By Audur Jonsdottir
Translated by Keneva Kunz
Yesterday Axel gave me an advent calendar just for fun. Said I needed fattening up for Christmas.
I was pleased at his comment, since it’s only three months since he had me enrol in a yoga course after reading to me from some scientific magazine that today people unconsciously equated a stranger’s knowledge with his body condition, with the result that fat people were thought less dependable than thin ones; the enlightened should know how to keep themselves in shape.
Do you think I’m fat? I had asked.
You’re thin, but according to the article people with our lifestyle are at especially high risk, he replied.
How is our lifestyle?
Axel thought a moment before replying: Unthinking, I guess.
That same day I enrolled in a beginners’ course at the Yoga Clinic, intended especially for women under stress. Attended religiously four times a week for three months until it ended last week. A 32-year-old woman has to get used to looking after herself, even if her mama calls her a bag of bones.
Yoga gave both body and soul new strength. We were forbidden to drag our conscience pangs around, because they alone were heavier than all the participants’ flab put together and sucked up every sort of heaviness, this pitch black steel pipe that has always rolled back and forth inside me for any and no reason. Participants were re-programmed along these lines.
To expand your consciousness you must get rid of all self-recrimination, you have to be you and breathe this knowledge into you, deep, deep, deep so that your stomach swells out until the breath touches your pelvic bone. Then exhale all of that anxiety out, blow, blow, blow until it touches the top of your scalp and you’re ready to be born anew – and then, only then, can you breathe yourself in.
That was how yoga teacher Ágústa instructed us, in a hypnotic voice. The words had a hypnotic effect and a heavy lethargy settled over me at the end of each session.
I had chosen the yoga course after reading on Ágústa’s home page that under her guidance participants developed expanded sensitivity and found new vitality. And in fact I did feel like a new person while I lay there on a yoga mat with the stress wrung out of me and a flickering candle drew dancing sunflowers on my eyelids – but the effect ebbed quickly once I came home.
I feel a tiny twinge of conscience when I take up the advent calendar. Tear open December 1st and the pompom off a knitted cap. Against a sky-blue background bundled up children crowd around a Santa Claus while snowflakes sift downwards. Under the little girl’s knitted cap hides a chocolate elephant, with the taste of days long gone when mama scraped together a few krónur for an advent calendar. The taste of chocolate goes well with my morning cuppa in the darkest depths of December. On a morning like this you long for snow to glisten in the moonlight like the sea in the sunlight, but there’s no sign of snow, nor a glimpse of the moon. Darkness crouches over the world, swallowing this country where the best idea would be live on chocolate seven months of the year to flood your brain with endorphins.
But a grown woman should have moved beyond that; if she hopes to rank with the rest of them she has to breathe in effortlessly, like the yoga teacher taught her, from the middle of her inner self. And like that, breathing slowly in and out, in and out, I try to see the darkness as brightly coloured light. What difference does it make whether existence is yellow or black?
Think how much more snugly black-shine encompasses me than yellow, yes, dark is my world so I wake up a quarter of an hour before Axel, just to enjoy it. Pull on woollen socks and tiptoe into the kitchen, light orange candles on a candleholder on the kitchen table and make a pot of coffee in the flickering light. Enjoy sipping the piping hot coffee while the glow warms my mind with sunbeams and caffeine charges up my blood. It’s my secret tonic, before I link up with the world, turn on my laptop and wait for the front page news. Prepared for anything, because anything could have happened while I was asleep. An avalanche destroyed a village in the country or terrorist attacks a residential street in Sydney.
The end of the world, maybe – but not this!
Police in the capital region have issued a bulletin requesting information on Arndís Theódórsdóttir, art historian, who was last seen at her gallery Assan by Korpúlfsstaðir last Friday. Arndís has hazel eyes and light brown, shoulder-length, hair streaked dark. She is slender and around 165 cm in height. When last seen Arndís was wearing a brown and grey coat, dark grey trousers and light brown leather boots and a necklace of green stones around her neck. Anyone with information on the Arndís’s whereabouts is requested to contact the police at 4441000.
When I finally find her she’s lost. And the police are searching for her. Is she dead?
To judge by the photo she hasn’t changed much. A broad, comely face with turned-up nose and eyes slanted ever so slightly over high cheekbones. Although she doesn’t have that boyish haircut any longer but instead wears her hair long at the back with wide-blown sides, recalling the beauty queens of the eighties, a strange hairstyle that has persisted with endless variations ever since then. A trace of a knowing smile, almost a smirk, on her lips and ruby red lipstick contrasts well with her pale skin. That’s how I remember her.
Everything okay, Sunna?
Yeah, fine, I mumble, glancing up from the computer. Axel leans against the doorframe clad only in blue plaid pyjama trousers, his fair hair sticking up into the air like a squirming tadpole. You look so serious, he says. What are you reading?
Just the news. Want some coffee?
Help yourself to the coffee pot. I must sound impatient, because he moves closer, asking what is in the news anyway, bending down to peer at the screen where he sees an item about sheep trapped inside a burning sheep shed up in the north of the country and another about a bomb attack in Afghanistan. He doesn’t notice the missing persons ad from the police, as it’s not at all unusual for people to go missing, usually teenagers or tourists. He doesn’t expect me to know any missing persons.
Do you know any thing about it? he asks.
You mean the killings in Kabul?
A touch of red colours his cheeks. Uhh, no, hardly. I mean the farmer who lost the sheep. Might be a relative of yours. How should I know? With a flirty smile Axel adds that he always has to give me a grilling to get any news out of me.
I can only stare at him. My handsome husband with the blue of the ocean in his eyes, Roman nose and shapely lips that part to reveal a row of straight white teeth when he smiles. Curls like an angel that fall over his forehead and a shadow of a beard that glints golden in the sunlight. Odd that a man of forty could be so boyish. All at once he reminds me of the boy in a children’s book who wanted to know why the sky was blue, and I pull him down, place my hands around his neck and say: You know everything. So you can have the second of December if you want.
No, Axel says, doubled up. All the days are yours. His laugh makes the woman on the screen disappear while my hands stroke his head, hair and shoulders. Run my fingertips over his cheeks and under his chin, across his chest and stomach and all the way down. Hide my nose under his chin, wondering which of us is yin and which is yang, when he asks whether I’m really wearing nothing at all under my nightgown. Noooo, I whisper.
That’s how the sun turns black.
That’s how I burn.
To grey ashes.
And we lie there with our bottoms flat against the tiles on the floor, empty as infants on the morning of their first day. Let our eyes close, each with a woollen sock under our head. Axel smiles sleepily. He’s got used to these morning gymnastics that began about the same time as the yoga course. Oriental positions have made my blood flow faster and take the initiative as never before.
Didn’t you offer me a cup of coffee? he finally asks. I snort that it’s cold now and wouldn’t it be a brilliant idea for him to make a new pot, as I gather up our clothes in my arms and, still bent like a pretzel, scurry into the bathroom to toss them into the washer. A moment later the water is streaming into the bathtub.
Why is she lost?
Plop, says a drop from the tap that forms waves on the water. A mist weighs down my eyelids, my face is smeared with soapy foam and the scent of flowers fills my nostrils. But curiosity sparks tension in my body and, remembering Ágústa’s words, I imagine a quiet place to be rid of it so that for a moment my mind blows me into a steaming greenhouse full of newly sprung roses – until I toss water onto my face, breathe in the winter air from the window and squint to catch a glimpse of the moon.
Axel has gone into action in the kitchen meanwhile, lifting the boiling hot coffee pot off the burner, turning our Tivoli radio on and off, shovelling down his cornflakes followed by coffee and then a quick wash in the small bathroom by the door. Hopefully he’ll soon be off to work. I need time to take a better look at the missing person ad and see if there is any more news of her elsewhere. Lucky for me it’s hairdressing day. At the publishing company they know that the on first Monday of every month I spend most of the morning doing my mother’s hair. She’s probably up by now, has wet her hair and stands by the window trying to see whether I’m coming. All the same I make the bath last as long as I can. It’s the high point of the day, in the life, of this 32-year-old woman who enjoys being boiled in hot water like stewing meat. One day she’ll be buried in the ground to grow mouldy like a truffle. Or burnt like a potato over a campfire.
This vision prompts me to stand up out of the water and, drying my hands, I stretch to turn on the decrepit radio on the washing machine, turning up the volume for the morning news, hoping to hear something more of Arndís. Then sink back down until my nostrils touch the water. Hear people in the world outside talk of forming a coalition government with the key support of one of the small parties. The reporter tries in vain to get an answer from a politician who declines to comment until the press conference. Axel’s voice calling to me drowns out the politician. I quickly turn down the radio, thinking only afterwards of the danger of electric shock. What?
Can I come in? he asks. I have to tell you something before I run.
Through the heat and fog I realise I’ve unthinkingly locked the door, so he’ll have to say whatever this something is through the door. He hesitates a moment, then springs on me that Helgi is coming this evening to stay with us until his mother’s has her Christmas vacation.
WHA! Sending waves like a hippo, I clamber out of the tub, splashing in all directions, wrapping a towel around me as I open the door. Did I hear you correctly?
Yes. Axel smiles his irresistible sexy smile. Says that Helgi’s mother has to attend a long series of meetings in Copenhagen up until Christmas, to convince her superiors that she really is teleworking here in Iceland. The agreement’s being put to the test.
Sunna, you know how important it is for me to have them live here in Iceland, he says in the usual tone of voice, a mixture of apology and accusation; he knows how to get his way. She lived in Frederiksberg with him for seven years and those occasional papa weekends spent in Tivoli and the zoo grew more pathetic with each passing year. I hardly know the boy any more, he acts more like the crown prince than like me. And I know his mother would rather move back to Copenhagen than give up her job with that spacey firm of hers, she’d even leave her mother dying on the cancer ward. But if we can make this work, she might be tempted to stay even after the old lady is gone. Helgi has started school here and everything. If we can only make it work for her, love.
Why am I only hearing about this now?
You were already asleep when Helgi phoned last night, something came up suddenly.
Okay … what? he asks hesitatingly, but stretching his smile.
We’ll manage somehow, I say but remind him that I’ll be very busy at work all December so he will have to make time for his son. There’s no way he can continue his continuous comings and goings of this past autumn. The two of them have been in Iceland since this summer and he has only found a couple of days to spend with Helgi.
His voice has just a trace of anguish when he asks me not to go reminding him of that again, I don’t do whining well. I know very well he has hardly managed to keep his head above water in the flood of work he’s had for months, it’s easier said than done to get a start-up company going, never mind in the travel business. And he has to do his bit if we ever intend to see the light at the end of this tunnel of debt. But of course, he’s got to do something about this. On the other hand he has to fly up north to Ísafjörður for a meeting this afternoon and will only be able to catch the evening flight back so I’ll have to be here when Helgi comes.
Wait just a minute, you’re going …
He looks at me pleadingly, this is stressful enough already without me making things worse. It just means that he’ll be a little late, the forecast is good. Don’t worry! He has to run, he’s already late for a meeting.
Okay I say grudgingly. Just make sure you catch the plane home.
His relief breaks through in a smile. Thanks, Sunna, I can always depend on you. Kiss, kiss. I’m trusting you to give my little heir a warm welcome.
And he’s gone.
Pine green corduroy skirt, apple red jersey, I look like a Christmas tree. There will have to be time to do a wash tonight, every scrap I own is dirty. But until then this will have to do, after all the first of December and what better time to look like a Christmas tree. Why is Arndís missing, and why am I anxious about it? We haven’t seen each other for ten years.
Why is this jersey so low-cut?
I’m an ostrich, a bare neck with a bird’s head. Stiff cactusy hair with grey lowlights points in all directions, because that haircut with a touch of punk hasn’t been re-touched for an overly long time. Should rather have mama do my hair than me hers. And those wolfish eyebrows, high time they got used to a trim now and again. Look at that fur! Practically meet in the middle, sharpening the harshness of my bony face, slanty eyes over a Roman nose and lips hardly visible. I need a 100% botox treatment today, I look like I don’t know what, the devil’s own bag of bones. Strange that I should look just like this and not like something else. Good Lord, the veins in those cheeks just get worse! To think that I should have that sexy husband. I peer straight at the strange face in the mirror, staring into the stone grey eyes. And smile to reveal crooked eye teeth. What about having them whitened?
Arndís must have given up. You unconsciously assume that missing persons have given up. Do they stop giving up when they’re found? Suppose it depends what shape they’re in when that happens. Stupid. I’d do better to dig up something to ornament that desert of a neck. Turn to the Chinese jewel box I acquired at the flea market, much to my husband’s chagrin. I can’t resist old things that boast of careful craftsmanship and a mysterious past and the apartment shows it. I sneak these treasures from then and there into here and now; they stick out like sore thumbs from the shelves and wall unit that Axel built in modernist style. Sleek and simple they bear these objects like the walls of a gallery bear the paintings, which is about how we function together: yin and yang, two black suns.
From the jewel box I fish a delicate necklace of white gold, drape it over the back of my left hand, recalling when Axel gave it to me our first Christmas together. Then put it back in its place. Dig a bit deeper in the box but find only flashy junk. stir it with my middle finger before it occurs to me to open the drawer at the front.
It’s stuck with some sticky dust filling the joints so I pull sharply. No success at first, but on the third try the drawer shoots out of the box with a rattle and I stand there with it in my hands, staring at the necklace lying on the bottom like a curled-up snake.
It had to be there somewhere.
With all the colours of the sea and sky. Stones of innumerable shades of green, grey and blue change at every angle. New light gives birth to a new colour.
Arndís bought two of these, one for me and one for herself. It was our last day together in Barcelona when the thermometer tickled 40°C and school was out of the question. Especially drowsy was the Raval district, the smell of pee wafting up from the sidewalk and steaming dog dirt melting its way through sandal soles. The whores smirked as we made our sweating way along their street. Some of them blue-black as dried seaweed, others deep white as flounder, some transvestites but most of them heteros. They were fat, slim, tall and short; some pregnant, others still children, some pregnant children. Some were 22 like us and just as many as old as our grandmothers. Their scent was of cheap perfume, blood and pee. They were either too fat or too thin for their miniskirts and fake leopard tops. Some teetered on spike heels, others towered over the crowd on boots with triple platform soles. Those who owned such boots as well as a dick in their G-string looked like they were on stilts, but not the dwarf who waddled around with hormone-treated breasts cleaving the air. They were captivating. The whores of Raval. So thought the men there, tripping over one another with their eyes popping out of their heads and lower lip sagging; the penniless feasted their eyes while the women grasped for the rich. They hypnotised us as well, until we sat down at an outdoor café opposite the whores’ corner and ordered a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket. Skál! we said in unison, downed the sparkling wine and laughed. All of a sudden she drew a silvery packet out of her bag and gave it to me. My laugh died as I looked at her in surprise. Then I opened the packet and a necklace gazed at me. I bought necklaces for both of us, she laughed, and produced one exactly the same which she placed around her neck. Without a word I put mine on as well.
Just like now.
Hardly time to check the Internet. Mama is no doubt worried that I’ve forgotten her. Pulling on my parka I charge out into the north wind, running after a bus which is disappearing from sight, then dig my mobile out of my parka pocket to call breathlessly for a taxi.
Ten minutes later a shiny black Mercedes slides up to the bus stop like a blue whale in the moonlight, the light from street lamps sparkling on it.
You arrive like a queen in her limo, mama says from the top of the stairs while I thread one flight after another up to her. Didn’t I know it, she must have been standing at the window for a good while. Music issues from the apartment: La Traviata on the DVD player I gave her last Christmas. Few things she likes better than to gaze out of the living room window with an opera in her ears. For hours on end she watches the youngsters make the rounds, shoppers go from store to store and mothers navigate their prams down Laugavegur while opera stars in fancy dress sing their hearts out on television.
I missed the bus, I puff.
Well, you’re here now at least. Mama gives me the once over before stepping aside to let me enter. You’re nothing but skin and bones, duck. Have you had any breakfast?
A whole elephant. I bend down to untie my shoes, conscious of the eyes looking down at me as I ask whether she’s washed her hair.
Ages ago, mama says. It’s probably dry again by now. We’ll have to wet the comb.
Don’t talk about me in the plural, please, I ask.
Whatever you like, duckie. She waddles into the kitchen to get a basin of water. Just remember, Sunna dear, that we have to get going right away to get to work on time.
I gaze after her in resignation, stand up and glance around the flat. It’s hardly more than 50 square metres. You can see into all the rooms from the doorway. A bedroom the size of a closet, living room a smidgen larger where mama can watch the passers-by, a bathroom so cramped you have to squeeze by the bathtub to use the toilet and a kitchen nook looking out over a gloomy back yard. The few pieces of furniture are good quality, she’s saved up for them through the years, several of them cherry wood because the name caught her fancy. Patchwork quilts adorn the bed and armchairs and crochet work the tables. On the shelves are various containers she has washed, painted and filled with flowers or stones, testifying to her decorative taste. As does the irregular collection of photos, newspaper clippings and paintings by unknown naivists covering the walls: the results of 72 years of life. Hardly any of the photos are of relatives. Only one sepia-coloured picture of her deceased parents, a dory fisherman and his strict-looking wife, and several of me at various ages in this same flat. This is where I grew up.
At first we shared the bedroom then my mama Nanna turned it over to me and moved into the living room. It remained my room all the years I lived abroad, until I moved back to Iceland and made it clear to her that we would not be living together any more.
Will I always be alone then? she asked. Smiling I gulped out that I’d visit her regularly. I had now finally moved back to Iceland permanently so we could do all sorts of fun things together, two single women. While I was painting her this rosy picture of the future something cold and heavy was bobbing about in my stomach, what some Ágústa out there called steel pipe. Mama only replied: You won’t be alone long, you’ll meet some man, you’re like that.
She says, having lived alone since she left her parents’ home in a fishing village in the West Fjords where a girl of fourteen worked like a grown woman, because she had to feed and clothe four brothers and help the oldest get an education. At sixteen she worked as a labourer in the fishing plant year-round, became a foreman twenty years later. After both her parents had passed away she moved south when offered a similar job.
Now and again she’d have a boyfriend, but it never lasted. She was attractive enough in her own way. Stocky but light on her feet, with a gentle smile and a touch of mandarin orange in her fair unruly hair. Perhaps those stony grey seagull’s eyes were too piercing for the men she met. Or her nose too pointed. Or it could be that some felt uncomfortable watching her work away with a man’s vigour. Maybe she was too independent to stick out a relationship, too eccentric for the simple types, too muscular after years of taking her brothers to task. Most likely she’d had enough of them. In any case her brothers were nothing but scandalised when she got pregnant. A forty-year-old spinster who looked more like fifty after years of hard labour. Peering at fish on a lighted table had written wrinkles around her eyes, swollen her hands red and begun to bend her back. Bloody idiot, they scoffed, one after another, shaking their heads at their sister who had given up her chance to give them one. She herself was more surprised than anyone. On Seamen’s Day she’d gone to a dance with a friend, and danced with a visiting Catalan fisherman with melancholy eyes, who said goodbye lovingly before sailing off across the sea in the bright summer night. That should teach me to take a drop too much, she chuckles even today, I was expecting menopause but instead you arrived.
A lame joke that has seldom amused me. What’s funny about a story that basically means you never saw you father?
I have always missed him. As a school girl I talked to him like children talk to God, telling him how hard it was to have a mother old enough, well, to be a grandmother almost. Nanna was not only older than the other mothers, she was unusually old-fashioned. When parents came to school I’d blush at her in a permapress crepe dress she’d sewn herself, wearing winter boots and carrying her dress shoes in a crocheted bag with flowers. No one else’s mother was like that. The few mothers on the older side dressed in normal clothes that were in style. Only grandmothers were like my mother. When she placed rolled-up crepes beside the pizzas of my schoolmates, I sought refuge in the toilet.
Now she’s 72 and still a mother and not a grandmother. Not that she complains exactly. In her own way she covers up her interference, convinces people that everyone has to do things their own way, although if it were up to her this or that, practically anything actually, would be preferable.
A sliver of light is seeping through the darkness, I seem to recall the weather office forecasting clear skies for the next few days, but refrain from mentioning this so as not to set mama going about climate change. Perching on a kitchen stool, she folds her dry hands in her lap and looks proudly out at the world through the lace curtains in the kitchen window, while I unwind the damp towel from her hair.
I bought a poinsettia yesterday, she says, with white leaves, a nice change.
Nanna Ebenesardóttir may not have been a beauty queen in her youth, but she’s a good looking elderly woman. A stocky figure in a turquoise dress, with her snow-white hair and red lipstick. An occasional glimpse of protruding eye teeth just like mine gives her face a mischievous look. She’s put on quite a bit of weight since she quit smoking, but bears the flesh well. Her fingers are still yellow from tobacco, although she rubs margarine on her work worn hands morning and evening. I expect you’ve seen poinsettias like that, she adds after a moment’s silence.
Yes, I agree, wet the comb and use it to lift a lock of hair to wind around the roller. I’ve seen those white ones a few times, they’re a nice change.
I hear her smile as she sits still looking steadily out into the yard. Do you remember to feed the snow buntings now and again? she asks finally.
Not often, I say.
I try to remember them every day, she says. Best to crush dry toast and feed them the crumbs, as long as you still have enough crumbs to fry the fish in.
Guess so, I yawn and the sleepiness in my voice prompts her to change the subject. Or maybe not. It was probably her intention the whole time to tire me with unimportant details until it was safe to attack. They advertised for your girlfriend on the radio this morning, she says.
Did you hear it?
Yes and you must have, too, she says craftily. The poor woman is missing. What do you think has happened to her?
I haven’t the foggiest. She’s hardly my girlfriend. To tell you the truth I haven’t seen her since we were in Barcelona ten years ago.
Or heard anything from her?
You don’t keep contact, she then says. Draws a deep breath and I know her well enough to know she’s biting her lip. Must be thinking something. Best to put a stop to that so I ask whether she noticed the computer course for senior citizens that was advertised the other day.
That’s not for me, she says.
I thought you wanted to learn to use the Internet, you who are so socially conscious. You can find everything on the Internet, mama.
But she says she hears more than enough on the radio and television. Is full up to here with the evasive answers of politicians trying to put together a majority coalition. It would be better for all of us if they focused on solving the big problems. There’s so much needs to be done for the children and parents, and seniors like herself, never mind all those who are sick and on the hospital waiting lists. Says she simply can’t understand how people can waste time wrangling over whether 7% is a majority of 100%, the answer must be obvious, even she can see that, with no more education than she has. Although she’s more worried about the sheep grazing, those darn woollies eating up every blade of grass in sight without anyone lifting a finger.
Turns her attention on me next. You’re always going on about me taking a course, you should go on one yourself.
Yes you, mama says, and suggests a course in fiction writing, because once I said I wanted to be a writer, which could be something for a day dreamer. Have you given up on that completely?
Pouring out the words, I deny any teenage blab from a thousand years ago, but let myself be convinced into talking more about courses in general, as anything is better than talking about Arndís. Her disappearance is for me to ponder on, mama has more than enough to concern her.
She has her poets from times past, living in dog-eared volumes smelling of mouldy paper that she never tires of paging through. Even more worn is a textbook in Esperanto that she started to learn late in life along with friends from her younger days in the labour movement. She can sit with that day in and day out. Then she’ll meet up with them at a coffee house to practice the international language by debating politics over a glass of port. They call her Red Nanna, I’ve heard. She’s all of this; I only wish I’d known it when we looked after one another every day.
When she was working and I was doing my best not to get in the way, because she bore these burdens alone. Trimmed fillets, cleaned other people’s houses and looked after other people’s children. After school I followed her like a shadow. Moved quietly, stepping in her footsteps and watching her wring out the floor cloth rinsed in hot soapy water. It’s hard to say which was stronger, my sympathy for mama or my embarrassment at how old she was. But I was always thinking about her. Made sure I never rebelled, did everything I was told, was an obedient child.
Now I’m too obedient, she says, wishing that her daughter would protest against the world’s injustices like she did, a veteran of the workers’ struggle. Once she asked, in an unusually deep voice, whether it was her fault I never said no.
No, I answered.
Have to get this hairstyling done with.
At the publishing company the familiar scent of paper and coffee awaits. In nearby offices someone is pounding a keyboard while voices murmur. In the coffee room a chess clock is struck repeatedly while a mutilated Mozart serenade issues from the failing radio.
Time stands still here. My life for the past few years.
Stefanía, head of accounts, bends over the chess pieces. Her dark head wobbles while she’s thinking. Doesn’t mind spending money on haircuts and colouring at a stylish salon. I should pay for a visit for mom when I can afford it.
Stefanía adjusts her gold-frame glasses, a wine-red finger nail hovering above her white king, who’s under siege from the black queen directed by old Kjartan who looks after the storeroom. The old girl knows nothing about chess, he wheezes, drawing a comb out of the back pocket of his blue overalls to stroke the smooth fuzz on his pate.
I know a thing or two, Stefanía claims, quick to commit suicide. Before Kjartan gets the chance to checkmate her, she stands up from the table and gives him a withering look. Then smoothes her wool suit, straightens the collar of her light pink shirt and points towards the coffee room cupboard. There’s Danish pastry in the cupboard, love, because our best-selling author Valgarður Jónsson flew in from New York this morning to discuss the promotion of his latest book with the brothers. Yes, he’s set on selling plenty of thrillers this year, Kjartan mutters as he hops up from the table. The need to move is ingrained in a man who spends his days up on a ladder going from one swaying shelf of the storeroom to another, small but wiry as a terrier. Laughter gurgles deep inside him when he leans over to tell me not to spare the pastry, with a paunch like his, the thriller master can hardly touch the stuff.
Valgarður has an athlete’s physique, Stefanía corrects him sharply.
Anyone who writes books like that has a paunch on his soul, Kjartan tweets. He’s predicted the end of it all ever since the younger generation held a clearance of the pre-war writers. As light on his feet as a cat, he disappears into the storeroom before Stefanía manages to swat him with the photo magazine missing its front cover. The magazine was to have been tossed into the rubbish bin after the front page was returned to its Danish publishers to confirm that it had not gone to subscribers.
She gazes after him with a sparkle in her eyes that turns into a look of determination when she catches sight of me and says: The brothers want a word with you. So have some Danish pastry before you talk to them, get your blood moving. And try to smarten yourself up a bit, no point sporting such a fine necklace looking like that. I know they’re going to ask you to look after the supermarkets for the next while because Þorgeir is sick.
Who will answer the phone and take orders then?
You too, she sighs. It’s been done before, if I remember correctly. But you’ll have to be a bit livelier, love.
Then I want a raise. Huh! she snorts with such fervour that her eyes bulge out into her glasses. Ready to take on the world, are you? Make sure you don’t set the brothers off balance, they’re obsessed with preparing some sort of wingding for Valgarður’s new book. Expect they’ll ask your opinion.
Yep, they say the wingding is to appeal especially to women.
Why don’t you help them out?
What sort of a question is that? she answers gruffly. Suppose it’s because you’ve travelled more than I have. You’re the jack of all trades here, I only keep the numbers straight … so the company can keep its head above water.
I smile. You know we couldn’t do without you.
She gives a crooked smile. And you know about that sort of thing.
What sort of thing?
Go and talk to the brothers.
She sails out of the room. Her rear end rises and falls under her flight attendant’s skirt and sculptured calves in nylons stretch upwards from smartly heeled blue-black shoes. A sexy sixty-year-old with boiling hot blood, I think as I hunt for the Danish in the cupboard. A few minutes later I wash it down with coffee and hear Mozart replaced by the radio announcer. A new day at work has begun.
The brothers are waiting.
No, no, no. Ridiculous. Why on earth did I say yes? I should have pretended I didn’t know anything about it.
Five years in this job and I still let myself get stuck with all the shit.
When the brothers hired me, at the suggestion of my uncle who’s in printing, the idea was that eventually I’d be able to translate books from Spanish and edit translations as well as new Icelandic works, after all I had a degree in Spanish literature and 9.7 out of 10 on my final Icelandic exam in high school. Until that time of course I would have to do whatever needed doing, the publishing company needed an all-round assistant. To start with I was to answer the phone, make the coffee, help Kjartan with stocktaking, take orders and read over the occasional translated children’s book. As well as going over the Spanish book translations, which have practically made the company’s reputation as the flagship of culture in the city centre.
I was pleased as punch for the first year. Taking on a hundred and one tasks was maybe not my dream job, but the future looked promising and the excitement of the publishing business was catching.
Today I have to spend money on yoga courses to rid me of the stress. What was once alluring has become discouraging. So far I’ve only translated a couple of articles and short stories from Spanish, and I’m getting rusty. I’ve made a million pots of coffee, talked endlessly on the phone and counted millions of dusty books. I’m miss fetchit. Going round and round in circles.
Who should know enough to make herself scarce when the brothers say this it just between the two – uh, three – of us.
They smiled so their gold crowns glittered. Two flabby bulldogs with grey manes, stroked their creamy yellow, smooth-shaven cheeks and lowered one eyebrow, almost obscuring the shining black orb beneath it. I was to go on a course in writing crime novels. Could mama have phoned while I was on the way here.
I’m to attend the course as the representative of Valgarður Jónsson’s publishers. The ingenious Valgarður who went to high school with me for three years, known as “the Bogey Man” to my chum Björg and me because he ate the bogeys he dug out of his nose. Life is just so unpredictable.
Now Björg is a single mother raising three little piglets and working for a pittance in a travel agency with a reputation so bad that every other package tour ends up in the scandal sheets. I run myself ragged for this publisher like a student summer replacement, gradually giving up all hope of ever being able to afford to quit. While the Bogey Man writes crime thrillers published in over 20 languages, as well as selling the movie rights. He’s a millionaire and lives in a huge apartment in Greenwich Village with a well-known German stage actress and their two sons. Admittedly he did always have a strange attraction, despite bogey-eating and a loner’s look. The summer after we graduated I fell asleep in his long, slender arms in a messy excuse for a rented room he had, only to wake up with a start when he slammed the door behind him as he hurried off to his summer construction job, and realise my period had begun during the night. The bloodstains on the snow-white sheets were so bright, bright red that this prudish young lady took the sheets with her when she snuck out – without ever whispering a word to her friend Björg. I’ve taken much care to avoid Valgarður all these years, fully reconciled to my own childishness, working for the publisher who lives off of his books. This year he celebrates his tenth anniversary as a writer, this child prodigy who published his first murder mystery at 22 that sold five thousand copies. The next year the figure doubled – and kept on doubling and tripling and redoubling. Vally was born to write crime stories. Unlike me, who finds most of them boring even though I sometimes have to read them as part of my job.
I told the brothers that crime was not my cup of tea, so they should send Dagbjört our editor on the course, or even Stefanía, who worshipped the author.
But no. They wanted me to go, I was good with people, especially crotchety authors. They looked at me fondly in their rust-coloured Burberry vests, with the smoke curling upwards from the cigars in the genuine lava ceramic ashtray. Made it clear that this time there was no point in protesting. Þorgeir the marketing director had taken to his bed and I had to fill his shoes by keeping the supermarkets supplied with books, keep an eye on our bookstore displays and attend the course that would begin tomorrow night.
What’s wrong with Þorgeir? I finally asked. They exchanged glances, hesitating. They weren’t ones to advertise private matters but, both nodded, their slicked grey manes not even budging, and answered in chorus that he had pneumonia. Stalemate. The man was deathly ill so there was not much to do but give in. Okay, I answered. What’s the idea of the course?
Again they exchanged glances, but this time perking up as they explained. This flash of genius was Þorgeir’s pet project, from start to finish. Had I really not heard anything about it? No, you say. Well, now, my girl. For weeks now Þorgeir has been organising a two-evening course to mark the occasion of Valgarður’s ten-year writer’s anniversary. Valgarður himself will address the participants at a special reception when it concludes. The papers will naturally be full of it, some of them have already written about it. Which means free advertising, perhaps even the chance of discovering an unknown new crime writer among the participants. The main thing, though, was to cater to the author’s ego. After this, Valgarður could simply not accuse his publishers of not celebrating the occasion in style. Twelve women eating up every word, yes, it’s mainly women who turn up for courses like this, with one or two men at the most, if statistics prove correct – but ten women admirers are nothing to sneeze at.
Why does the company need someone on the spot?
A helpful person to be Valgarður’s right-hand man when he turns up at the reception. Someone who knows how to keep people happy. You’re the perfect person, Sunna.
My nostrils full of after-shave mixed with cigar smoke get a dose of the dust set in motion as I dig out a carry-bag from the closet. Three sneezes later I emerge with the bag and shove a bursting file folder into it. Zip my parka all the way up. The supermarkets await me, the very thought fills me with dread. And then to prepare the course with the instructor.
Or maybe you’re found by now.
Maybe it’s me who’s missing.
I want Valgarður, says an uppity woman in a pantsuit, her bleached hair tied back in a bun. A bleary film clouds the blue of the bulging eyes staring at me. Reminds me of a bird, because her pointy nose quivers while the words dance out of her mouth. Don’t suppose her name is Robin? A glance at the badge on her collar tells me her name is Ragnheiður Kjærnested, Sales Manager Books.
If you’re going to sell his book, you have to take some of our other authors as well, I say, my arms full of them, a sharp spasm in my right shoulder reminding me of the fact. Our eyes lock across the brightly lit fluorescent floor of the supermarket. To the right is a table piled with golden Christmas angels, on the left a selection of this year’s Christmas titles in all categories. These 20 square metres of floor space, six tables and the goods on them, are her domain.
The woman snorts. May I tell him you said so?
Her question rubs me the wrong way and without thinking I respond that Valgarður has an unlisted number, and besides that we’re old friends, the two of us.