Authors: J. L. Merrow
I was inclined to agree with her silent censure. Paget’s disease, my memory told me with its usual, frustratingly encyclopaedic knowledge of anything merely factual and not personal, caused abnormal skull growth, with concomitant pressure on the brain. It could easily have prompted Egil’s legendary headaches and fits of murderous rage and accounted for his renowned ugliness of feature, along with a host of other symptoms.
Had Sven and I argued about this? I wondered if he’d been the sort to sulk, afterwards, to give me the silent treatment. Or had it all ended in sweaty, exhilarating make-up sex? I stared, unseeing, out of the car window as I tried to imagine sex with the man in the photo.
“Does any of this ring a bell?” Mags asked softly, making me jump.
“Academically, yes. But as it relates to me personally? To Sven?” I shook my head. “Nothing.” For all that people told me of my dead lover, he seemed more a character in a saga of long ago than a real, once-cherished person.
Egil Skallagrimsson, on the other hand,
for me, that black-hearted, murdering berserker with the rare gift of poetry. I could recall every detail of his bloody life—yet not one scrap of the last year of my own. Or my lover’s.
“Did Mrs. Halvorson visit you in hospital?” Mags asked after a pause.
“No. I don’t suppose I ever met any of his family, so there was no reason she should.”
Mags pursed her lips but didn’t say anything.
“I wasn’t upset about it or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about,” I hurried to say. “It would have been a bit awkward, to be honest—she’d have wanted to talk about her son, for us to grieve together, and, well, I couldn’t.”
“I suppose so. But if I’d been her, I’d have wanted to see you.”
“Maybe she didn’t approve. You still hear about that sort of thing, even nowadays—parents throwing their kids out for being gay.” A pang of sympathy shot through me at the thought, coupled with a more personal sadness. My own parents hadn’t lived long enough for me to find out if they’d have been supportive or not.
“I don’t think that was it. Sven’s family were from New Hampshire, not the Bible Belt. And I know that doesn’t necessarily mean… But no, I don’t think that was it. I hope not.” There was a pause while Mags negotiated a junction. “People who’d do something like that don’t deserve to have children.”
She spoke so vehemently, I wondered if she had personal reasons. “Have you got kids?” I asked.
Mags gave a small shake of her head. “No.”
“Maybe you will, one day,” I suggested gallantly.
“I don’t think so. Not now. Anyway,” she went on with a brightness that seemed somehow forced, “wouldn’t you like to hear about your new flat?”
“I—yes, thank you. And thank you for arranging the rental for me,” I added. “That was a big help.” She’d also sent over fairly comprehensive details of my new temporary home, but I didn’t mind hearing what I already knew if it papered over the awkwardness I’d somehow caused. It was strange—we were talking as if we knew one another well, and I guessed she must know all kinds of things from my past, but although she seemed familiar, I knew nothing about her. None of her secret griefs, her regrets. Had I known these things before? I thought I must have.
I felt a new pang of loss at the thought.
“Well, it’s quite a nice little place, especially for the rent.” Mags carried on briskly, keeping her eyes on the road. The area we were driving through now was more populated, and traffic had increased. “It’s even a bit cheaper than the maximum you quoted me. It was rather nice, not to have to be so constrained by budget when I was looking for it.”
I nodded. Gretchen and I had trust fund income from our parents’ estate. It wasn’t exactly riches, but it definitely made it easier to manage on an academic’s salary.
“I thought we should go for the ground floor, so as not to strain your leg—how is that, by the way? You seemed to be walking quite well.”
“It’s not so bad. I can manage without the cane now, for short distances. Although I sometimes regret it afterwards,” I added with a grimace. Mags’s uncanny ability to draw honest confessions out of me was frankly a little unnerving.
She chuckled softly. “You always did want to run before you could walk. Anyway, you’ve got a nice-sized bedroom, and the sitting room looks out over the bay. It’s all newly decorated, and there’s parking for your car.”
My new home was in one of a number of buildings dotted around the hillside on the outskirts of Reykjavik. It was painted a pastel green over the ubiquitous corrugated iron siding, protection against icy Arctic winds. The Icelanders, it seemed, made up for the bleakness of their surroundings by painting their houses in a cheerful pallet of colours—pastel tones, for the most part, but also rich, earthy reds and oranges.
Inside, the flat was just as Mags had described, although it turned out I could see the bay from my bedroom as well as from the living room. Everything was either natural wood or painted white, and the floors were tiled in warm terracotta shades. I found myself relaxing already, although I thought the floors would be chilly on bare feet. Two pairs of socks, I thought. Or maybe when I got my things out of storage, I’d find Sven and I had bought each other matching pairs of yeti-feet slippers.
I found it hard to imagine the man in the photograph exchanging gag gifts like that with anyone. He’d seemed too serious by far. But what could you tell about a person from just looking at a picture?
A splash of green was provided by a spider plant on the low coffee table in the living room. “Included in the rent?” I asked, stroking my finger along one long, spiky leaf.
Mags coloured and looked at her feet, confirming what I’d already guessed. “Oh—just a little housewarming present.”
If she’d been a little closer, I’d have hugged her again. “Mags, you’ve already gone above and beyond. Thank you.”
“It’s all right, then, is it?” she asked, seeming anxious, although I couldn’t see why.
“It’s perfect,” I assured her. “To be honest, I’d have been happy with a tin shed if it had a view like this.” I gestured at the window.
“Oh—I’m so glad,” she said. “I did wonder… I mean, I could have got something a lot closer to the Uni, for the money, but it wouldn’t have had a view, and I just thought…”
“You thought the Paul you knew would have preferred the view?”
“Yes!” She nodded, smiling in relief.
I was oddly relieved too. I didn’t want to disappoint Mags. The more I thought about it, the more it frustrated me. If my subconscious could remember her, why the hell couldn’t the rest of me? “Can I take you out for a meal, sometime?” I asked. “To say thank you for all of this?”
“Don’t be silly—you don’t need to thank me. I was happy to do it.” She gave me a crooked smile. “It really is good to see you back here, Paul. After the accident… It’s just so good to see you looking so well. You won’t remember, but I came to see you in hospital.” She shivered but didn’t elaborate. I could only guess how I must have looked back then, my face bruised and swollen, my battered body encased in plaster and hooked up to drips and machines. I’d been air-freighted back to England seemingly more dead than alive.
I had to repress a shiver of my own.
“It’s good to be back,” I told her, meaning it. “If I can’t take you out for a meal to say thank you, can I do it to celebrate my return? And, well, to get to know you again?”
“Well—if you put it like that, I’d love to. But I’ll let you find your feet first. Will I see you at the institute tomorrow?”
I nodded. “I can’t see any reason not to dive back in. I’m already eight months behind with my work.”
Her eyes twinkled, and again she looked much younger. “After all these centuries, I don’t think a few months really matter, do you? Oh—I think that must be my taxi.” A car had pulled up in front of the window. “You get yourself settled in, and I’ll see you tomorrow.” She grabbed her waterproof jacket from the back of a chair and pulled it on. Rain was still falling, although not so heavily as before. “I’ll be able to introduce you to Alex,” she said as she scuttled through the front door with a wave.
She was gone, out into the eternal Icelandic wind, before I could ask her any more.
I unpacked my suitcase, hanging my few clothes in the wardrobe. I hadn’t brought much. I’d need to get my things out of storage sooner rather than later. I had only one suit and a few items of casual clothing. It hadn’t seemed worth buying more, and it certainly hadn’t been worth the effort of lugging more than one suitcase out here while I still used the cane.
My leg seemed to hurt more, now I was no longer distracted by Mags’s presence. I stretched out on the leather sofa, but as usual, it only gave the illusion of comfort, the ache continuing unabated. I debated taking a painkiller, decided to leave it for now and take one when I went to bed. A cup of coffee, though, that would help. If I had any, that was. Suddenly restless, I was glad of the excuse to get up and explore the kitchen, where I found the fridge had been turned on and filled with milk, butter, cheese and ham, and the cupboards laden with tea, coffee and a motley selection of tinned goods. There was even a loaf of bread. Mags, you’re a treasure, I thought as I filled the kettle.
I ate, and watched a little Icelandic TV, letting the cadences of the language drift over me. After a while, my ears seemed to tune back in to it, and I realised I could understand a great deal, although not all, of what was being said. I sent Gretchen a quick text—
arrived safe, flat great, speak soon.
At last the grey skies outside my window began to darken as the unseen sun edged lazily towards the horizon. It was still half light when I shut the blackout curtains and went to bed. Tired from my journey, I found myself drifting off quickly.
Even the unsettling reflection that I was lying in the bed I’d shared with Sven couldn’t keep me awake for long.
I slept deeply, even my alarm clock’s insistent call struggling to wake me the next morning. Dreams trickled from my mind as I opened my eyes, leaving me with the frustrating feeling they had held glimpses of my past time here—if I could only remember them. All I could recall was a fleeting image of smiling blue eyes, their corners lined by laughter, wind and weather. They carried with them a rush of mixed emotions: want, and guilt, and sadness. Were they the eyes of my lover?
But Sven’s eyes, I knew from the photo, had been brown.
I found myself missing Gretchen and her cups of horrible tea. It struck me I hadn’t really been alone since the accident—since before then, I supposed, as I’d been living with Sven. I showered, and breakfasted on strong Icelandic coffee and the dark lava bread Mags had stocked my cupboards with, spread with the local butter. The sweet flavour and cakey texture of the bread tantalised me with almost-memories: I’d eaten this fresh-baked, not from a supermarket, I was certain, and it had been much better. But where? And who had I been with at the time? Sven, I presumed, but it could have been Mags, I supposed.
Had I had any other close friends during my time here? Mags would know, I told myself, and suddenly I was impatient to be gone. Rubbing a hand over my chin, I decided I could get away without shaving for today. I wouldn’t be teaching for several weeks yet.
The institute building was at Árnagardur, part of the university campus on the western side of Reykjavik. I found my way there easily enough—more easily than I’d expected, in fact. Driving the car too seemed to come instinctively; I didn’t have to fumble for indicators or the switch for the radio, and gear changes were smooth despite my injured leg.
A faceless, somewhat grim high-rise structure, the institute seemed an odd place for a centre of medieval learning. I was grateful for the modern convenience of a handrail by the stairs, though, as I dragged my sleep-stiffened leg up to the main entrance. Once inside, I stood in the foyer for a moment, challenging my brain to point out the way to go. It failed ignominiously to step up to the mark. Mags saved me by walking in, her small figure bent sideways under the weight of a heavy bag on one shoulder. She smiled and waved a quick greeting as she scurried towards me, her soft-soled, sensible shoes making almost no sound on the tiled floor.
“Going for a more casual look?” she asked with a gesture at my stubbled cheeks. “Or did you run out of time to shave this morning?”
“I don’t like looking in mirrors.” The words tumbled out, leaving me mortified both by my unexpected honesty and the brusqueness of my tone.
Mags looked stricken, and I was about to apologise, but her next words confused me. “Oh—silly me, of course not.”
I was startled into a half laugh. “Of course? I know I’m no oil painting…”
“Oh—goodness, I didn’t mean… Well. You know. Because of Sven?” She spoke quickly, her cheeks showing spots of pink. “I mean, I know you don’t remember him, but you’ve got a picture, haven’t you? I made sure I gave your sister one, when she came to take you back to England.”
“I… Oh.” Absurdly, it hadn’t hit me until now. I thought back to the photo, resisted the urge to take it out of my wallet and look at it again.
A broad-shouldered, somewhat swarthy man with dark, curling hair and full, sensual lips.
I might, I realised with a cold, hollow feeling in my stomach, have been describing myself. How could I have been so blind?
“The students used to call you the twins, you know,” Mags said, smiling fondly. “He was around here fairly often, coming to see you or just doing his own thing, so they got to see you two together quite a lot.”