As the steam evaporated she looked for changes in the mirror. If there, they would be subtle but telling, if only to her. Juline thought she would recognise it in her eyes or perhaps the pallor of her skin, but the glass reflected a woman of thirty six, brown hair and nearly pretty, nose too long perhaps, eyes wide but a nice mouth with good teeth. She pushed her damp hair back high on her forehead, moving in for a closer look at a purple bruise. Her thoughts strayed to her husband, dead in the living room and Sidney waiting beside him.
It was late afternoon and Juline told her father she’d catch the bus home.
‘I’ll have a little look around Pappa. The shops will be open for another couple of hours and I’ll bring something back for dinner,’ she said.
‘You sure?’ he said.
She had gone with him to the specialist only to be told again, what they already knew. It was early stage 4 and his prognosis was unchanged. He had a good year or two if he was lucky, before he’d be in need of serious care. There would be some pain during this period, the doctor said. He gave them a script.
The café was crowded, hazy with warming bodies. Juline sat down beside a man at the narrow bench looking into the street. He was a complete stranger but his smile was so friendly it was as if she had known him forever. A few pleasantries passed between them – an opportunity to practice her English. A short flurry of snow had fallen and it was now melting on the busy street; the traffic and pedestrians slowing to compensate for the slippery conditions. After a while, she offered him her hand by way of introduction.
‘Don’t tell me your name,’ Juline said, smiling at him over the rim of her cup of coffee; the first one was so good she’d had another; one he had bought for her. He was solid, tanned—not particularly good-looking. She guessed he was older than her by at least ten years. She found herself flirting with this stranger. It felt odd to be her, a different sort of person, and it involved an unfamiliar exhilaration.
‘Why not?’ he said.
‘I will call you Sidney, is that okay for the time being?’ she said.
‘Sure, I don’t mind,’ he said.
‘It’s like a story, don’t you think? Something you can make up as you go,’ she barely knew what she was saying. He made her feel unfamiliar to herself.
‘Well, I suppose—yes—I get it,’ his laughter was light and careless. He looked right into her eyes. She had never felt so frankly observed.
‘Is that an Australian thing, not minding,’ she was trying on this cheeky banter, like a new coat, unsure as to its suitability.
‘Absolutely, we wear not minding like a badge of honour,’ he said. Juline laughed establishing an easy familiarity between them. At one point she put her arm around his shoulder and hugged him as if he was a good friend. She thought he was a nice, warm man. He had the most brilliant smile, changing his face so comprehensively, doing a double-take the first time she saw it. She rang her father to tell him she had met a an old friend and was staying out.
‘That’s fine, I’m having leftovers, you just enjoy yourself, you deserve a bit of fun elskede,’ he used the word, beloved, but he couldn’t hide the sadness.
Later, she told Sidney things she had not told anybody. Her father only knew the half of it. A shadow of worry fell on him, blocking the light she had seen in the cafe. The telling of her story made it feel even more ponderous, the weight bearing down on her. Until she saw it on his attentive face, she realised she had never recited the measure of her despair with so little restraint.
Juline and Sidney made love in his hotel. She watched the cold light from beyond the window, blinking on their shivering skin. The back of his left hand and arm were damaged, a keloidal trench of grafts reached just below his elbow. Even this quiet, thoughtful man bore scars. She felt him watching her dreaming in the moonlight and at dawn, their bodies interlaced like lucent threads. She reimagined herself through his eyes.
At one point, Juline shed so many tears his chest became a series of streams, trickling among the broad landscape of bones.
‘We can stop,’ he said, but she needed him.
Outside their room the solemn discourse between the clouds dissipated, the moon cast a ghost of white over the low sprawl of Reykjavik. Later, she asked him about his homeland, where the sun wasn’t pale and retreating as it was here, but brazen and hot.
‘Even winter is just another element of summer.’ he said. ‘Near where I live an old lady swims in the tidal pool every single morning. I go for my walk and there she is, as dependable as clockwork. At least she was until I came here to work.
‘Incredible!’ she said.
‘Ha, you sound like Vizzini from ‘The Princess Bride’.’
‘Though Vizzini says inconceivable!’ she said laughing.
‘Never get involved in a land war in Asia,’ he parried. They both laughed, turning hysterical when he said – ‘have you the wing?’ It seemed odd, unpractised; she had not laughed for so long; but then she thought of the silent curse of her wedding ring lying in her bag.
‘Australia’s a tinderbox, it’ll flare up in January and thousands of hectares will be scorched beyond recognition, people die in their homes, fleeing in cars,’ he said, a hint of fear entering his voice.
‘It sounds as if you….’
He cut her off abruptly. ‘That’s all behind me now, I don’t think of it.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘No, I’m sorry Juline, that was rude,’ he sighed, and then, ‘I lost my daughter; a fire. She was six; my wife too—not from the fire. The relationship went south after Vonnie died. Couldn’t make it work—neither of us had the energy for it,’ he said.
She waited. To some degree she understood the nature of such a wound.
‘Some places are beautiful though. Fraser Island off the Queensland coast, the cliffs of Rainbow Beach, you will not see anywhere like it on the planet. High above Rainbow, there is a vast dune ending at the sheer cliff-face. When you walk there you can feel the fine sand sweeping across your ankles; the top of the dune in constant motion, like something alive.’
‘I would like to see that,—to feel it. Iceland is beautiful but it’s so stark and frigid. There are not many occasions when we can bare our ankles,’ she said. She watched a smile develop on his lips. ‘When I travel from my home, between the mountains of the Westfjords, the sun glints off the white peaks rising up out of the land, and then when the snow melts, they are black and forbidding.’
‘It’s harsh in Iceland but also beautiful; such a contrast to home,’ he said.
‘I think I paint a bleak picture; the Westfjords can be breath-taking sometimes and green, considering the polar conditions,’ she rolled onto her side, cupping his hand in both of hers and closed her eyes. ‘Tell me more,’ Juline said.
‘Sydney has the most beautiful harbour in the world, you know,’ he said. ‘The Opera House sails like a shiny, white barque in the bay and from there, a magnificent botanical garden unwinds along the contour of the shore.
He turned his head away and Juline followed his eyes to the window, the dull clouds and drizzling rain; the grey light of dawn dropping like a stone into the freezing span of the day. She tries to imagine with him, the wide expanses of glistening, sun-drenched rivers, long coastlines and endless white beaches. To Juline, his mysterious country was a place where the elemental landscape might allow a chance for renewal, of redemption.
‘You must miss your country,’ she said. She listened to the rhythms of his speech, a slowing motion to it, rolling with ease like a stream over smooth pebbles, ending in the sad smile of a distant river. Her English sounded glassy, brittle in comparison.
‘I do miss it. Another three months and my contract ends. Then you’ll find me treading water, waiting for the next set at North Beach,’ he said. Juline failed to understand but it didn’t matter.
When Juline came to Reykjavik again a week later, he spoke of his mother and his beloved sisters, his unbound affection for these strong, successful women made tears form at the corners of his eyes. ‘They would love you to bits. Come with me, you could leave him.’ He dared to think it was possible. Perhaps it was, she thought. This man seemed to care for her, but did he know her—did she know herself. She worried at his tenacious commitment to her and whether she may be a ready antidote to his own unimaginable loss. During a long silence they watched the dulling light of the sun once again recede beyond the clouds. It would not be long before the arctic night descended on them all. A needle of desperation entered her spine. She was trapped, a mammoth mummified in the northern permafrost.
‘You don’t know what he’s like,’ she said. A flash of guilt caused her to pause. This man was also battered by life, should she involve him in hers.
‘I know what a coward is, a bastard who beats his wife,’ he said, his raised voice tensing with anger.
There was no love lost between her husband and her family, they didn’t like him and never had. When she came on her infrequent visits back to Reykjavik, the change in her was most obvious; she had become this other person, of whom she had no prior knowledge. Once, this was before her mother had died, she visited her parents with her new husband. Her mother called him a coarse brute to his face. He gripped the armchair, eyes bulging with the pressure of restraint. They left Reykjavik early the following morning and he never returned. Juline paid that night, for the sins of her mother. There was a child once, filling her body, a presentiment of innocence until it died inside her on a night of insensate violence.
Juline broached the subject of returning to Reykjavik a third time. The first two were met with such stony petulance she feared he would not let her go again. He would no more think of leaving the Westfjords himself, than moving to the moon.
‘Pappa needs me, he is very ill,’ she said, crying.
‘Go then; what the fuck. Sooner he’s dead the better. We could use the money,’ he said, his malevolence stalking the corners of the house, ‘fucking EU, there’s no fish left here.’ That night he lashed out again.
The next day the bus ride from Hólmavík seemed more tedious than usual. Fresh bruises were evident; one abrasion so bad Sidney took her to the hospital. He sat with her in the waiting room and later nursed her in their room.
‘I should return with you Juline. Someone has to sort him out,’ he said.
‘I can’t see how it will make any difference,’ she said.
‘Just leave the bastard, leave him; next time he’ll kill you,’ he said. All she wanted then was their intimacy, but he was afraid he would hurt her. She determined that night, never to submit again to the habitual violations punctuating her existence in Hólmavík.
Juline sat in the third row of seats of the bus—Sidney, a hooded stranger at the back. She was always stunned by the landscape. This journey was building a tight knot of fear in her but she attempted to block it, imagining Sidney mesmerized by the high mountain passes. She longed to be with him; to watch his eyes squinting through his funny glasses, to see the trick of his mouth, a joke on his tongue. These mountains reminded her of the old legends, of Ragnorak gathering his children close for the long winter months ahead, a time to contemplate rebirth and the coming of wisdom. Was she on a wise path? The Mammoth longed to be free but dread haunted its icy cave.
They timed their arrival an hour before her husband’s return to shore. The fish were always unloaded at the co-op by four in the afternoon; when the trawler crews head to the pub. Her husband wasn’t well-liked among them and he wasn’t welcome. They knew what kind of man he was. When he had beer in him, they never knew which way events would turn. While she made preparations Sidney walked the streets of the town, a rucksack slung on his back; a hooded, lone traveller visiting the mythic Fjords of Iceland. She let him into the garage and brought him coffee and a sandwich. She told him where to wait out of sight.
She went to kiss him but froze, ‘he’s coming; he’ll park the car in here. He won’t see you, stay behind the boxes,’ she said.
She could hear the crunch of new winter snow as the wheels of the Land Rover came to a halt within the garage. She took several deep breaths and opened the door leading to the house.
‘Told you not to have the heat on in the garage, woman. You’re an idiot,’ he yelled in Islenska, pulling the garage door down.
‘It’s for you, when you get home—cosy,’ she replied. She tried a faint smile and handed him an open beer; having crushed the four diazepam with a little sugar, to disguise the taste. He drank it down and belched and then stared at the bottle.
‘Strange,’ he said.
‘What?’ a tremble to her voice as she handed him another bottle and he swallowed half the contents before he spoke.
‘Nothing; so you’re back, how is the old fucker; dead yet?’ he said, turning on the television with the remote and slumping on the armchair. She didn’t answer, closing herself in the bedroom. There was not a time when she hated him more. When she heard the familiar, congested snort of his sleep, she returned to the garage and turned the heating back on asking Sidney to wait another thirty minutes before entering the house. He didn’t want to do it this way, but she pleaded with him. It felt wrong, he said, not to just confront the bastard. She was determined to do it as she had planned, without him coming back with her, but he insisted. Perhaps some sort of pride was involved; he was deeply conflicted about the entire arrangement, but he said he was not going to leave her to deal with it on her own.
‘I’ll do as you say Juline, but I’m coming,’ he said.
‘He’s gone,’ she said. She was numb, Sidney looked at the body of her husband slumped over the armchair. The right arm was stretched over a low table beside him, accompanied by a beer bottle and a syringe. A tiny drop of blood bubbled from the crook of his arm.
‘He’s not what I expected,’ he whispered.
‘I know, but you heard him—his tone,’ she’s whispering as well this time. She saw her husband through Sidney’s eyes; short and wiry, a hard nugget of a man, not lessened by the frigid repose of death. ‘I want to take a shower,’ Juline said. She placed her fingertips on Sidney’s cheek, she sensed he didn’t want to touch anything in the house and now, nor did she. When she emerged from the bathroom she moved close to Sidney. She couldn’t keep calling him by this silly false name. He looked peculiar, pale, not as she remembered him when they first met. A trance had taken him. She was struck with a lurking fear of what she had done to him. He was a gentle and good man and she had made him into a murderer-for that she would one day have to pay.
‘Look at me,’ she whispered, urgent, cupping his face with both hands. ‘What do you see…is it still me?’
‘Yes,’ he said simply, returning to her and then holding her close. They were both trembling.
After they pushed the body into the back of the Land Rover, covering it with a blanket, he drove through the now dark streets, the gloom of approaching winter shrouded the silent town. A white ribbon of highway stretched east along the fjord ahead of them.
‘You can tell me now’’ she said.