Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 40


After a voyage of rough weather, spring seemed to come just a day out of Iceland. I was assured that it couldn't really be spring in early April. Even the supposedly merry month of May was thought of as the month of death in Iceland, lying between fodder and pasture. But, of course, one had to take advantage of the balmy air when one could. For once, the Icelanders forsook their card games to spend the last evening on deck. As the Thor rolled slowly in the placid swells, it was agreed on all sides that she was steaming her fastest.

When we awoke the next morning, the false spring continued with another clear day and excellent visibility. Climbing up to the boat deck, we saw the shapes of mountains low on the horizon. Even as they became larger and more distinct, they looked more like icebergs than masses of earth and stone anchored in the ground. After all, the tops were covered with ice, and, at that distance, it was impossible to see anything connecting them. I confided my suspicions to Vignis, who replied,

"I think that's Iceland itself. I'd ask, but we'd forever after be the people who thought the mountains were icebergs. The natives love it when foreigners make fools of themselves."

"Egil was just telling me about an American doctor who had learned a little Icelandic and was assisting an Icelandic doctor in some sort of stomach operation. They had blood all over the place and the American meant to say, "It's wet in here." The other doctor looked at him strangely and replied, "That's a very serious matter." It turned out that the American had actually said, "I have just wet myself.""

Vignis laughed and replied,

"When we first got here, I managed to ask for a hotel room with two couches and no beds."

"That's not so bad."

"No, but they have nothing to do here all winter except talk about people. Whenever someone new arrives, it opens up a fresh subject of conversation."

"If they ever find out about me, that'll keep them going for many months."

"You might use the name Jimmy Watt instead of James Witt. You'll only have to show your passport once when you enter. And you could be a civil engineer instead of a railway president. Anyhow, Mac's given them so much to talk about that I don't think they'll get to you for some time."

As I decided to take this piece of advice, I looked again toward the horizon. The icebergs were still there, but between two of them there was a pall of smoke rising straight up in the calm air. Vignis said,

"That's Reykjavik. It's the only town large enough to create that much smoke."

By the time that we went down for lunch, we knew exactly where we were, and were prepared to talk geography with anyone. Spirits were noticeably high, and it seemed that the men were anxious to get back to their families.

It was only after some time that I noticed that Vignis had hardly said anything at all. She ate normally enough, and didn't look as if anything were wrong, but seemed startled when I spoke to her directly. Then, as if to make up for her silence, she talked a little more than usual. I saw what Gudrun meant, but could see nothing wrong with an occasional streak of preoccupation.

When we went back outside after lunch, we could see the town under the cloud of smoke. It was rather charming, really. The smoke was light gray rather than black, and, instead of looking noxious, it had the soft and fuzzy appearance of an illustration from a children's book. The town, spreading up a gentle slope, consisted of buildings of modest size, apparently painted in every color of the rainbow. It was hard to believe that staid and stolid Scandinavians would color their town in such a fanciful way, but Vignis verified what I saw through the binoculars, adding,

"Almost all the buildings are made of corrugated tin. It's easy to paint them any color you want."

"I see now why you decorated my car as you did. Icelanders must love color more than any other people on earth."

As we drew into the harbor, crowded with fishing boats and small freighters, I began to think almost exclusively of Sidonie. Would she be there at dockside, and if so, how would she behave?

My question was answered even before the first line was thrown ashore. Sidonie was there with Mac at quayside. She waved frantically when she saw us, and, tugging Mac's arm, she pointed us out to him. I knew then that she was going to act entirely in the spirit of the post-cards she had sent me. That is, she would be the faithful and dutiful wife delightedly meeting her husband after a brief separation, perhaps necessitated by a visit to a sick parent. Vignis looked at me to see if I understood. I smiled at her, implying that I understood very well.

A few minutes later, it was so good to have Sidonie in my arms, her face pressed to mine, that it hardly mattered whether I understood. She was back, and nothing else mattered. Not only that, she was obviously intent on a second honeymoon. She whispered to me that she had originally been an island girl, and that she would teach me about this one. I could hardly wait to learn.

When we turned to the others and Mac greeted me, Sidonie said, more publicly, but still to me,

"I was about to go back to Huntington, but, then, it seemed better for you to come here."

Vignis' smile was a little forced at this piece of ingenuousness, but Mac said heartily,

"Glad to have you here, son. We'll find something for you to do on the railway."

It was good to see him engaged again, and I asked pleasantly,

"Is this one also circular?"

"No, I'm afraid not. It'd be nice to run right around the island, but, in the southeast, there are volcanos under one of the world's largest glaciers. When a volcano blows, there's a flood of water from under the glacier to the sea that would wash away anything anyone attempted to build there."

I soon discovered that this project was much more utilitarian and less aesthetic then the GER. Of course, there was ideology on the part of the Icelanders. They wanted a railway as a symbol of what they hoped would be their coming national independence. Mac had arrived in Iceland the previous December, just when they had gotten really serious about their railway. He had also come with the right reputation. It seemed to the Icelanders that he was just the man to build them their railway. He was happy to oblige them for a price, and even to run passenger trains. The contract was signed quickly, and the surveying of the line had begun even in the scant winter daylight.

Of more interest to Mac, a source of mercury had been discovered in a mountainous region to the west. Mercury, used in a wide variety of instruments, also looked as if it would be a strategic material in the European war that seemed so probable. Mac's first thought had been to mine the mercuric ore and use the railway to bring it out of the mountains for processing.

While it was illegal for a foreigner to own land in Iceland, and even Vignis counted as a foreigner, she had a cousin Willy, more formally Erikur Jon Thorsson, who served instead. Through Willy, Mac had bought a tract of land that contained most of the mercury, and then entered into a contract with the government. As he said,

"This is a socialist country, son. That means that the government pays the expenses, and the private operator gets the profits."

There being local people who might have overheard this declaration of modified capitalism, Sidonie quietly and tactfully changed the subject to politics.

"There are six parties here, the Conservatives, the Progressives, the Independence Party, the Social Democrats, the Communists, and the Farm Party. The present government under Prime Minister Jonsson is a coalition one, led by the Progressives."

I asked Sidonie,

"Which party do you support?"

"The Independence Party, of course."

I guessed that Vignis would be for any party whose name indicated that its primary commitment was to the independence of Iceland. It looked as if, as before, Vignis' party would be Sidonie's party. The latter then added,

"The only other interesting party is the Communist one."

Mac replied,

"What's interesting about it is that it exists at all. The country's relatively poor, but there aren't any extremes of wealth and poverty. There isn't any industrial working class at all."

Sidonie looked as she does when she's hiding something as much from herself as from anyone else, and I realized that, given her own choice, she would be a Communist. The trouble with the Independence Party was that some very solid and respectable people belonged to it. It wasn't a revolutionary act to join it, and membership in it shocked no one. Sidonie was still very young, and she wanted to do both those things.

Another thing about the Icelandic communists which may have appealed to Sidonie was that they were very nearly as conflicted as she was herself. They loved Stalin, disliked Hitler, loathed the British, disliked the French, and hardly knew what to say about the Americans. They feared, more than anything, an alliance between Stalin and the British, and in nineteen thirty eight it appeared that such an alliance might develop out of a mutual fear of Hitler.

Sidonie loved the French, hated the British, liked Stalin, and disliked Hitler. She too, despite her much greater acquaintance, hardly knew what to say about America. She feared, more than anything, the possibility that France and England might again be allies in a war, something which seemed all too likely. Since the communists were also for the independence of Iceland, Sidonie, in the one critical respect, could reconcile their views with those of Vignis.

It was easy to imagine Sidonie sitting around a cafe table with young communists, all waving their arms passionately and jabbering away in a mixture of English and Icelandic. Later in the evening when they split up into smaller groups, one thing would lead to another.

We were walking along as we talked, Mac carrying Vignis' bag while I struggled with mine. Before long, we arrived at what appeared to be the main square of Reykjavik. Opposite was a graceful four storey stone hotel with the name 'Borg' carved over the main door. Vignis said,

"We're staying here even though it's somewhat incorrect politically."

It was explained that "Borg" was the Danish word for "town", and that only people with the minds of colonial lackeys gave things Danish names. Vignis added,

"There's also a Hotel Vik, which means the same in Icelandic, and we really ought to stay there. But it's not nearly as comfortable."

Mac, who seemed to be on the side of comfort, said,

"Since the Althing's right over there, the politicians of all parties eat at the Borg."

The Borg was, indeed, quite comfortable. When I closed the door behind the man who had carried up my bag and politely refused a tip, Sidonie, looking back over her shoulder, said,

"There's no tipping in Iceland. It's considered demeaning."

"Good. I'll be happy not to have to bother with it."

There was then a brief silence which was broken when Sidonie, still facing away from me, suddenly said,

"James, I want to start anew in a certain way."

That meant, of course, that she didn't wish to talk about the events of the previous August. Indeed, she was conveying that message without even having to say what she didn't want to talk about. When I responded positively, she gave a squeal of delight and spun to face me, her clothes dropping off her in all directions. She had evidently been unfastening herself in anticipation of my giving the right answer.

After our love-making, Sidonie purred a few endearments, and then bounced up off the bed. With her hands up fussing with her hair, she looked even more extraordinary than I had recalled. I remarked,

"You must be quite exotic from the point of view of the Icelanders."

"I'm the only colored person most of them have ever seen. Some of the more naive think that I've just come out of the jungle."

"Do you mind that?"

"They don't seem to be hostile, just curious. I'd rather deal with ignorance than the kind of thing there is in America. There, they think they know all about colored people."

"So, once you've explained who and what you are, they'll converse in a normal manner?"

"Yes. I'm so unusual here that people would believe almost anything I told them about myself."

I could easily imagine Sidonie inventing a whole series of fictional histories and personalities, and asked her if she had done so. She replied,

"Not really. The trouble here is that you can't invent a role, and then move on to another one. The country's too small. You have to remain committed to anything you tell people."

It was really funny to see the expression on Sidonie's face as she spoke. As intellectually sophisticated as she was, she seemed to have just learned something which would hardly have surprised most ten year old children. I asked, with mock seriousness,

"Do you keep a record of things you've told people?"

She replied,

"Well, I did think of it, but it turns out to be easier to tell most people things that are more or less true ..."

Then, seeing that I was making fun of her, she broke off and hit me over the head with a pillow. I didn't remind her of her view that it is, in the long run, impossible to say which roles represent reality.

We went for dinner, not to the hotel, but to an institution on a nearby street called something like, 'Hressingarskaelin.' Despite the name, it was the place where everyone went to eat, to have coffee, and just to hang out. The food was good, cheap, and plentiful.

During the meal, we talked mostly of Iceland. Vignis remarked,

"The young people here are pretty wild. At two o'clock one morning I heard something and looked out the window. A very pretty girl was in the middle of the square, singing and dancing, accompanied by a boy banging a stick against the statue."

Mac said,

"Vignis wanted to go out and join them."

"I was certainly tempted. I'd like to meet some young people."

Sidonie said to her,

"We could take some courses at the university if I could learn the language fast enough."

Vignis agreed vacantly, but it turned out that they were in Reykjavik only a few days a month, the rest of the time being spent supervising operations at Buthir, almost two hundred miles to the northwest by road. The main railway was to reach there eventually, but, in the meantime, a narrow guage railway was being built to extract the mercuric ore from the interior.

We set off for Buthir on a coastal steamer. Against all probability, the fine weather continued with a light breeze, a clear sky, and a gentle swell. The scenery of stark snow- capped mountains, not a single tree, and black volcanic rock was so striking that even the Icelanders spent most of their time on deck. We crossed the mouth of Hvalfjordur, a long narrow twisting cut into the country whose clear water was deep enough to allow a dead whale to be towed up to the whaling station. We then steamed up Borgarfjordur to drop off and pick up passengers at Borgarnes.

In the late afternoon, we finally got to Buthir. I could see only a flat coastal strip, about a mile wide, with mountains rising sharply behind it. There were three waterfalls, near together, which fed as many streams. These then converged to form a small harbor. It was now low tide, and I could see the waves breaking at the harbor mouth. On shore, there was only a single farmhouse. I asked Vignis if this could possibly be our destination. She replied,

"This is Buthir proper. A witch lived here in the sixteenth century. A couple of fishing boats use the harbor, but they have to ground out at low tide. Our place is a few miles up ahead there, where the mountains come down to the sea. We call it Buthir because it has no other name."

Our Buthir turned out to be on an exposed coast, the same coast traversed by Eric the Red when he sailed to discover Greenland. The harbor was basically like the one at Old Buthir, but this one had a lock gate across the mouth which kept it perpetually at the high tide level. Since it was possible to enter and leave only twice a day at high tide, the steamer blew some blasts on the whistle for a boat to come out and take off passengers.

Even lying outside the harbor, we could see in from the upper deck of the steamer. There were various barges and other craft tied up at the wharves, and a number of buildings of various faded colors along the small waterfront. Mac pointed to them and said,

"That used to be a fish-processing plant, but it went broke. We bought the buildings, and we're putting in equipment to process mercury."

Beyond the water, the little town rose steeply for a little distance up the mountainside. There was the usual mixture of brightly painted tin houses topped by a yellow church. Mac, watching my eyes, said,

"Every town here has a church. The people aren't mostly very religious, but a few are. Like the drunkards, they're allowed to do anything they want."

Vignis added,

"The Salvation Army, of all things, has a strong presence here. It fits in well with both the religion and the alcoholic element. The villagers are always switching back and forth between drink and religion, but, either way, the SA is ready to deal with them."

When the boat arrived alongside and the rope ladder was dropped into it, the steamer was still going slow astern to check her way. We got down the side quickly in good order, and, the moment our baggage had been lowered, we heard bells in the engine room, even through the iron plating of the hull.

As the steamer went full ahead and surged away, the boatman introduced himself to me. I caught the words, "Cadet Jonsson", and, interpreting Vignis' look, I realized that, despite his forty or fifty years, he was a cadet in the Salvation Army. While his surname was the same as that of the prime minister, I knew by this time that the whole population shared a mere handful of surnames, all formed by adding a suffix to the father's given name.

The boat was a big one with two rowing positions, and Mac had immediately settled into the forward one. He loved to exert himself, and it seemed that he might break the oars. Cadet Jonsson could no longer steer with his oars, and, since I was seated with Vignis in the stern next to the tiller, he pointed out to me our destination, a float next to the harbor gate.

Sidonie was perched in the bow like a lookout, and, with Mac's pent-up energy, we covered the short distance quickly. When we glided past the gate, I could see the water boiling up from underneath it. It was a sliding gate on rollers at the bottom, and it leaked copiously, enough, as I later discovered, to lower the level in the harbor by a foot before the tide came in again. However, that made it possible to open the gate when the water level was equalized a bit before high tide, and that gave the boats and small ships longer to enter and leave the harbor. Iceland was like that. Many things which didn't work properly turned out to have their uses.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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