Iceland

I went to Iceland last year. With 70 kids. I keep thinking about it. Here’s a thing I wrote.

From the distance of a few days, we thought we’d look back at what was, where we were; where we called from in those days of ice and fire. Bear with us, for the nature of these things, thanks to the ragged nature of our collective memory, means a certain amount of crevasse and elision. But, for the record, it went a bit like this…

Day 1
It starts, naturally, with a shower. We gather in groups under grey skies and board the coaches. The laughing and singing starts at the motorway junction; it doesn’t stop for five days.

The airport is, weirdly, a breeze. We’re through, drifting through the shops and salons like wraiths, for what feels like hours. We board the plane and, after the briefest collective dreaming, we’re over the umbral plains of the south, craning for snow, for sustenance…

Our first trip is out onto a peninsula; our first experience the impossible geometry of lava, the enormity of the blue evening under spreading skies. Everything is everything else, rock upon rock, all coated with a green veneer of moss and lichen. Besides this, nothing grows. We’re used to the teeming land: rabbits, birdsong, woodscape, flurries in the leaf litter; here the silence of rock dominates everything.

We learn that the island is still young in geological terms – just 20 million short years, a foundling, a babe in arms – and this peninsula the youngest part of all. At Gunnuhver, you can feel this coming into being; you come to realise the silence above masks the enormity of what lies beneath: the roil of the land, the gouts of steam piercing the fractured surface, outpourings of the disturbances below. It makes a mockery of that which is supposed to be solid. We huddle in the steamscape, the stench of sulphur everywhere.

Later, after a swim under cold black skies, we head back to the hotel. A rumour starts that the northern lights are dancing above us. We sneer, but, slowly, we all tune in and there, there: a curtain of faintly falling dust, a hushed shadow of some other, greater celestial drama. We hold our breath, wanting time to stand still.

Day 2
Today, at Kerið, the collapsed crater of an ancient volcano, we learn that the sun rises late, but rises just enough to light up the earth: the iron red of basalt, the deep blue of trapped water, the sharp refraction of light across the crater’s outer lip. At Gullfoss, we learn that there is more water on the face of the earth than we had previously imagined and that most of it crashes over these falls, into this deep canyon. At Geysir, we learn that all geysers are named after this one – the daddy, the progenitor, the uber-geyser – and that geysir is Icelandic for ‘a good bloke that always gets his round in’ and that a cup of tea in Iceland costs roughly a month’s wages, and hell, it’s Earl sodding Grey.

We also learn that Mrs Brown knows everything there is to know about Icelandic horses (let’s be honest, she knows everything), that they’re smaller than other breeds of horse, but are definitively not ponies and that they can open 5 different types of gate. Something like that. We also find out, watching dense, muscle-bound fish hanging in the river’s breeze at Thingvellir, that Will H knows everything there is to know about Arctic Trout – their breeding habits, the fungus they wear on their broad backs, their habitats. They turn out to be Arctic Char, but we won’t hold that against him.

And, also at Thingvellir, we learn what it’s like to stand between two continents, on land that is no land, made of ice and fire and the blood of the ancients, on land that is belched into being beneath our very feet and which grows at the same rate as our fingernails, on land where the first parliament was created and where democracy was enacted in its purest state since Ancient Greece and where we are humbled at the enormity of what we see, what we are, and what we might become. We give a huge Icelandic roar to the heavens, the fibrous wall of our voices carrying into the murk of lowered sky, to the hills, to the ancient ones, watching from the spaces in-between. On the way home, we sing louder than ever, singing ourselves into being.

Day 3
It all starts to blur into one. We’re behind a waterfall, blinking through rainbows and spray at the spreading land. We’re at the foot of a mighty glacier, a glacier reaching for the sea, but never quite arriving. A glacier shrinking by the year, retreating to its mountain hideaway and the secret pact with the volcano over which it presides. We scale its massive, creaking back, the sun out now, creating tiny rivers in the impossible plurality of ice. We dodge crevasses, stopping to lap at the melting ice, and head for the summit, pausing to hack lumps out of the ice, each imagining our own antagonist. It’s not until we’re on our way back down, decked out in warpaint (OK, volcanic dust) that we notice the baroque nature of what we’re climbing: here, at the ablation area nearest the lagoon, the glacier is at its most operatic: cornice over dome, crenellation over cupola, over frenulum, over canyon, over coulee. And it’s not until we stop that we notice that glaciers talk to themselves – listen to all that chatter, that creaking and moaning, the chuckle of water, the whisper of ice on ice. No wonder the Icelanders believe so strongly in the hidden people.

Finally, we go to the black beach and stand agog again at the power of water. It’s no wonder that Iceland produces its electricity entirely from green sources: they are surrounded by the sublimity of nature, the awesome forces of the Great Other. Fire and ice, water and wind. But, being Icelanders, they have learned to listen, and have learned to harness this power, forging a fragile pact with the forces of nature. At the beach, we see the dark side of this and learn about sneaker waves. These aren’t waves that want to gatecrash your party or nick your stereo, no, these are waves that want to nick you. We think we’re far enough back, but the sneak is true to its word, and a few get wet. It’s when we see a couple nearly get swept from the basalt cliffs that we realise it’s time to go.

Day 4
Today is about sky and water, water and sky. We scream at mighty Skógafoss waterfall, hiding in rock clefts, hiding in rainbows. We climb to the top and gaze at the tipping point, wondering, wondering at what it would be like to sail over, reborn in water.

The folk museum is an odd highlight. We get a true sense of the kinds of lives Icelanders have lived, how modernisation came so late, and how many lived harsh, rural lives for so long – bypassing the revolutions that gripped continental Europe. This isn’t a glimpse of the age of Kings, the age of industry, so much as a glimpse of the Neolithic alongside something like the Victorian – a style of living that lasted into the late 19th century.

We drive the coast road, the sun fierce through the afternoon haze. Here, under a wall of cliffs, it’s more apparent than ever that we’re driving on what is essentially the bottom of the ocean, the land borrowed from the sea, and that Iceland is a drama of this play between opposites: land and sea, fire and ice, ghost and living, family and ancestors, rock and air. We exist between this play of elements, rumours ourselves, grasping at eternity while trying to make sense of the present, the ground shifting beneath us.

Then, post-lunch (ham and cheese sandwiches, always ham and cheese sandwiches) we walk into the hills. The day blazes about us. We can see from the monumental drama of Eyjafjallajökull in the interior, right out across the flat coastal plains to the sea – knowing that there is no landfall between here and the Antarctic. In terms of the autumnal ochres and pale green of the hills, this might be Scotland, but in Scotland the very land doesn’t seethe and broil, jets of steam rising out of the ground to form layers of cloud about your feet. We climb toward the sun, and there, buried in the hills, we find a stream warm enough to swim in. From a distance, the sound of singing and joyful shrieking is like the music of the spheres.

Day 5
We finish in the Blue Lagoon, pasting ourselves in silica. In our own private dramas, we’re hoping for younger, clearer skin, for a dewrinkling miracle, for a new head of hair; instead, we get ourselves the warmest of baths, held as if in the chambers of the earth’s beating heart. And this will do.

Later, we take off into the shimmering blue. We leave the dense, lavaic planes, the long, barren solitude of the interior, the creaking glaciers, the hidden currents of fire at the island’s dark heart. And, in the long lines of our leaving, we notice the rhythms of our own blood and fire and realise we too have new ground on which to stand, from which to regard ourselves, and, best of all, at the centre of our own soft workings, maybe, just maybe, we know our hearts that little bit better.

The last of the melting snow

Sitting in the damp light of a late grey April, I can see the final place of your passing. It’s a lighter brown than the darker soil around it, the unearthed clay we returned last still visible, dense and knotty. Some of it fans out beyond the border, reaching out into the green of the lawn, doing what earth does: spreading, reclaiming. It seems impossible that we stood here five weeks ago, our own little knot of grief, but there we are: time has a habit of passing.

You’d probably be happy to know that the garden is alive with birds – emboldened by your continued absence: fat pigeons, pulling on their braces as they waddle towards one another, gangs of warring starlings, pecking in patterns too abstruse for us to grasp, the ridiculous rippling angles of a nuthatch on the fence. The tulips are up on the borders, chins to the sky; the camellia bush beside you is electric red; even the air is denser – denser with the mystery of spring’s great thickening. It’s rained so much that your run along the back alley is a mulch: hazel catkins, acorn litter, unknowable freight from the upper reaches of the valley. Big Dave has stopped by a couple of times. He eyes us suspiciously, wondering what we’ve done with you and I wonder if he, the birds, the creeping shrews, still sense you, still smell the great labours of your scent mappings. An olfactory haunting.

A light rain has started. It’s hanging in the air rather than falling: a veil of soft vapour. It’s been that kind of month. It’s hard to believe now, but it snowed the day after you passed. We looked into the garden, turned into a new room by the snow, and we worried we’d not be able to find you again. We thought of you under the earth and didn’t want to admit we were worried about you being cold. But somehow the snow forced us to pause; and while we marvelled at the newly shrunken, anechoic world, we gathered ourselves and made some sense of things.

It had gone like this: L called when I was still at school. You know the cause of the calls before you hear the words: the panic of caught breath, the audible ache in the throat. You were at the vet’s, awake, but already fading, approaching the distant twilight reaches. They said it was the internal damage. That your back legs were cold. They needed the nod, which we gave because, well, what else were we supposed to do? We did the hardest thing, which was to tell J&R: your partners in all this, your very best of friends. Your closeness was a profound alchemy, a closeness that goes beyond what we forgetful adults can remember. The news broke them, as we knew it would, as we always knew it would; but it also created a sacred space for us to share, one of the little miracles of a life lost.

When I came to collect you, the vet suggested I come to the side door. She brought you out in a frayed towel and all I could think at the centre of this madness was how heavy you were, how warm. Your last home was ready by the time I returned, the clay oddly disturbing in its exposed redness. We stood in a huddle around you, a little parcel, heavy with the gravity of your leaving. We murmured soft incantations, waiting for you to wake up. And there, in the thinning light, sharing soil, holding, holding, we let you go.

Looking out now I think of you under the great wheel of the sky. The chatter goes on above, the mad scurry of life. The days pass so quickly it’s a wonder sometimes that we hang on. In the hurtle of it all, you have become our little earthen comma, a marker curled there in the soil, our fixed point in the mad arc of the seasons.

Deer

I wrote Deer around this time last year. The very excellent Ash Akhtar read it and decided to do something with it; this short film is the result. The narration is by Chris Fairbank (yes that one) and Ash made the beautiful music under his Suborno moniker. It’s a privilege to have been involved.

You can see more of Ash’s fabulous films and some of our collaborative work over at the Fervent Arts YouTube channel.

Ranging in twilight’s palsied silver, at the summit of autumn’s blaze.
Acorn litter, balled under arches –
Demosthenean props, rolled around the woods’ bronzed gape.
Beyond this, nothing is said.
Instead, we go undeceived, suspended in the updrafts of the old silence.

Rooks roil westward, lint in the eye of the sun’s liquid falling.
We crouch at a field edge, thick with dewy foreshadows;
you gather chestnut husks, the needles lancing your palms.
Then: a studied tilt, a new pressure behind your eyes, and there
not ten feet away, belly-deep, scrape-hidden, a deer. A deer.

Before, I’d carry you out, out to sleep off the afternoon’s bright daydreams,
and the deer would always come. They were your anxious, peering avatars,
come to see this strange two-fronted stalker abroad in their crucible of beech-caught light.
Once, walking through a pixellated summer night, a deer watched us home,
A distant, timid chaperon of dusk’s rough palisades.

Now, as the woods shrink, as time shrinks, acre by sodden acre, they come less frequently.
But I feel them, a soft presence at the edge of things,
a modest, unspoken rapture.
We gather each other, and for the briefest moment I wonder if you’re going to stay.
Not yet, I think; not just yet.

Plainsong

The forest; a spot just off the road.
Aside from the odd distant car, it’s quiet, still.
The green is deep and various: moss, wild tussocky grass,
the trees in their last flush, the skirts of ferns.
On the heaths and moors, there is a breeze,
but here, sheltered, nothing moves, save for the odd blush
sighing in the oak crowns.
A nuthatch calls. Robins tick and scold.
In the middle distance, I think I hear a willow warbler –
my first of the year – homing for the warm south.
The last of the land’s held heat is dissipating;
the air bears the first rumours of the coming winter edges.

In my muggy oak-held hollow, I think of fires,
I think of night heavy against the windows,
and how days such as these are about gathering –
gathering light and the spaces in-between:
a store, a bulwark against the plight of lengthening dark.
In the tree tops, scurrying armies too gather,
too feel the pull of the north, the coming cold,
the pale backward glances of retreating summer.
It’s in these rifts, these seasonal interstices,
We feel fullest the passage of the flailing hours.
But there is always this forest, these trees;
The resolve that this will pass, will come again.

Barbara

Shopping centre; just after midday. A cafe, half in bleached atrium light, half given to damp shadows and sodium striplighting. The kids sagged, but now, fed on hot chocolate and shortbread are gone to distant corners, their bouncing birdsong shrieks returning from improbable angles. Under the blanket buzz, couples sit in phone-glows and amiable silence. Children tic, burble, eructate. Then there are those in solitude: well sitters, silent sharers. I think to peer in, but am afraid the solitude is sacred, not oppressive. Next to me, quilted and perfumed, sits an older lady, nursing an iced coffee, her head shaking almost imperceptibly. What would I say? What would I ask? What troubles you?

She chuckles; a learned laugh of masking and coping.
“Troubles? Ach. I’m waiting for my daughter. Fifteen minutes late!”
Her left hand is tight on her bag, pincered at the silvered clasp.
“She’s been to the doctor’s. I probably shouldn’t say, but I think she’s going to have to have a hysterectomy. Only 46. The whole lot out. Like emptying a suitcase.”
Her hands, free of her bag now, don’t shake. She rubs them together, the skin ridged like lines on wind-ruffled sand dunes. She blows on them, her head shakes increasing to a noticeable wobble.

“Do you notice it?” I say “if it’s not too rude to ask?”
“What’s that?” she replies.
“Your head, I mean. Sorry – I’ve always wanted to ask.”
“Oh, that. No, not really. It used to make me nauseous at first, when it started. It came on really slowly. I thought it was vertigo or something – like stepping off a long flight and still feeling like your flying. I used to feel sick. But there’s a pill for that.”
She smiles and twinkles, reaching into her bag. She rummages and pulls out what looks like a trapped white ladder, about a foot long. It’s bulk is separated into seven compartments, each bearing a day of the week. She shakes it next to her ear, the contents rattling.
“Pills for everything.”
“I’ve seen into your bag, but I don’t even know your name!” I say. She’s peering beyond me, looking, searching.
“Barbara. Thank you.”
“Matt”, I give back.
“I don’t know why I came over. Sorry. It’s becoming a bit of a habit.”
“Oh, I think it’s nice” Barbara says. “People are so worried about intruding. I think we should wear badges ‘happy to be spoken to!’ something like that.”
“Does it happen at night?” I ask.
“The head thing? I don’t know. Most things do.”

I wonder if it’s re-enactment; a passion play of the nervous system. That carnival of hours, inscribed, strung along the neural pathways, returning, relived. Maybe it’s an exorcism.

R returns, following a crumb-line of peals and squawks.
“We’re in WH Smiths, looking at pens. Then we’re going to Claire’s Accessories. We need things.”
“This is Barbara” I say.
R mutters a hello and body-mutters a kind of curtsy. Then she looks up, obeying unheard instruction, and is off.

Barbara is beaming. Solicitous.
“They’re either breaking your arm, or breaking your heart.”
The light above has shifted, blue sky flooding through the smeared, beshittened atrium glass. Barbara’s glasses have lightened, too, and I see her eyes for the first time, milky with cataract ghosts. I gaze upward and think I should probably go.

“Twenty minutes late now. I hope everything is OK.”
She extends her neck, the tremors increasing in pitch, and peers over my head. A small boy is hacking, emphysematic to our right, his mum wiping his nose, proffering a drink. I hear R’s babble. The birds are calling.
“Whatever happens, I hope everything works out” I offer, moronically.
“Thank you, Matt. Look after those little ones.”

Above, the clouds have blocked in the sky once more. A chair is dragged, braying. I take a final slurp of tea, but it’s cold. I glance at Barbara and she’s rising in her seat, her eyes gone to the middle distance. I can’t read her face but follow her eyes to her approaching daughter, bustling in pink. I wade from the cafe and hear R giggling. Like water, like falling rain.

Solstice

We go out late, drawn on by the promise of light.

A farm’s edge: we stand transfixed by the pale blaze of evening, the rolling land, the caged thunder of pigs; skylarks hang in the middle air, dancing, dancing above the stiffened spires of green wheat. We climb a hill, hands brushing chamomile, brushing the new flush of borage. At crest, we watch the wind press the barley; a bristling song of inconceivable patterns. A hare, massive in its hind quarters, quivers, plays, circling beneath the squat bulk of a grain silo. I catch you in the corner of my eye, rippling in your skin, alive in the growing arc of your consciousness.

We crouch in a lane of wet shadows, tracking the wheezing hum of yellowhammer song. We pull ourselves along, reeling them in. There: crisscrossing, conflagrant in the choirs of an ash crown.

The day closes, the solstice sun at the cease of its long, long falling. Trees gather in half-night. We strain against silence, hoping for owls. As we break for home, a deer coughs breathsmoke at the soaring moon.

Boo

The first time I came to you, newly free
of that warm, wet dark,
I flew towards the eye of the never-setting sun;
A half-moon hung over
The pink dustings of a cloud rippling sea.

Above the khaki wastes of Greenland,
An isthmus lapped at the ocean;
Its names – Angmagssalik, Sermersooq, Mittivakkat –
Were like throaty Hebraic glossolalia;
Echoes of the earth’s first voicings.

Beneath us, the cloud drew itself out.
I imagined beyond the horizon a dragon hung,
Benign and silvering in the half-formed night;
It’s hot breath a weightless, buoyant cloudstream
Keeping us aloft, drawing us onwards.

And in that great bloom of thickening white,
Now a blanket, now a downy swaddling,
I slept and dreamed of you waiting,
Held in an awhiawhi of grateful arms,
A mile-high miracle of quivering sleep.

Now we wait for you to come,
Come across the same wide rippling abundance.
And we sleep to dream that hanging dragon,
Hung beyond all our horizons,
And we ask that he keep you safe.

Bovine hades

I came upon them in the cavity of dusk –
A mass of huddled damp gravity,
Stertorous in the grip of their great ongoing labour.

The thought came, as it often does in their docile presence:
What goes on in that occluded brain?
What gilds the soft furnishings suspended above the churn of that ruminating mouth?

In my darker hours I have wondered,
Wondered what it would be like to be trapped there.
Pressed up against a great wet eye, unable to attend.

Even on an evening such as this,
Cool and copper, at the cusp of the season’s turning,
It is a hell too fresh to dwell upon too long.

Outstanding

Belched out of school’s hot throat into Spring’s amber dome. Late afternoon. Levitating with tiredness. I haunt the high street awhile, looking for an answer, a line of force. Aimless, I follow the familiar tip of gravity to the river.

Standing under the sign of the mill: ‘1243’ – a dictat from history: no fishing. The river is a bedlam of froth and roil; the land yipping and yawing. I think to take a photo, without really knowing why.

‘It’s not the original sign, you know’.

I turn to take in the voice, accept the presence; the self lazily processing, redrawing the job body consciousness has already mastered. His eyes are the first thing I notice – watery, red-rimmed: the revealing of unexpected flesh.

‘You must be a visitor?’ he says, nodding at my phone.

I stumble an explanation about having been down here before, but for whatever reason had never thought to take a photo. He looks mischievous, like he might not believe me. I tell him I work at the school; tell him it might as well be an island for how often we row back to the mainland, connect ourselves to the community. The kids, ferried in great buses, come as one, and leave as one – they might as well come in balloons. He frowns and I take in his age. 70? His posture suggests less, but those eyes. They fill again.

‘Ah. The school! Are you walking into town?’

We shuffle and talk. He tells me about the town, the old myth of the alder, the fire, the eel house he helped renovate (‘a wreck – like it had been ransacked by the land’), his cottage. He says the school remains something of a mystery – oddly out of bounds, an occulted presence in the edgelands, swelling with bodies and noise seven hours a day and then emptying again: an absence, conspicuous by its silence.

‘That’s pretty much exactly how I feel’. I tell him I’m still learning the process of disgorging it all at the end of the day – mastering that task of emptying myself enough so I don’t rage and boil at night.
‘It’s no way to dream.’

The river is brick-banked where it meets the uncertain reaches of the town. Toddlers shriek at ducks, throw entire slices of bread; brooms of wisteria hover above the doors of homes and small businesses: saddleries, a brewery, a solicitors. We join the pavement and I hear a squeezed history: school in Surrey; Cambridge, with Dudley Moore up the hall (‘his room was never, ah, empty shall we say? He liked a party.’); training as a fighter pilot, cut short by asthma and glaucoma; IBM, selling computers (‘computers the size of that house there, for simple calculations’). He tells me he was at Cambridge in the early 50s; he’s 82. The shock of age.

‘I’m on my own now, but that’s OK. 8 years.’

I find myself asking, before I can check myself, ‘is it – OK, I mean?’

‘Well, not really. It’s too quiet.’ He stops and sighs.
‘I don’t have any complaints. But, you know.’

It’s not regret exactly, it’s something larger. The enormous inexpressibility of a life lived and no longer shared. He looks along the wide high street and I steal another look at his eyes. Language may fail us when we need it most, but, like it or not, we have our mute vessels, these expressive bodies with their lustres of freighted silence. He huffs back who knows what, and he tells me about his cottage again. Tells me the door is always open.

‘Give me a knock. I’ll show you the town.’

I can’t gather my intentions, can’t press the words into the right shapes. I want to take a knot of respectful silence and pass that over – an amulet, a talisman. We settle for something simple and shake hands.

‘Mike’, he says.

The sun has fallen beneath the roofline and the shadows are cold. As I walk back into the memory heat of the school grounds I notice the towering oaks, raw against the paling day. The rooks are nesting high this year, the rooks are nesting high.