Authors: J. L. Merrow
I left the driver’s side window down as I drove to work, and the fresh, damp, salt-laden air had calmed my nerves a little by the time I arrived. I was a few minutes late arriving at the institute, and as I reached the bottom of the steps I was met by Alex jogging down them with an enviable, loose-limbed ease.
He came to an abrupt halt on the bottom step. For the first time since I’d met him, Alex looked off-balance. His eyes were wide, and although he drew in a breath as if to speak, he said nothing as he stared at me.
“Morning,” I said awkwardly.
Alex swallowed. “Uh. Yeah.” He rubbed the back of his neck, and suddenly the boyish smile was back—although this time I was sure it was fake.
There were no laughter lines around those blue eyes of his.
“Oh—no. Uh, hell, no.” He gave a jerky kind of half shrug, then looked at his watch a little too deliberately for it to be genuine. “I’m just a little late for, uh… I’ll see you around, okay?”
I nodded and, unsettled, turned to watch him as he jogged past.
As if he felt my gaze on him, he turned. “Nice shirt,” he said in parting.
I made my troubled way up to my desk, then did an about-turn and headed for the coffee machine.
“Oh!” Mags, busy stirring in creamer, visibly jumped when she saw me.
“What?” I snapped, made twitchy by first Alex and now her reaction to me today. “Did I cut myself shaving? What?” Her face twisted in regret, and guilt stabbed at me. “God, I’m sorry—I’m just not having a good morning,” I finished lamely.
“No, I’m sorry. You weren’t to—I mean, you surprised me, that’s all. It’s just, I remember you buying that shirt.”
“And…?” I prodded gently. I was sure there was more.
“Well—you bought it for Sven, you see. A going-away present. Well, it was sort of an apology too, for not going with him when he flew out to spend a long weekend with his family. You were terribly busy, and you’d have had to get someone to cover for you… Anyway, I remember you showing it to me, asking me if I thought he’d mind it being green, if he’d think the colour was unlucky.”
I took a deep breath. “Oh.” I wanted to go home and change—better yet, burn the damn thing. “Did he like it?”
She nodded. “He took it with him on his trip, you told me.”
It seemed I’d made an awful lot of fuss over a simple gift. “Mags… Were things all right between us? Sven and me, I mean?”
“I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t, Paul. As far as I know, things were fine. You were just… just a little worried about upsetting him.”
“I was scared of him?” There was a cold, hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“No! No, nothing like that. Of course not. It was just… I think he was a bit moody, sometimes, and you were never quite sure what might set him off. He wasn’t always like that,” she said quickly. I wondered what my face had given away. “Just… I think he was stressed the last few months before—the last few months you were here.”
“Why? Had something happened?”
“Well, I don’t
so. I just assumed it was his work.” Her smile looked forced. “You know how it is. We’re so insulated, here. But he had to work in the real world, and of course, with the economy the way it is…”
I nodded, oddly relieved. Then a thought struck me. “So his family can’t have been hostile. I mean, if I’d been invited over, they must have been okay with Sven being gay.”
Mags smiled. “You see? I told you that wasn’t it.” She took a sip from her coffee cup, holding it with both hands.
Then why hadn’t Sven’s mother come to see me in hospital? I wondered. Had she blamed me for his death? The cold emptiness inside me was back.
Had it been my fault Sven had died?
“There weren’t any witnesses,” I blurted out just as Mags turned to go. She spun back around to face me, and her coffee sloshed over her hand. “Sorry—didn’t mean to startle you.” I grabbed a handful of paper napkins from beside the machine and tried to mop her up. “You didn’t burn your hand, did you?”
“No, no. I’m fine. Sorry, what did you say?”
I took a deep breath. “The accident. Nobody saw what happened, did they?”
“No, that’s right. There were some tourists down at the bottom of the cliffs. Near where you fell—you know you just missed going into the water, don’t you? You were so lucky,” she added, her face a little pink. “If you’d gone into the river, been carried over the falls…”
“I’d be dead,” I finished for her. “Like Sven.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “This must be so…”
“So what, exactly?” I made an angry gesture. Guilt stabbed me as Mags flinched visibly, almost spilling her coffee again. “Sorry.” I ran a hand through my hair. “Maybe I should just go home and forget about today. I’m making a bloody mess of it.”
It was my turn to startle as Mags put a hand on my arm. “Paul. It’s all right. All this is bound to be frustrating. Come on, let’s get you a coffee. You’ll feel better after that.”
She poured a coffee, added creamer, stirred it in and even insisted on carrying the cup to my desk, saying she was “going that way anyway”, which I didn’t believe for a minute. I let her mother me, feeling embarrassed but grateful.
I recalled what I’d meant to ask her about. “Mags, do you remember a man called Viggo? Apparently he was a friend of mine when I was here before.”
She frowned, her brow falling into familiar creases. “I’m not sure. The name rings a faint bell. More of a little tinkle, really.” Mags gave a crooked smile. “What does he look like?”
My tongue stumbled on how to describe him without making my fascination plain. “Like…like Thorolfr Skallagrimsson,” I said finally. Great job, I told myself.
Mags laughed. “Egil’s better-looking brother? I hope he comes to a happier end.”
“Thorolfr died a hero’s death,” I protested.
“He didn’t live to see forty, though, did he? There’s a lot to be said for dying in bed, surrounded by grandchildren.” She sighed.
Again, I sensed something I’d once known—and had now forgotten. I reached over to place a hand on her arm. “Mags… That’s not the only way to know you’ve been loved in life.”
She nodded, the motion a little jerky, then managed a smile. “Why do you ask? Is it someone you’ve met, or have you remembered something?”
“Met,” I said, hating to dash the hope that had flickered in her eyes. “He said he drives the riverjet—”
. Yes, of course, I remember now. He’s awfully good looking, isn’t he? I didn’t know you two were friends, though.” She seemed more relaxed, now, lost in memory. “We had a little outing—you, me, and Jan and Kjartan. It was a few months before your accident. They were only with us for the year, you see, so we thought it would be fun… And you hadn’t been on it before, either. It was a good day.”
“I did remember it, a bit, when he told me about it,” I said cautiously. I was wondering who Jan and Kjartan might have been, and if I’d got on well with them.
Mags’s face lit up. “That’s marvellous!”
“It was very vague. But Viggo said he’d take me on the river trip again, so maybe it’ll jog my memory a bit more.
he does,” I added.
“Oh, I do hope so. I’ll see you for lunch, all right?” she sent as a parting shot.
“If you’re sure my bad temper won’t ruin your appetite.”
“Don’t be silly. And don’t be so hard on yourself. It’ll come back, I know it will.”
It was meant to be reassuring, I knew. But I couldn’t help wondering if I’d be glad, if and when my memories returned.
Viggo called me an hour later, when I was knee-deep in lecture plans. “Paul? You’re free this afternoon? I can take you on a riverjet trip.”
“I…” In fact there had been a meeting scheduled, but we’d just had word it had been cancelled. I wondered if it was just a coincidence…or fate. No, that was absurd. “All right. What time?”
“You can be here at two o’clock?”
“Yes. At least—where are you?” I didn’t need to ask. I’d searched up “riverjet Hvita” on the Internet as soon as I’d got home after meeting him. The website had been bright, friendly and without any pictures of the boat drivers. (Or did one call them pilots, seeing as they drove jets?) That had disappointed me, but then again, not every business liked to parade its employees’ physical features to entice or repel potential customers as the case might be.
In Viggo’s case, entice, definitely. I dutifully scribbled down the directions he gave me. It didn’t take long. Iceland doesn’t have all that many roads. At lunch with Mags, I half thought of inviting her along—after all, she’d been on the first riverboat trip. If I wanted this to jog my memories, wouldn’t it be better to recreate the first trip as fully as possible?
But then Alex sat down with us, and I could hardly have invited her without also including him, which would have defeated the whole purpose. At least, that was what I told myself. Somehow my inner sceptic refused to be convinced I had no ulterior motive for wanting to be alone with Viggo.
Shortly after lunch, I drove down a black gravel track, the tyres of my Mitsubishi crunching and bouncing as stray stones chipped at the bodywork. There appeared to be only two types of road in Iceland: shiny new ones with pristine tarmac, often on a level a foot or more higher than the surrounding land; and battered, pitted old gravel tracks. I wondered if the difference between them was merely an Icelandic winter.
My destination was the banks of the Hvita River, some way below the Gullfoss falls. An unsettling fact I did my best to ignore. After a long five minutes or so, I reached a wide, cleared area, gravelled with the ubiquitous black lava. The river raced in front of me, its blue-grey surface flecked liberally with white, and a bright yellow boat bobbed gently by a wooden jetty, built out from the rocky bank. I recognised the riverjet from the picture on the website. A big, sleek boys’ toy, waiting to take me to my doom. There was only one other car parked by the old ship’s container that clearly served as office and changing room here. It was a battered-looking Land Rover in army green that I guessed to be around ten years old—unusual in this country of new-car enthusiasts, even though recent economic troubles had visibly had their effect. That must be Viggo’s.
Viggo stepped out of the container as I parked alongside, and I drew in a sharp breath as I got out of my car. He was dressed in padded overalls but still managed to look lean and fit. The dark blue of the suit brought out the colour in his eyes, giving them a warmth they’d seemed to lack when we’d met in Reykjavik. His broad smile lifted the edges of his beard and creased the corners of his eyes, and suddenly I wanted him so badly I could barely reply to his hearty greeting.
“You’re right on time,” he said, gesturing towards the container. “Come. Let’s get you dressed for the trip.”
I left my stick in my car; I wouldn’t need it in the boat, after all. There was a strange intimacy about stepping into the small room with Viggo, but he was all business as he handed me a pair of overalls even more padded than his own.
I felt ridiculously self-conscious, struggling into what was essentially a grown-up romper suit under Viggo’s alert gaze. Could he tell I was attracted to him? Did he welcome it? From his behaviour at the weekend, I thought he must, but he was all businesslike as he kitted me out for the ride. I was tongue-tied and awkward, and Viggo’s previous chattiness seemed to have deserted him as well.
Then again, this was his job.
After donning the waterproof coveralls, I strapped on a lifejacket and helmet and took the pair of plastic glasses he handed me. I hesitated.
“Are these really necessary?”
“You’ll be glad of them later,” he said as he donned a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses. “Trust me.”
Did I? Despite the genuine-seeming smile he threw me, I wasn’t sure. But I put the glasses on.
I waddled down to the jetty in my protective gear, accompanied by Viggo and a friendly Icelandic sheepdog that had appeared from nowhere to leap up and lick my hands. Probably because they were the only part of me not all wrapped up like a toddler in winter.
“Is he coming too?” I asked, petting his thick red coat and getting an extra wet lick for my trouble. Was he this friendly to everyone, I wondered, or did he too remember me from before?
“Loki? No, he likes the ride, but he’s not coming today. It will be just the two of us.”
I gave Viggo a quick glance, but there seemed to be no particular meaning in his tone. He strode off towards the boat, and I followed.
There were three rows of seats. “Should I sit in the back?” I asked.
He turned to me, eyes twinkling. “I like it better if you sit in front with me.”
I liked it better too, I decided, carefully stepping into the boat. A sun-browned hand grasped my arm and held me with a strength and ease that made me glad of the concealing coverall. I didn’t want my body to betray how much he affected me. “Your leg, it still hurts?” he asked, his voice soft.
“It’s all right,” I said quickly.
“Good. You hold on to the rail here, and now we go, okay?” Viggo eased open the throttle, and, with a roar from the powerful engine, we shot off at breakneck pace. I shivered despite all my padding as we scudded up the river, bouncing off the top of the fierce waves formed by the uneven, rocky river bed. Sven had died in this river—and I’d been bloody lucky to escape its violent embrace. What was I even doing here?