a touch on my shoulder, and a glass of scotch was pressed into my hand.
“I was just thinking about you,” I said. “You and dirt aren’t an obvious combination. Or do you wear gloves?”
“Swine,” Gudrun replied.
“Oink. You haven’t left Egils alone with the food?” Egils could still burn water – his cooking hadn’t improved.
“No, he’s playing with the children.”
I was too aware of her closeness, of her hip against mine. I fought the urge to push a stray lock of blonde hair away from her face. I moved onto what I thought was safe ground, “Janna’s sorry she couldn’t make it.”
“She wasn’t invited.” She saw my shocked look, and took a deep breath, “Oli, we’ve known each other a long time. We can be honest. I give Egils freedom; as long as he doesn’t flaunt it, I turn a blind eye. But her- there wasn’t anything I could be specific about, but I don’t want her around. I don’t like her, or trust her. If I’ve offended you, I’m very, very sorry.”
“No, no, it’s okay,” I said quickly, while thinking furiously. “Come on, let’s go in, it’s getting cold.”
Gudrun jealous? What of? Had Egils and Janna been having an affair? Was Gudrun simply paranoid? Was Gudrun threatened in some way, real or imaginary? It was rare to see Gudrun jealous. Even as a child, she always seemed to be in control.
I said little during dinner, but that didn’t matter, since Egils talked enough for both of us. We were sitting drinking coffee, the children elsewhere, when he asked innocently, “You’ve heard about the UN?”
“What about them?” I waited for a punch line, which never came.
“It seems they can either stay in New York and get wet feet, or move to India or China. But those two can’t agree, and might even knock each other out of the running if a good enough third choice emerges.”
“And that is?”
“Guess,” He saw the look on my face and grinned. “Think about it. How many countries can say honestly that they bridge two continents? Only the Turks, and they’re still trying to pull their economy out of the Stone Age since the last Gulf War.”
“And why are you telling me this? Isn’t it a big secret?”
“One reason I can talk to you about things like this is that you’re completely impartial, and you keep your mouth shut. Shit, I’ve never known anybody gossip as little as you do.” He paused. “And there’s a catch. It’s a big one.”
“They want us to double our immigration level straight away. And increase the percentage of that by ten per cent per year for the next ten years.”
I whistled, and did some maths. “In ten years, we’d be bringing in two point six per cent of our current population every year.”
“Yeah. In ten years a quarter of the population would be non-Icelandic. Should I oppose that? Everything I’ve said or done in the last ten years has been toward greater integration with the rest of the world.”
“No, it makes you a realist. There has to be a balance. That’s far too many. We can’t be expected to dilute our society so much it stops being our society.”
“Well, there’s something that will really blow it out of the water, if it weren’t already unsaleable. They want us to take the additional quota from Non-Europeans -- such as Indians and Asians. They ask how they can base a body representing the world in a country with racist immigration policies?”
I snorted, “They wouldn’t use words like ‘racist’?”
“Not publicly: But that’s what it boils down to.”
“God knows how we could sell this one to the public,” Gudrun said, “Even if the UN water their demands down.”
“I think they will,” Egils said. “I’m sure this is a bargaining position.”
“You always liked a challenge,” I joked.
“There are challenges. For this we need a miracle,” He said.
I left reeling at the end of that evening, not just from drink: Janna; Egils; Tides of immigrants.
I was shell-shocked for days. I still couldn’t make up my mind whether Janna and Egils were having an affair, and before I could come to terms with the question, someone leaked the UN story to the media. Two days before my birthday, I suggested to Janna that we went our separate ways.
“Okay.” She shrugged. And that was that. The girl I’d cared for was a long way from the cold, remote, stone-faced stranger she’d become.
I left early the next morning, before either Gudrun or I could try to justify our actions. I was even more determined to find Egils, to prove my failure wasn’t from lack of effort. Again, I drew blanks all day, and worryingly, several people commented they hadn’t seen him for days. It was only a matter of time before word got out. I studiously ignored Gudrun’s calls.
At seven-thirty, I took a call from an old friend, back from a year in Britain, who wanted to celebrate his return. At first I declined his invitation, but decided I’d worked hard enough, and was entitled to night off. He and a few others were going to a handball international that evening, and I arranged to meet him afterwards at the stadium. As designated driver, I couldn’t drink, and could keep my wits about me.
But by the time we got to the third bar, an ‘Irish’ drinking-den, I was sufficiently depressed to wish I could get drunk. The pub was dark and noisy, with fiddlers sawing, and drummers hammering away with more vigour than skill. The fug was thick enough to make my eyes burn, and I was about to leave when what felt like an anaconda gripped my arm. “Oli,” The familiar voice said, “How ya doin?”
I groaned inwardly -- the very last person I wanted to run into. “Fine, Thor. How are you keeping?”
For reply, he bared his oversized teeth in his usual grin. He looked terrible, hair slicked across a growing bald patch, patches of stubble where he’d missed shaving. There were food stains too on his clothes. The years had been unkind to Thor. But he seemed pleased to see me, which was nice. Somewhere at the back of those half-mad eyes, a trace of humanity still lurked like a cowed beast.
“Yah. We went fishing last weekend. Caught some big salmon. You should come. Do you good to do some hunting.”
I had heard talk of his estate in the north-west, full of elk, bison, even resurrected mastodons, all bred solely so Thor could show off his skill as a hunter to his fellow crazies. I had no intention of going anywhere near it, but I nodded, “Maybe I should. Perhaps we ought to have an old school reunion? You know, get together with Egils and a few others?”
“Ya, maybe.” He grinned again, “Seen him lately? He’s a very busy man.”
“I was going to ask you the same thing. We’ve lost touch a bit, with the election coming up. Have you seen him about?”
“No, but then again, I wouldn’t. We don’t move in the same circles.” He spoke as slowly, precisely as ever. “Maybe my father has seen him. You know they’re old friends?”
“Old adversaries, you mean?”
He laughed -- something between a bark and a shout. “That isn’t so. Really, they’re more alike than you would think. They both have that powerhouse personality. They change things.” He leaned closer, and I almost fell back at his breath. “I thought for a while that you might go into politics.”
“Me?” I was genuinely surprised. “I don’t think so.”
“No,” He agreed. “You’re too trusting. Too honest. I admire you for that. You’re more Icelandic than some, I think.” Fortunately, my friends saved me from his drunken ramblings by insisting we moved on. I wasn’t sorry. Poor Thor, I thought, wondering if he could ever have turned out differently.
When I got home at three in the morning, I put the porch light on, to find Gudrun sitting, huddled miserably on the top step. I felt a stab of guilt, both at our betrayal of Oli, then my subsequent behaviour, avoiding her when she most needed a friend. Guilt subsumed as she kissed me, gently at first then pressing herself against me. We broke apart, and she followed me inside.
“I’ve had no luck,” I told her as I made the coffee, and went through the steps I had taken to find Egils, partly to reassure her that I really was doing everything possible, also in the hope I might jog something. Eventually I trailed off. As I looked out of the window, I saw her reflection approach me, then she was resting her head on my shoulder.
My throat was dry. I half-wanted to push her away. Half-wanted to turn around and take her then and there.
“I really do want to find him, Oli. I’m not just going through the motions. If he’s with someone else, we can sort it out, once I know he’s safe. It’s thinking he may be lying hurt in a ditch somewhere, that’s driving me mad.”
“Meanwhile, I’ve fucked his wife,” I didn’t mean to sound so bitter.
“You’ve got no idea what’s it like, being in love with two people at the same time,” She laughed bitterly. “When he wasn’t around, I wanted him so badly. When he was around, I wanted you.” She put a finger to my lips to shush me. “I don’t think he’s anywhere where there are people. We would know by now. I really do want you. You’re not just a substitute.”
“Thanks.” My irony wasn’t lost on her; she sighed, and shook her head, as I continued, “But that just makes it worse. I feel guilty looking for a man whose wife I’ve just bedded.”
She shushed me again with the finger to my lips. “That’s why it’s called adultery. It’s not a children’s game.”
She kissed me again, then kissed the base of my throat, and, unbuttoning my shirt, carried on downwards until, unzipping my trousers, she kissed my rigid penis. Cupping my balls, she ran her tongue from the base of it to the tip, then back to the base, back to the tip, before circling it with the tip of her tongue. Then she took me in her mouth, and sucked.
I moaned, and tried not to grip the bobbing blonde hair and thrust so deep I’d choke her. When I came, she pulled back slightly, swallowing most of it.
Smiling up at me, she used her finger as a tissue, and wiping the excess delicately, licked her finger. “Better?” She whispered.
“Another surprise,” I whispered. “I didn’t think that was your style.”
“Well,” I floundered, “you don’t get much out of it, do you?”
“Don’t I? For those few seconds, I’m your world; your universe” she said, “and that’s a very powerful feeling. Don’t underestimate it.” She asked bitterly: “Or did you think I liked being Gudrun the Unattainable?” I smiled in bemusement, and she led me to the bedroom.
Later, in the darkness, she murmured. “Why did you stay away so long?”
I shrugged. “I couldn’t…” I stopped, unable to say what I wanted to. She rolled Egils over, pushing her legs up his back, crying his name, like a bird calling across the heather as he plunged into her again and again.
As if she read my mind, she whispered, “That last day at Nesjavellir, when you caught us, I’d been half-wanting you to. I wanted you as well. I wanted both of you, I hoped you’d accept the invitation. Does that shock you?”
“Yes.” It did.
“Then come here,” She pulled me to her. “I’m tired of being good.”
I whispered: “We’re all going to die, you know.” She hushed me with a finger to my lips, thought I was being morbid, when I spoke no more than the literal truth.
I was lost forever that night, with no way to turn back, plunging into her again and again. Feeling the coolness of her body, the heat within. Just like Iceland, she was fire and ice.
The next day, more fruitless searching. And the next. Exhausted, I spent that night on my own. Just as well, because the next day, the media found out about Egils’ disappearance and hell really broke loose this time.
Their house was doorstepped by hordes of reporters, mostly Icelanders, with the promise of foreigners to come. This was a dream for them -- a politician disappearing on the eve of an election. The police called me to request a meeting at eleven.
There were two of them. One did the questioning, whilst the other listened. The questioner was a big, soft-spoken man, whom I was sure could be as hard as rock, when required.
The interrogation lasted an hour, before they warned me they might need to ask me further questions, and then leaving. They didn’t need to mention not leaving town.
Gudrun and I kept a polite distance, and two days later, with police agreement, I went to visit Pappi, whose condition had deteriorated badly. He had been admitted to a hospice, and the lady who’d called me had urged me to hurry. “I think it’s going to be very, very soon.” She whispered through her tears.
The road wound it’s twisting path up to the ridge and I replayed the last week, looking for the source of a nagging subconscious itch. Beyond the ridge lay the Southern plain, and below, Hveragedir basked in the sunshine. There was something. I was sure of it. The Vestmann Islands were visible in the distance, which showed how clear the day was. I started the long slow descent down to the plain. The sun glinted off the greenhouses, and there it was. Powerhouse. I slammed the brakes on, nearly nose-diving into the ground, and swung the car round.
I keyed my phone: Gudrun’s face appeared on my shades.
“I’ve got it!” I shouted, exultant.
“I’m sure of it!” I told her my theory. “Call the police.”
“Don’t you think --”
“Gudrun, I’m tired of playing detective. Call the police, or I will.”
I was surprised she agreed so readily.
An hour later, I pulled up outside the deserted station at Nesjavellir. Time had been cruel to the old powerhouse: no longer shrouded by steam, close up, it looked shabby. Doors hung from one hinge, windows were broken, pipes rusted. The wind howled around the buildings, rattling anything loose. Pools once full of sulphurous water were now just ochre wallows.
Beneath a bruised sky I skirted buildings, looking for signs of life. Two cars were parked out back, one of them Egils’ Mercedes. I peered through the windows, then clambered through a partly blocked doorway.
I emerged, and went to the next building. It was locked. I tried the next door, and it opened. My heart pounded so loud I thought the whole world would hear it.
My head exploded. Lights whirled, and I thought I might vomit. Somebody hit me in the kidneys with a lump of iron, then straightened me up. It was Thor, and the lump of iron was his fist, hitting me again.
“Hallo, Runt,” He said, grinning, “Took you long enough.” Another lump of iron, a roundhouse to the jaw, knocked me out.
When I came around, I lay by a pool of vomit. Luckily, Egils had managed to turn me over. He was still tied, as I now was, but had been able to flip my inert body.
He looked awful. Unshaven for days, he was gaunt, and his red-rimmed eyes made it clear he hadn’t slept. “How’s Gudrun?” He croaked.
“Worried senseless. She’s turned the area upside-down looking for you.”
“That’s my girl! You’re the cavalry?”
“No, but she’s phoned them.”
“He got his father’s secretary to arrange a private meeting. The next thing, I awake here with the hangover to end all hangovers.”
“His father’s behind this?” My incredulity showed.
“No,” Egils shook his head. “I think Thor actually thinks he’s helping him. I think this is just Thor and his mate. How much the secretary knows, I’m unsure.”
I coughed, and it turned into a retch.
“Sorry, Oli. How are you?”
“Sore, but okay. Where’s Thor?” I managed to gasp.
“Waiting for his friend. They’ve been taking it in turns keeping guard. They don’t really seem to know what they’re doing. Sooner or later they’re going to have to decide what to do with us, but until now they’ve been putting it off.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m not sure whether he was taunting me, or trying to give himself a way out with the clue about the powerhouse when we were in the bar.”
At that point our captors re-entered the room.
“You’re awake,” Thor’s smile was reptilian. “You’ve forced us into a difficult decision, Oli. I’m afraid there’ll have to be an accident.” His eyes showed a man who’d lost all touch with reality. His friend grabbed my feet, while Thor lifted me under the arms. I struggled, until Thor said: “If you don’t keep still, we’ll knock you out. You want me to hit you again?”
I said nothing, but stopped wriggling. There seemed no way out of this situation. I gazed up at Thor, but he carefully avoided my eyes.
“You gave me a bottle of Brennivin once,” I reminded the almost-friend of my youth.
“Shut up.” He answered flatly. Then he added. “And you consort with those who’d sell our country for personal gain.” I realised appeals were futile; he’d changed too much. I’d been naďve to think otherwise. He was far beyond reason.
They carried me, staggering to the doorway, when his accomplice screamed and dropped me. His shoulder steamed with a laser burn.
Thor swung around, and dropped, shot through the heart.
Gudrun dashed into the room and ran to Egils, dropping the gun beside him. Her fingers trembled so badly she seemed to take forever to loosen the knots.
Egils squeezed her tight, murmuring into her hair. Then he released her, and untied me, calling over his shoulder to Gudrun, “Did you call the police?”
“Not yet,” She wiped her nose. “I wanted to make sure Oli was right. The last thing I wanted was a false alarm.”
“Okay. We’d better call them now.”
“No!” She cried.
“Gudrun,” He said, exasperated. “You can’t ignore this and hope it’ll go away. Or call in a few favours from the police to fix it. There’ll have to be an enquiry. Tell the truth. They were going to kill us, and you fired to protect us. It was self-defence.”
We watched her think. “You know how close the polls are.” She said. “The scandal will break us. We’re done for.”
I watched her shoulders slump, her face sag, her eyes widen and stare into space while the implications sank in. She had acted instinctively, and now faced the consequences. Her tongue flicked in and out. I could guess her thoughts: it wasn’t enough to do the right thing- the rumour-mills of neo-puritanism would finish them. From kidnap victims’ wife, to killer, all in a split second.
She began to shake, and I wondered whether she was going to have some kind of seizure.
“Come on, you know what we have to do.” Egils cajoled her. “There’s nothing else we can do.”
She nodded, then murmured. “Yes, there is.” She picked up the gun, and shot him in the chest.
I gasped involuntarily, and she swung the laser at me. For a moment I looked into the eyes of a stranger. “Well, Oli? Do I shoot you as well?” Her teeth chattered, but apart from an occasional tremor, the gun never wavered.
“Gudrun,” I stepped forward. “Put it down.”
“No, you’re either with me or against me.” She breathed in, a deep, juddering inhalation: “I don’t want to do this, but I will. I’ll do whatever is needed.”
“But why? Why not just tell the truth?”
“Because he was worth ten of them. Our enemies would have destroyed him. At least this way his death is worth something.” She waited a few moments: “Well, my love. What is it to be?”
I approached her, “Gudrun, please.” The gun snapped up, but I stepped closer. I stood in front of her, trying not to faint with terror. I faced her, the gun pressing into my chest, and placing a hand on either side of her face, kissed her. “What do you want me to do?”
Gudrun turned and silenced the accomplice’s groans with a shot in the throat. He spasmed and was still. She exhaled heavily.
Bile burnt my throat, but I knew the time was past for squeamishness.
Gudrun used Egils’ sleeve to wipe her prints from the gun. Put it into his hands, kissed him long and hard on lips already cooling, and then wrapped Thor’s arms around Egils’ torso. She took a deep breath: “Okay, this is what happened: Egils had our gun. He worked it loose, wounded Thor’s mate, and shot him again. Thor tried to get the gun off him, pressed the charge button, and it exploded in the struggle. If we get through the next twenty-four hours, we know fate is with us.”
I nodded, understanding. The best way to lie is always to stay as close to the truth as possible. I picked up my glasses, crushed in the struggle. “I’d better call Pappi when I get to the car.” I said.
“One last thing; I’m pregnant.” She laughed bitterly. “And in answer to your next question, I’m not sure whether it’s yours or Egils. Publicly, it will be his child. But we’ll know the truth.”
She pressed the charge button on the gun. We ran from the high-pitched whine, to the door. We leapt clear, and the laser exploded, a silent flash rippling out through the dilapidated building. A wave of heat washed over us, leaving us patting our smouldering hair and clothes.
It had started to rain, a miserable grey drizzle. Gudrun pulled me to her, kissed me hard. “I’ll call the police,” She said tearfully.
We climbed into our separate cars, and I noticed the message light on the dashboard blinking. My broken glasses had diverted incoming messages to the dashboard comp. It was Pappi’s lady.
“Your father asked me to call you when it happened,” She said. “I’m sorry, he passed away a few minutes ago.” She broke down in tears, and I cut her off, telling myself it was as much to save her embarrassment as to spare my feelings.
“That’s bullshit, Oli,” My father’s ghost made me jump. “You never really cared about anything but yourself.”
“That’s untrue,” I said heatedly. “Just because I wanted to live my own life didn’t mean I didn’t care about you. I simply couldn’t live your way.” I looked away, and when I looked back, he was gone again.
I smelt burning at the same time as Thor’s voice said from the back, “You know she’s using you, Runt.” I looked in the mirror at the ruined face that bared its teeth at me. “Even if you get away with it, which you won’t, she’ll kill you when the time is right, as soon as your usefulness is over. Give her up now.” I swung round, but there was nothing there, not a mark on the seat where the scorched body had sat. He was right, of course. His way was right, but would ruin the woman I loved. Egils death would become a pointless one.
“Which is what Thor wants,” Egils’ face was as ravaged as Thor’s but he managed to smile. “If you give her up, then Thor’s got everything he wanted. I’ll be dead and Gudrun discredited. Gunnar Gunnarsson will be left unopposed. Stay with her, old friend, for my sake. Whatever she’s done, she still loves you.”
I groaned, and buried my face in my hands, “I don’t believe in ghosts.” When I looked up, I was alone.
“All Icelanders believe in ghosts.” Thor sat on the other side in the back, where Oli had sat, “It’s our heritage. Why else do we have The Sagas, but to remind us of our ghosts?” He grinned again, “You know, if you follow his way, it leads to your own damnation?”
He was right. I sat in the car for a long time in the rain, waiting for the police, wondering which road to take. Parts of me felt as if they were sloughing away, leaving only the essential Oli Jonsson. I stared at Gudrun, sat lonely in her car.
When I looked away, a woman sat in my passenger seat. She seemed vaguely familiar.
“Another ghost?” I asked mockingly.
She smiled. “You tried to tell Gudrun, that night, didn’t you? How little time there is before the caldera in The Highlands erupts?”
“Yes,” I felt a weight lift. “What choice I make isn’t really relevant. In ten, twenty, maybe thirty years the Caldera will still blow enough matter into the stratosphere to end all life on Earth. Fimbulwinter will be here, only a thousand years later than the Vikings thought.” I looked at her again, finally recognising the planes of her face. “You’re Laura’s Gudrun aren’t you?” She smiled enigmatically, inclined her head a fraction, and I laughed, “Or I’ve invented a deus ex machina, so I feel better.” The colours in the car seemed to brighten. When I looked back to the passenger seat, she’d gone. “But maybe there’s another way,” I breathed. “We can yet work this out. Let them worry about their little local politics. In a century we’ll be as forgotten as any tenth century slave, whatever the election result.”
I added, “Thank you grand-daughter, or whatever you are. Let’s see if we can take the third way, Gudrun.”
“Time to get off the fence, Oli.”
In the distance, the giant beneath the glacier rumbled angrily in his sleep, a column of smoke staining the horizon. I wondered how much time we had left, and beckoning Gudrun, started the engine.
I’m 42, and have been married for 14 years to Kate, who has no interest in writing, or written SF, but puts up with her husband’s strange solitary habit of sitting and staring at a computer screen for hours on end. We’ve no children, but have an (oversized) eight-year old English Springer Spaniel called Chloe, and have recently gained an (undersized) ten-month-old Cocker Spaniel called Alice. These are our surrogate daughters.
My previous appearances have been in Aphelion webzine (June & December 2001), in the now defunct Fragmented Infinity, and in Peridot Books Volume XVI. I recently appeared in the first issue of Scorpio Magazine. Scorpio Press will be publishing my debut novel Vengeance in 2003 in trade paperback.
My webpage is at www.geocities.com/colin_harvey. I’m currently working on a novel, Lightning Days, and have been since the dawn of time, it sometimes seems.