Authors: Michael Ridpath
First published in Great Britain in 2011 by Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.
Copyright © Michael Ridpath 2011.
The moral right of Michael Ridpath to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
ISBN: 978-1-84887-400-8 (hardback)
ISBN: 98-1-84887-401-5 (trade paperback)
eBook ISBN: 978-0-85789-420-5
Printed in Great Britain.
An imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd
26-27 Boswell Street
London WC1N 3JZ
for Julia, Laura and Nicholas
CELAND WAS ANGRY
. As angry as it had ever been since the first Vikings stepped ashore in Reykjavík’s smoky bay one thousand years before.
And Harpa, Harpa was angrier still.
She stood with four thousand other Icelanders in the square outside the Parliament building shouting, chanting, banging. She had brought a saucepan and a lid, which she beat together. Others had all kinds of kitchen implements, as well as tambourines, drums, whistles, a trawler’s foghorn, anything that could make a noise. A tiny old lady next to her stood straight and defiant, banging her Zimmer frame against the ground, yelling, her eyes alight with fury.
The din was chaotic. The earlier rhythm of the crowd had deteriorated into a cacophony of anger, disjointed chants of ‘Ólafur out!’, ‘Rotten Government!’ and the simple ‘Resign!’. It was the middle of January and it was cold – there was a dusting of snow on the ground. Making noise kept Harpa warm. But the shouting and banging also gave vent to the anger and the hatred that had been boiling inside her for months, like volcanic steam spitting out into the cold air from the country’s geothermal depths.
It was getting dark. The flares and the torches that many had brought with them glowed brighter in the failing light. Lights blazed inside the Parliament, a small building of blackened basalt.
The people had gathered, just as they had gathered every Saturday for the previous seventeen weeks, to tell the politicians to do something about the mess that they had got Iceland into. Except this was a Tuesday, the first day of the Parliamentary session. The protests were becoming more insistent, the noise of the people was building up to a crescendo, the Prime Minister and the government had to resign and call elections. Ólafur Tómasson, the former Governor of the Central Bank and now Prime Minister, who had privatized the banks and then connived at them borrowing more – much more – than they could ever repay, he had to resign too.
This was the first time Harpa had been to one of these demonstrations. At first she hadn’t approved of them, thought violence and conflict was not the Icelandic way, that the demonstrators didn’t understand the complexities of the situation. But, along with thousands of other Icelanders, she had lost her job. She could do the sums, she knew that the debt the Icelandic banks had run up would take the nation decades to pay off. Markús, her son, was only three. He would still be bailing them out when he was forty.
It was wrong! It was so wrong.
Ólafur Tómasson was to blame. The other politicians were to blame. The bankers were to blame. And Gabríel Örn was to blame.
Of course she had played her own part. That had kept her away from the earlier demonstrations. But now as she banged and shouted, the guilt just added to her fury.
Proceedings had started in an orderly way, with rousing speeches by a writer, a musician and an eight-year-old girl. Icelandic flags had been waved, protest banners fluttered, the atmosphere was more carnival than riot.
But people were angry and getting angrier.
The police in their black uniforms and helmets formed a line in front of the parliament building, ushering in the politicians through the mob. They carried batons, shields and red canisters of pepper spray. Some squared up to the crowd, broad and tall. Some bit their lips.
Eggs and pots of
, Icelandic yoghurt, flew through the air. Protesters dressed in black, their faces covered in balaclavas or scarves, ran at the police line. The crowd surged. Some people, many people, shouted for the protesters to leave the police alone. Others cheered them on. The police lines buckled. Now it wasn’t just yoghurt being thrown, it was flagstones as well. A police-woman fell to the ground, blood running down her face.
Whistles blew. The black uniforms raised their canisters and squirted pepper spray into the throng.
The crowd recoiled. Harpa was sent reeling backwards and tripped over the man behind her. For a moment she thought she was going to be trampled. A boot crunched her leg. She lay on her back and raised the saucepan in an attempt to protect her face. Anger turned to fear.
Powerful arms lifted her to her feet and pulled her back from the crowd.
‘Are you all right? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to knock you over.’
The man was lean and strong, with thick dark eyebrows and deep blue eyes. Harpa felt a jolt as she looked up at him. She couldn’t speak.
‘Here, let’s get back out of this.’
She nodded and followed the man as he pushed back through the mob towards the edge of the square, where the crowd was more sparse. The hand on her arm was broad and callused, a fisherman’s hand, her father’s hand.
‘Thank you,’ Harpa said, bending to rub her shin where the boot had dug into it.
‘Are you hurt?’ He smiled. A stiff, reserved smile, but betraying concern.
‘I’ll be OK.’
A kid barged past them, spluttering as he ripped off his balaclava and rubbed his eyes. He couldn’t have been more than fourteen. Another protester tipped back the boy’s head and poured milk into his eyes to soothe them.
‘Idiot,’ Harpa said. ‘All this isn’t the police’s fault.’
‘Perhaps not,’ said the man. ‘But we need the politicians to take notice. Maybe this is what it will take.’
‘Bah, it’s pathetic!’ A deep voice rumbled from just behind them. Harpa and her rescuer turned to see a broad-shouldered middle-aged man with puffy eyes, a scrappy grey beard and ponytail, frowning down on them. His stomach hung out over his jeans and he was wearing a broad-brimmed leather hat. Harpa thought she recognized him from somewhere, but she wasn’t sure.
‘What do you mean?’ said Harpa.
‘Icelanders are pathetic. This is the time for a real revolution. We can’t just sit around and talk politely about change and bang our pots and pans. The people need to take control. Now.’
Harpa’s eyes widened as she listened. With the fisherman next to her, her fear was diminishing and the anger reappearing. He was right, damn it. He was right.
‘Aren’t you Sindri?’ the fisherman asked. ‘Sindri Pálsson?’
The man nodded.
‘I’ve read your book.
‘And?’ The big man raised his eyebrows.
‘I thought it was a bit extreme. Now I am not so sure.’
The big man laughed.
Now Harpa knew where she had seen his face. He had been a punk rocker in the early eighties, a one-hit wonder and had re-emerged two decades later as an Icelandic anarchist writer.
‘My name is Björn,’ the fisherman said and held out his hand. Sindri shook it.
‘And you?’ Sindri asked Harpa. She could smell alcohol on his breath and she recognized the look of interest in his eyes as he examined her. She might be an unemployed single mother in her late thirties, but men still liked what they saw, especially older men.
‘Harpa,’ she said, glancing quickly at the man named Björn as she did so. He smiled. God, he was attractive. There was something about him, or maybe it was just something about her, the afterglow of letting out all that anger.
He was certainly more attractive than Gabríel Örn. Pity he was a fisherman. Rule one ever since she had been a teenager was don’t date fishermen.
‘Ólafur out!’ Sindri roared suddenly, punching a fist in the air.
The big man was a magnificent sight, bellowing his lungs out, his ponytail bobbing.
Harpa glanced at Björn. ‘Ólafur out!’ she shouted.
Night fell. The protest intensified. The older protesters left: the proportion of demonstrators with their hoods up and faces covered increased. The Christmas tree in the middle of the square toppled: in a moment it was on fire. Drums beat, people danced. Harpa and Björn stuck to Sindri, who moved through the throng chatting to all and sundry between bellows. Following him, Harpa felt part of the crowd, and her anger flared again.
Finally, the police had had enough. ‘Gas! Gas!’ the crowd shouted.
A moment later something stung Harpa’s eyes. She bent over and Björn pulled her away. Something tickled her throat. They ran back out of the square, surrounded by hundreds of people, escaping before all but a particle or two of the gas reached their lungs. They lost Sindri for a moment, and then found him talking to a young man with his shirt off plunging his face into a bucket of water. The boy had spiky red hair and his torso glowed pink in the cold and the light of the flares. Sindri seemed to be congratulating him and slapping him on his back. The boy was shivering, but he was angry and the anger was keeping him warm.